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Poetry Analysis: Tennyson's "Ulysses"

written by: M.K.Rukhaya • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 9/11/2012

Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is the first modern adaptation of the myth. Homer's Odyssey lends the poem its narrative background. A closer look at the context through a detailed analysis follows.

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    Style and Form

    Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, was penned in blank verse. The poem’s persistent iambic pentameter has intervallic spondees. It slows down the pace and movement of the poem. Therefore, the laboring language reflects the stagnation that had set in the life of Ulysses. Some scholars consider Tennyson’s Ulysses to be a dramatic monologue. However, certain critics maintain that it is a soliloquy as it does not adhere to all the constraints of the dramatic monologue. It does not really become clear as to who the auditor is. At times, it comes across as a soliloquy and sometimes it appears as a public address. The poem was published in Tennyson's second volume of Poems (1842).

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    Literary Context

    In the eleventh book of The Odyssey, the prophet Tiresias predicts that Ulysses will go back to Ithaca after a tedious expedition. Subsequently, he would undertake a new, enigmatic voyage, and would later die a peaceful, "unwar-like" death that comes vaguely "from the sea". At the end of Tennyson’s poem, the protagonist contemplates on embarking on this previously mentioned journey. However, unlike Homer’s Ulysses, who was a lover of public affairs, critics consider "Ulisse" from Dante's Inferno, to be the source for Tennyson’s protagonist; An evil counselor who lusts for adventure at the expense of his family and his duties in Ithaca.”

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    Autobiographical Significance

    W. W. Robson writes that the poem brings in together the two conflicting sides of Tennyson - the "responsible social being" and the "melancholic poet". Though they come together in the text of the poem, they do not recognize each other. Furthermore, Tennyson wrote Ulysses after the death of his Cambridge friend, the poet Arthur Henry Hallam, who was extremely dear to him. As per the Victorian critic Linda Hughes, the “emotional gulf between the state of his domestic affairs and the loss of his special friendship informs the reading of Ulysses —particularly its treatment of domesticity.” His urge to overcome the emotions and manage his huge household posed as a challenge to him. The idea of his protagonist transcending an age in such a circumstance was symbolic of him defying his own circumstances. Hence, he utilizes such a myth to mirror his anxieties at the moment. Tennyson states, "There is more about myself in Ulysses, which was written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many poems in In Memoriam."

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    A Poetic Breakdown

    Stanza 1

    Having returned to his kingdom Ithaca after an action-packed journey and eventful past, he finds little pleasure in a ‘still hearth’. The metaphor is employed to comment on his own condition. Like a fireplace, it no longer carries the flame in it, only the ashes of a once fiery lifestyle. The phrase "barren crags" points to the island of Ithaca in the kingdom of Ulysses: a limestone ridge seventeen miles long and four miles broad at its widest, singular for its ruggedness and barrenness, and considered unhealthy for cultivation. It serves to reflect on the crude state of affairs in the king’s life; and the sterility that prevails. Penelope was ‘fifty’ at the time, and did not match his passion for adventure and quest for exploration.

    The term ‘mete and dole’ pertains to groceries, and is used here with derogatory connotations to relegate regal affairs to trivial domesticity and underline the insignificance of the same. To ‘mete and dole’ literally implied to weigh and measure out in small quantities. Here, it alludes to the weighing of decisions mentally. There were no uniform laws at the time to deal with people fairly. Mr. Wheeler points out "In early time, there were no laws of general application; each case was decided on its own merits' ......with advancing civilization people began to see the necessity for "equal laws", or rather hard and fast rules to which all must conform.....But as the lawyers say, hard cases make bad law." Tennyson sharply reprimands the Victorian complacency that “hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. “ In such a stance, the people were equivalent to a ‘savage race’ because their existence was limited to their basic functions and instincts as they were satisfied with a moribund existence. They are intellectually stagnant.

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    Stanza 2

    On the other hand, Ulysses aspires to live life to the fullest, to the lees. Here, ’lees’ implies the residual part of the drink that lies at the bottom of the glass. Compare the lines, “I will drink/ Life to the lees” to "The wine of life is drawn and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of." ( Macbeth III, iii, 101 & 102) In his exploits with Cyclops, the Lotoseaters ,the Laestrygonion cannibals and the enchantress Circe, he was accompanied by the loyal cannibals ,though they kept decreasing gradually in numbers. Eventually, as he did make it to the island of Ogygia, and as he encountered Alcinous, he was all alone. His faithful company had perished at sea owing to Apollo’s rage. Ulysses states that he enjoyed indulging in exploits both alone and with company.

