Ulysses – Summary and Analysis

Ulysses (Odysseus) declares that it is pointless for him to sit at home “by this still hearth” with his old wife, bestowing gifts and punishments on the anonymous masses that reside in his country.

Still speaking to himself, he declares that he “cannot rest from travel,” but is forced to live life to the fullest and consume every last drop. He has liked all of his adventures as a sailor who traverses the seas, and he sees himself as a symbol for everyone who wanders and roams the land. His travels have exposed him to a wide range of people and lifestyles. They have also exposed him to the “delight of battle” when battling with his men in the Trojan War. Ulysses believes that his travels and encounters have influenced who he is: “I am a part of everything I have met,” he says. And it is only while he is travelling that the “margin” of the world he has not yet traversed shrinks and fades, ceasing to irritate him.

Ulysses states that being in one location is uninteresting, and that remaining fixed is to rust rather than shine; staying in one spot is to pretend that all there is to life is the basic act of breathing when he knows that life contains much novelty, and he longs to encounter this. His spirit yearns for fresh experiences that would extend his views; he aspires to “follow knowledge like a sinking star” and grow in wisdom and learning indefinitely.

“This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,” Ulysses says to an anonymous audience about his son Telemachus, who would function as his successor while the great hero resumes his travels: “This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the sceptre and the isle.” He praises highly of his son’s qualities as a ruler, but also patronisingly, complimenting his prudence, dedication, and loyalty to the gods. “He works his work, I mine,” says Telemachus, who will manage the island while Ulysses will sail the seas: “He works his work, I mine.”

Ulysses addresses the seamen with whom he has worked, sailed, and weathered life’s storms for many years in the last stanza. He says that, despite their age, he and they still have the ability to do something good and honourable before “the long day wanes.” He advises them to make the most of their retirement years because “it is not too late to seek a newer world.” He expresses his intention to sail “beyond the sunset” until his death. Perhaps they will even make it to the “Happy Isles,” the Greek mythological paradise of continuous summer where great warriors like the warrior Achilles were said to be brought after their deaths. Although Ulysses and his mariners are not as strong as they once were, they are “strong in will” and are sustained by their determination to keep pushing forward: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Form

This poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, in which the entire poem is uttered by a single character, the identity of whom is revealed by his words. The lines are written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which gives Ulysses’ speech fluid and natural character. Many of the lines are enjambed, which indicates that a thought does not stop with a line break; sentences frequently terminate in the midst, rather than the end, of the lines. In a poem about going “beyond the utmost bound of human thought,” the usage of enjambment is suitable. Finally, the poem is separated into four paragraph-like sections, each of which contains a distinct thematic unit of the poem.

Summary of Ulysses


Tennyson reworks the character of Ulysses in this poem, composed in 1833 and updated for publication in 1842, by drawing on the ancient hero of Homer’s Odyssey (“Ulysses” is the Roman form of the Greek “Odysseus”) and the mediaeval hero of Dante’s Inferno. Homer’s Ulysses, as related in Scroll XI of the Odyssey, learns from a prophecy that he would embark on a final sea expedition after murdering his wife Penelope’s suitors. Dante describes the circumstances of this sea expedition in Canto XXVI of the Inferno: Ulysses is restless at Ithaca, spurred by “the longing I had to gain experience of the world.” Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno is a tragic person who dies when sailing too far in his insatiable pursuit for knowledge. Tennyson mixes these two versions by having Ulysses deliver his speech shortly after returning to Ithaca and resuming his administrative duties, and before going on his final voyage.

This poem, however, is partly about Tennyson’s personal journey, as it was written in the first few weeks after Tennyson learnt of the death of his dear college buddy Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. This poem, like In Memoriam, is an elegy for a dearly departed friend. Ulysses, who represents the bereaved poet, declares his will to press on despite the knowledge that “death closes all” (line 51). Tennyson himself remarked that the poem describes his “need of going forward and braving the struggle of life” following the death of his beloved Hallam.

The poem’s final line, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” became a motto for the poet’s Victorian contemporaries: the poem’s hero yearns to escape the tedium of daily life “among these barren crags” (line 2) and enter a mythical dimension “beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars” (lines 60–61); as such, he was a model of individual self- Thus, for Tennyson’s immediate audience, the image of Ulysses represented not just mythological significance, but also an essential modern cultural emblem.

“Ulysses,” like many of Tennyson’s other works, deals with the yearning to see beyond one’s own field of vision and the prosaic minutiae of daily existence.

Ulysses is the polar opposite of the mariners in “The Lotos-Eaters,” who declare “we will no longer roam” and want nothing more than to recline in the Lotos fields. Ulysses, on the other hand, “cannot rest from travel” and longs to traverse the world (line 6). Ulysses, like the Lady of Shallot, craves worldly experiences he has been denied.

As with many dramatic monologues, the speaker’s personality emerges almost unconsciously from his own words. Ulysses’ incapacity as a ruler is demonstrated by his predilection for hypothetical journeys above his current responsibilities. He devotes a full 26 lines to his own egocentric statement of his zeal for the wandering life, and another 26 lines to his mariners’ urge to join him on his wanderings. However, he only gives his son 11 lines of lukewarm praise for governing the kingdom in his absence and just two lines about his “aged wife” Penelope.

Analysis of Ulysses

“Ulysses” is a poem in blank verse by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), written in 1833 and published in 1842 in Tennyson’s well-received second volume of poetry. An oft-quoted poem, it is popularly used to illustrate the dramatic monologue form. Ulysses describes, to an unspecified audience, his discontent and restlessness upon returning to his kingdom, Ithaca, after his far-ranging travels. Facing old age, Ulysses yearns to explore again, despite his reunion with his wife Penelope and son Telemachus.

