ULYSSES – ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON SUMMARY Ulysses (Odysseus) declares that there is little point in his staying home "by this still hearth" with his old wife, doling out rewards and punishments for the unnamed masses who live in his kingdom. Still speaking to himself he proclaims that he "cannot rest from travel" but feels compelled to live to the fullest and swallow every last drop of life. He has enjoyed all his experiences as a sailor who travels the seas, and he considers himself a symbol for everyone who wanders and roams the earth. His travels have exposed him to many different types of people and ways of living. They have also exposed him to the "delight of battle" while fighting the Trojan War with his men. Ulysses declares that his travels and encounters have shaped who he is: "I am a part of all that I have met," he asserts. And it is only when he is traveling that the "margin" of the globe that he has not yet traversed shrink and fade, and cease to goad him. Ulysses declares that it is boring to stay in one place, and that to remain stationary is to rust rather than to shine; to stay in one place is to pretend that all there is to life is the simple act of breathing, whereas he knows that in fact life contains much novelty, and he longs to encounter this. His spirit yearns constantly for new experiences that will broaden his horizons; he wishes "to follow knowledge like a sinking star" and forever grow in wisdom and in learning. Ulysses now speaks to an unidentified audience concerning his son Telemachus, who will act as his successor while the great hero resumes his travels: he says, "This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the scepter and the isle." He speaks highly but also patronizingly of his son's capabilities as a ruler, praising his prudence, dedication, and devotion to the gods. Telemachus will do his work of governing the island while Ulysses will do his work of traveling the seas: "He works his work, I mine." In the final stanza, Ulysses addresses the mariners with whom he has worked, traveled, and weathered life's storms over many years. He declares that although he and they are old, they still have the potential to do something noble and honorable before "the long day wanes." He encourages them to make use of their old age because "'tis not too late to seek a newer world." He declares that his goal is to sail onward "beyond the sunset" until his death. Perhaps, he suggests, they may even reach the "Happy Isles," or the paradise of perpetual summer described in Greek mythology where great heroes like the warrior Achilles were believed to have been taken after their deaths. Although Ulysses and his mariners are not as strong as they were in youth, they are "strong in will" and are sustained by their resolve to push onward relentlessly: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." EXPLANATION 1. the speaker is Ulysses. 2. There are three stanzas in the poem. Ulysses is the speaker in all three sections, but the audience, purpose, and setting change each time, so his purpose changes as well. The theme of the poem is the purpose of striving. Unlike the Lotos Eaters, Ulysses can't be satisfied to be lentus in umbra. He needs to do something, or he will lose his self-respect. Stanza 1 In the first stanza, he is alone. The "hearth" is the fireplace. It is "still," meaning that the fire is out. Since the fire was used to cook as well as for heat, the only time it was out was night. He can't be talking to Penelope, for he calls her his "aged wife." He wouldn't call her the old lady to her face. He's not talking to a subject - he calls them a "savage race." He is talking to himself. His purpose is to determine what to do with the rest of his life. • The purpose of this stanza is to show Ulysses' motives. WHY would a king leave his kingdom, a husband his wife, a father his son, and strike out on his own? PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-ISC/2006
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(1-5) The poem takes place at the end of Ulysses’ life. He has become sedentary – not accomplishing anything. Tired of the drudgery of governing. He is talking to himself. Has decided to leave. King is lonely – no one knows him. The subjects are like animals - they "feed" rather than eat. (2) "Still hearth." It’s nighttime. (12) "I am become a name" – Has 2 meanings o he has become a legend o he is only a legend. (18) "I am a part of all that I have met." He keeps some of those he met with him & leaves some of himself with them. (20) "Margin" of the world is the horizon and it moves away from him. The "arch" is the place where it is at the moment. The important thing to him is where he is going, not where he is. (23) "rust unburnished" - His armor is probably decorating the wall above the fireplace. Sword is on wall and rusting – like he is. (29) "three suns" sometimes = three days, but = three years here. He could live for three more years if he really took care of himself, but is that really living? He doesn't want to doze under the lotos tree or molder in his bed like Tithonus.