    He has wandered through the ‘scudding drifts’ or broken clouds that are themselves wanderers. 'Hyades' refers to a cluster of seven stars that formed the head/ face of the constellation, namely Taurus. The cluster was named "Hades" ( Greek for "the rainers") as the image of the cluster of stars indicated ‘rain’. It juxtaposes the ideas of fertility in opposition to Ulysses' current predicament of a sterile existence. Stopford Brooke claims that Tennyson touches Nature in the prescribed poem with "extraordinary brevity and force."

    Ulysses intends to carve a name for himself in the Book of History and renders himself immortal. In a similar poem by Tennyson, Dream of Fair Women, Cleopatra refers to herself as a "name forever". The phrase, ‘hungry heart’, implies that not only does the mind crave intellectual adventures, but emotional challenges as well. The phrase ‘hungry heart’ can also be traced to Matthew, V.6: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." He is a part of all than he has met; his existence and identity is intertwined with his past experiences. He has remained an active participant rather than being a passive spectator of the same. He has encountered all sorts of people and situations. Though he did not rank below them, he made it a point to honor all of them. The phrase ‘Windy Troy’ is Homeric.

    Each form of experience is like an archway; from each point one can discern the unexplored regions. The nearer one reaches the area, the farther do their borders recede. Ulysses employs an eloquent metaphor in the form of a sword where rusting commences soon after the action has died away or it has lost its utility value. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II; Falstaff gives a diametrically opposite viewpoint: "It were better to be eaten to death with rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion."

    Ulysses asserts that even if he was gifted with innumerable lives, it would be inadequate to quench his insatiable thirst for the new avenues of knowledge and experience. It would be his time rather than wait complacently for that ‘eternal silence’, namely death. His past experience is his current treasury of savings in terms of knowledge. He longs for three more years (three suns) of such escapades. He longs to immerse himself in knowledge like a sinking star.

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    Stanza 3

    In the third stanza, he speaks of his son, Telemachus, patronizingly to whom he leaves “the scepter and the isle”. He is deemed capable of refining the ‘rugged’ people. He is devoted to the Gods and dedicated to duties. "He works his work, I mine.” Ulysses completely trusts his son (who is a little above twenty) and entrusts him with the responsibility of handling a kingdom. He respects his insightful tactics. The audience towards whom this speech is directed is not clear. Critics state that this passage is singular for meiosis (understatement). Mr.Brett asserts: "Telemachus is pictured as having all those virtues that his father lacked; he is great in all that is small, and probably small in all that is great."

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    Stanza 4

    He addresses the mariners and motivates them to seek unexplored avenues. Time is not in their favor as they have grown old. Yet they may be capable of something noble and noteworthy. Though they are weak in bodily strength, they were strong in cerebral and intellectual ability. In addition, they were blessed with iron will. Here, Tennyson differs with regard to Homer’s Odyssey, as the followers were dead and Ulysses returned to Ithaca alone. He attempts at mythifying their journey with references to “Happy Isles” that signifies the Paradisal paradigm where the great Greek warrior Achilles reached after his death.

    In an aphoristic statement, he inspires them, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The final line has been chosen as the motto for the 2012 London Olympics to be engraved into the elongated entrance to the athletes' village. A certain judge remarked, "The aim was to find a line of poetry that somehow encapsulated the endeavor, the glory and the dance with failure that Olympic sport entails."

    For those of you who are interested in the underlying meaning and motive for inspiration of this poem, this literary analysis for Alfred Tennyson's Ulysses, will hopefully help to break it down in a way that is understandable and will contribute to the poem's value.

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    Works Cited

    Bates, Stephen (4 March 2011). "Tennyson verse chosen to inspire Olympic athletes". The Guardian (London)

    Hughes, Linda K. (1979). "Dramatis and private personae: 'Ulysses' revisited". Victorian Poetry 17 (3): 192–203.

    Rowlinson, M. C. (1994). Tennyson's fixations: psychoanalysis and the topics of the early poetry. Victorian literature and culture series. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. ISBN 0-8139-1478-7

    T. S. Eliot (1950). Selected essays, 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 210. ISBN 0-15-180387-0.