The character of Ulysses (in Greek, Odysseus) has been explored widely in the literature. The adventures of Odysseus were first recorded in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c. 800–700 BC), and Tennyson draws on Homer’s narrative in the poem. Most critics, however, find that Tennyson’s Ulysses recalls Dante’s Ulisse in his Inferno (c. 1320). In Dante’s re-telling, Ulisse is condemned to hell among the false counsellors, both for his pursuit of knowledge beyond human bounds and for his adventures in disregard of his family.

For much of this poem’s history, readers viewed Ulysses as resolute and heroic, admiring him for his determination “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. The view that Tennyson intended a heroic character is supported by his statements about the poem and by the events in his life—the death of his closest friend—that prompted him to write it. In the twentieth century, some new interpretations of “Ulysses” highlighted potential ironies in the poem. They argued, for example, that Ulysses wishes to selfishly abandon his kingdom and family, and they questioned more positive assessments of Ulysses’ character by demonstrating how he resembles flawed protagonists in earlier literature.

“Ulysses” is a blank verse poem composed in 1833 by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) and published in 1842 in Tennyson’s well-received second volume of poetry. It is a frequently quoted poem that is commonly used to exemplify the dramatic monologue form. Ulysses explains his displeasure and restlessness upon returning to his kingdom, Ithaca, after his extensive travels to an undetermined audience. Despite his reunion with his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, Ulysses longs to travel again in his old age.

The character of Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek) has been extensively explored in literature. Odysseus’ travels were first recounted in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c. 800–700 BC), and Tennyson’s poem builds on Homer’s account. Most critics, however, believe that Tennyson’s Ulysses is reminiscent of Dante’s Ulisse in his Inferno (c. 1320). Ulisse is doomed to hell with the false counsellors in Dante’s retelling, both for his pursuit of knowledge beyond human limits and for his escapades in disdain of his family.

For much of the poem’s existence, readers regarded Ulysses as steadfast and heroic, appreciating him for his drive “to strive, seek, find, and not yield.” Tennyson’s views about the poem, as well as the events in his life—the loss of his closest friend—support the notion that he meant a heroic character. Some new interpretations of “Ulysses” throughout the twentieth century emphasised apparent ironies in the poem. They claimed, for example, that Ulysses intends to forsake his kingdom and family selfishly, and they challenged more positive evaluations of Ulysses’ character by demonstrating how he mirrors flawed characters in earlier literature.

As the poem opens, Ulysses has returned to his country of Ithaca after a long and exciting journey home following his participation in the Trojan War. When confronted with household life again, Ulysses shows his dissatisfaction, particularly his disdain for the “savage race” (line 4) that he controls. Ulysses contrasts his boredom and restlessness with his magnificent background. He reflects on his age and impending death—”Life piled on life / were all too little, and of one to me / little remains” (24–26)—and wishes for more experience and knowledge. Telemachus, his son, will inherit the throne that Ulysses finds oppressive. While Ulysses believes Telemachus will be an adequate king, he lacks empathy for his son—”He works his work, I mine” (43)—as well as the essential means of governing—”by slow prudence” (36) and “through soft degrees” (41). (37). In the final portion, Ulysses returns to his mariners and invites them to join him on another quest, offering no guarantees about their fate but seeking to conjure up their heroic past:

… Come, my friends,
Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. (56–64)


Prosody

The speaker’s vocabulary is simple and direct, expressing Ulysses’ contradictory emotions as he seeks continuity between his past and future. The sentiment of Ulysses’ words and the sounds that express them frequently conflict sharply. For example, the poem’s urgent iambic pentameter is frequently interrupted by spondees (metrical foot consisting of two lengthy syllables), which slow down the poem’s pace; the labouring language calls Ulysses’ thoughts into question. Lines 19–21 are very noteworthy:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades Forever and forever when I move. (19–21)

“These three lines by themselves take up nearly as much time as a whole book of the Iliad,” poet Matthew Arnold observed, referring to their taxing prosodic effect. Many of the poem’s phrases continue into the next line, emphasising Ulysses’ restlessness and unhappiness.

Structure of the Poem

The seventy lines of blank verse in the poem are presented as a theatrical monologue. Scholars dispute on how Ulysses’ speech functions in this style; it is not often evident to whom Ulysses is addressing, if anyone at all, or from where he is speaking. Some see the verse as transitioning from a soliloquy to a public address, as Ulysses appears to talk to himself in the first movement, then to an audience as he introduces his son, and finally to the seashore as he addresses his seamen. The comparably plain and honest language of the first movement is set against the more politically minded tone of the following two movements in this reading. The second paragraph (33–43) concerning Telemachus, for example, is a “revised version [of lines 1–5] for public consumption”: a “savage race” is revised to a “rugged people.”

The sardonic interpretations of “Ulysses” may be the result of the modern tendency to regard the narrator of a theatrical monologue as inherently “untrustworthy.” According to scholar Dwight Culler, the poem has been subjected to revisionist readings in which the reader expects to piece together the truth from a false narrator’s unintentional confessions. (Compare this method to the more evident application in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”) Culler himself sees “Ulysses” as a dialectic in which the speaker weighs the virtues of a contemplative and an active approach to life; Ulysses moves through four self-revelationary, not ironic emotional stages: beginning with his rejection of the barren life to which he has returned in Ithaca, he then fondly recalls his heroic past, recognises the validity of Telemachus’ method of governing, and plans another journey with these thoughts.


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