An analysis of the themes in the poem “Ulysess” by Tennyson.
Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is a poem written as a dramatic monologue. The identity of is single character is revealed by his own words. The lines are in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which serves to give a fluid and natural quality to the character’s speech. Finally, “Ulysses” is divided into four paragraph-like sections, each containing clear thematic unit of the poem.
In the very first line Ulysses is introduced as a king. The beginning of the poem gives an instant impression of the stature and individuality of the hero. He doesn’t reside on the position of king for long, instead sweeping straight on to the next line, almost as if it is meaningless in the scheme of his life.
When Ulysses is talking in the poem, he is already an old man. Since youth he has gone on missions of extraordinary bravery, for years at a time. All he has known, and all he wants to know is travel and discovery. As Ulysses tells in the poem, he has learned and suffered greatly, both with others and alone. “Always roaming with a hungry heart”, he has seen a great deal of things and become a part of it all. Ulysses seems to be the antithesis of the mariners in “The Lotos-Eaters,” who proclaim “we will no longer roam” and want only to relax amidst the Lotos fields. On the contrary, Ulysses “cannot rest from travel” and longs to roam the globe (line 6).
The speaker’s character, like in other dramatic monologues, clears up almost unintentionally from his own words. Ulysses’ preference for potential quests rather than his present responsibilities evidences his incompetence as a ruler. The whole 26 lines are devoted to to his own egotistical proclamation of his zeal for the wandering life, and another 26 lines to the exhortation of his mariners to roam the seas with him. At the same time he gives only 11 lines of indifferent praise to his son concerning the governance of the kingdom in his absence, and only two words about his “aged wife” Penelope. Thus, Ulysses’ own words reveal his irresponsibility and his specificity of purpose.
However, there is more to the poem than the “need of pushing forward”. Not only is Ulysses an indomitable superman, beyond the reach of time and death. He assumes the power of circumstance, and does not stand above these forces but is dependent on them, and he is aware of it:
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods, (ll. 41/42)
Nevertheless, Ulysses refuses to see himself as a victim and thus provides an answer to irony: the undefeated will, which accepts its own condition resolutely – “that which we are, we are” – but does not allow the force of external terror to negate it. Facing death, the will asserts an irreducible ego; the acceptance of reality amounts to a triumph over it. It is obvious that the will is the subject of the poem.
“Ulysses” is very uneasy with social demands, in particular with the sense of social acceptance. Instead of this society a substitute, which appears to be some highly dexterous faking, is offered in the poem.
The hero of the poem seems to be an advocate of the final separation of the individual from communal values: the self has the hope for existence only in isolation. The rejection of community starts at once:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. (ll. 1 – 5)
It becomes clear from the poem that Ulysses despises the values associated with unity, order, and harmony, with love, family, and nation. “Little profits” catches exactly the sneer of aristocratic irony that is so pacifying and so insusceptible of argument or reproof. All these conventional values are swept aside by the rush of the demands of the primitive ego.
In the next lines Ulysess continues with an expansive, positive tone that provides us with a kind of rhetorical breather. His affirmations of a man hungry for life are perceived as a form of flattery, stressing the promiscuous richness and value of simple experience. However, the true purpose of this section (ll. 6-32) is to reinforce the independent power and value of the self:
I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone.. (ll. 7 – 9)
Ulysses reduces to insignificance love and all other mere externals. The evidence is all on the surface; (43/44]) underneath, the paring away continues as we approach nearer to the pure, undisguised self.
When Ulysses turns to his son, there is little disguise left. The unconcealed disdain of the first lines has just turned into a more confident, patronizing. The adventurer “accepts” Telemachus and his duties, no doubt, but he accepts them as inferior, hardly deserving of his attention. Such sense of casual superiority is revealed in his diction, which is weary, clichй-filled, “official” language. The obvious relief of Ulyssys at having dismissed this boring subject emphasizes the enormous elevation he has attained :
He works his work, I mine” (l. 43)
The key word here is ” mine.” Thus, Ulysses has by now reached his own goal: the effortful and careful definition of the heroic ego.
Buckley, Jerome H. Tennyson: The Lyric in the Distance. Tennyson: Seven Essays, ed. Philip Collins. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan and St. Martin’s press, 1992. Pp. 61-75.
Chiasson, E. J. Tennyson: A Re-Interpretation. (1954). CriticalEssays on the Poetry of Tennyson, ed. John Killham. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960. Pp. 164-173.
Poetry of the Victorian Period, ed. Jerome H. Buckley and George B. Woods. Boston: Riverside, 1965.
Thomson, Alastair. The Poetry of Tennyson. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.