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Analysis of “Ulysses” by Tennyson

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.

References

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.

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4 Responses to “Analysis of “Ulysses” by Tennyson”
  • jin
    February 23rd, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    this is all true, but per say, how do you think tennyson emphasizes ulysses\’ curiosity and perseverance

  • xyz
    November 25th, 2010 at 2:05 am

    ‘Still hearth,’ ‘Aged life,’ ‘Savage race,’ how can one enjoy life with such things associated with it? Right from the beginning of the poem, I got the impression that Ulysses, who has returned home from the Trojan wars, is agitated by the boredom and inactivity in which he is submerged. This was the very fact that illustrated that Ulysses was different, different from those with whom he lives. By further analysis of the poem I will try to point out the ways in which Tennyson makes vivid for me his feelings of yearning for adventure and travel in Ulysses.
    Tennyson has written this poem as a dramatic monologue. This highly facilitates Ulysses in portraying his feeling of yearning as he being the only character or speaker in the poem, he is able to engage all the attention of the readers and eventually a lot of emphasis is exerted on his words. It’s an unrhymed, blank verse written in an iambic pentameter. There’s an extensive usage of long- vowel sounds which enhances the meanings of words and slows down the rhythm. He says, “I will drink life to the lees.” The long vowel sounds portrays the longing, the depth of Ulysses’s thirst of adventuring more, exploring more, achieving more. He wants to live his life to the fullest, to utilize every moment to hanker more experience.
    As an adventurer, Ulysses is always on voyages and expeditions with a ‘hungry heart.’ Be it the ‘rainy Hyades,’ or the ‘windy Troy,’ he has got an opportunity to expose himself to different nations and get accustomed to various traditions and cultures. He has also ‘drunk delight of battle,’ which further enhance his longing. This produces the imagery of celebration and yearning. The lines, “…Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy…” really amazes me. The depth of thought brought out by Tennyson has very smartly connected the echoing of the battle to the word ‘ringing’ which represents the sense of battle. He is comparing the ‘ringing’ sound of Troy to the ‘barren’ environment of Ithaca.
    I found out the submission and devotion of Ulysses when he says, “I am a part of all that I have met.” This tells me how he not only he enjoys travelling but also gets adapted to various things he comes across. He’s just not eager to explore but also eager to learn more, to gain more ‘knowledge.’ It is only when he is travelling that the ‘margin’ of the globe that he has yet not tread shrinks and tends to provoke him to go further and discover all that lies from one end of the horizon to the other. The repetition of the word words ‘forever,’ emphasizes on the endlessness of Ulysses desire for adventuring more rather than preferring to be just an ‘idle king.’
    When I further read the poem, I found the urge of Ulysses and yearning for travel and adventure being greatly highlighted. I got the idea that Ulysses goes on to accentuate the heroism of old age with his fellow mariners who he admires to a great extent. He is stricken with wander lust. He considers it ‘dull’ and quite absurd to make old an excuse of not trying ourselves and , the knowledge that death is inevitable but, it is the moment one should live for. Breathing and not living is to ‘rust unburnished’ rather than living every passing second of our time and to ‘shine in use.’ I got an adrenaline stimulating reality check that even if I will be awarded hundred lives but of mere inactiveness, it will not be equivalent to just one life, life that is full of experiences, and overflowing with adventures, travelling and expeditions, as such a life will always have its every second ‘as a bringer of new things.’ . Attaining ‘eternal silence’ after living one such life will be worth it.
    The diction used by Tennyson is outstanding. His cynical attitude and hatred for all those who make themselves devoid of learning more is made very effective by ‘store and hoard.’ The agitation behind the tone can be very clearly delineated. The effect of this perfect diction is that it gives me an impression that we should not limit ourselves; we should always challenge ourselves and strive efforts to pursue more and prove ourselves. I was also greatly motivated by ‘Ulysses’ to living my life to the fullest especially when the poetry says, “This gray spirit yearning in desire.” Every individual should make it their ulterior motive to learn and yearn in every stage of their life. We should follow knowledge like a ‘sinking star.’ Travelling and adventuring more is all magic. One experiences such relaxation and pride that cannot be expressed in words.
    Hence, it is not wrong to say that in many ways ‘Ulysses’ appeals to our mindsets. Being a girl of young age it really gives me a pavement as to how to utilize my LIFE, how to live it to the fullest! I have also seriously started considering exploiting my hidden talents and bringing about a change, a change on a broader spectrum. I don’t want to be like the people of Ithaca, I want to be like Ulysses. I will never make the mistake of limiting myself and making my proneness the key to my failure. Instead, I will always like to be an adventure seeker and workaholic in order to polish my capabilities to brighten my career and life. This life is a great adventure or nothing. Andre Gide said, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” It’s now time to set sail, to discover the beautiful fortunes which await our arrival.

  • Wes
    March 30th, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Unless this was written by the same editor on sparknotes.com, this analysis is plagiarized:

    “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.”

    http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/tennyson/section4.rhtml

  • Trevor Baillie
    July 23rd, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Doesn’t it go deeper? I see the first line as a condemnation, not just of Ulysses as a king without the inclination to manage a kingdom, but of the system that defines kingship in managerial or mechanistic terms. These days, it is the kind of thing that should be handled by an “app”. Where is the humanity?

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