Stanza 2 The second stanza is Ulysses' abdication speech. The audience is composed by the citizens of his kingdom. His purpose is to pass the scepter on to his son. Note the elevated style of his speech, fitting for a formal state occasion. His subjects are now "a rugged people" rather than a "savage race." • His tone & vocabulary change markedly. He came back because his son was not yet ready to assume command. Now he is, and his temperament is such that he can enjoy ruling. • (41) They each have their different tasks. Telemachus' is ruling, Odysseus' is exploring. Stanza 3 The third stanza is Ulysses' speech to his sailors as they prepare to set sail. His purpose is to inspire them to great achievements. • (43) Tennyson changes the story somewhat. According to Homer, Odysseus was the only survivor of his crew. But here we have his mariners still surviving. Why? Tennyson knew the story, so he didn't just slip up. The mariners were the ones who went through battle and on the ship with him. They are the ones who know him, so Tennyson changes the story so that some survived. • (55) "newer world." Dante mentions the "new land," but he wrote before Columbus. Tennyson, of course, knew about the "New World." The United States was a rising power by his time. • (58-59) The direction (toward the western stars) & the time of day when they leave (sunset) both symbolize the fact that "you and I are old." Ulysses and his crew are going on their last voyage. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. • Tennyson uses the 2 possible outcomes Dante mentioned. o They may reach the Happy Isles, the pagan equivalent to heaven, or in this case Purgatory. o They may be washed down into the sea. • For Ulysses, the outcome is irrelevant. What is important is that he end his life as he lived it, heroically. He may die, but he'll do it with his boots on. CRITICAL APPRECIATION PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-ISC/2006
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However, this poem also concerns the poet's own personal journey, for it was composed in the first few weeks after Tennyson learned of the death of his dear college friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. Like In Memoriam, then, this poem is also an elegy for a deeply cherished friend. Ulysses, who symbolizes the grieving poet, proclaims his resolution to push onward in spite of the awareness that "death closes all" (line 51). As Tennyson himself stated, the poem expresses his own "need of going forward and braving the struggle of life" after the loss of his beloved Hallam. The poem's final line, "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," came to serve as a motto for the poet's Victorian contemporaries: the poem's hero longs to flee the tedium of daily life "among these barren crags" (line 2) and to 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-assertion and the Romantic rebellion against bourgeois conformity. Thus for Tennyson's immediate audience, the figure of Ulysses held not only mythological meaning, but stood as an important contemporary cultural icon as well. "Ulysses," like many of Tennyson's other poems, deals with the desire to reach beyond the limits of one's field of vision and the mundane details of everyday life. Ulysses is the antithesis of the mariners in "The Lotos-Eaters," who proclaim "we will no longer roam" and desire only to relax amidst the Lotos fields. In contrast, Ulysses "cannot rest from travel" and longs to roam the globe (line 6). Like the Lady of Shallot, who longs for the worldly experiences she has been denied, Ulysses hungers to explore the untravelled world. As in all dramatic monologues, here the character of the speaker emerges almost unintentionally from his own words. Ulysses' incompetence as a ruler is evidenced by his preference for potential quests rather than his present responsibilities. He devotes a full 26 lines 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. However, he offers only 11 lines of lukewarm praise to his son concerning the governance of the kingdom in his absence, and a mere two words about his "aged wife" Penelope. Thus, the speaker's own words betray his abdication of responsibility and his specificity of purpose. SOURCE Ulysses is the Greek hero of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, to whom, in a large measure, the fall of Troy was due. In Greek literature his name is Odysseus; Ulysses is the Roman name. In Homer’s Iliad, he is the wisest and most astute of men and is the favourite of Pallas Athene (Minerva) the goddess of wisdom. The Trojan war was waged against Troy by the Greeks and lasted for ten years. The war was caused by the abduction of the beautiful Helen by Paris. Helen was the wife of Menelaus of Greece. Paris, the son of Priam, the King of Troy, visited Menelaus and carried Helen off to Troy. Menelaus called upon the chieftains of Greece to aid him in recovering his wife. From this cause rose the famous Trojan War. After many years of war, the Greeks realised how difficult it was to conquer Troy. Ulysses, who had married Penelope, daughter of Icarius and a cousin of Helen, suggested that they should pretend to give up the siege of Troy, and, leaving a big wooden horse as a present for the Trojans, should pretend to sail away. The Trojans, celebrating their victory, dragged the horse into the city. There were Greek soldiers hidden inside the horse. They emerged at night and threw the gates of Troy open to their fellow soldiers who had come back secretly. Together they burnt and destroyed the city of Troy. The Greeks recovered Helen and sailed back to Greece. On the journey back home after ten years, the god Poseidon (Neptune) was unfavourable to Ulysses and made him voyage for ten more years before he was able to return to Ithaca. When he landed in Ithaca, Ulysses was reunited with his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-ISC/2006
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In this poem, written in 1833 and revised for publication in 1842, Tennyson reworks the figure of Ulysses by drawing on the ancient hero of Homer's Odyssey ("Ulysses" is the Roman form of the Greek "Odysseus") and the medieval hero of Dante's Inferno. Homer's Ulysses, as described in Scroll XI of the Odyssey, learns from a prophecy that he will take a final sea voyage after killing the suitors of his wife Penelope. The details of this sea voyage are described by Dante in Canto XXVI of the Inferno: Ulysses finds himself restless in Ithaca and driven by "the longing I had to gain experience of the world." Dante's Ulysses is a tragic figure who dies while sailing too far in an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Tennyson combines these two accounts by having Ulysses make his speech shortly after returning to Ithaca and resuming his administrative responsibilities, and shortly before embarking on his final voyage. • • • • • • •
In Dante's day during the Middle Ages, ambition was bad. A person should be happy in his or her place. According to Dante, Ulysses did not return home. He kept exploring with his crew after they left Circe. In Homer, Odysseus/Ulysses went to Hades after leaving Circe. Here he almost reaches Purgatory, then ends up in Hell. He eventually crossed the barrier set up by Hercules as the limit of human exploration. Tardy with age Were I and my companions, when we came To the strait pass, where Hercules ordain'd The bound'ries not to be o'erstepp'd by man. (xxvi. 118-121) Ulysses and his men have launched into the Atlantic Ocean. They sail until they see a giant mountain. This mountain was Purgatory, where people could have their sins "purged" until they were good enough to enter heaven. For the crime of exceeding human boundaries and trying to reach Purgatory by their own power rather than by God's grace, Ulysses & his companions are washed down in the ocean. Tennyson may deal with the same events in almost the same words, but he has a very different outlook on Ulysses' ambition. The Victorian Age was a time when ambition and striving were good. Arthur Hallum, Tennyson’s friend, had just died at sea. Tennyson must continue in his duty anyway. He also needed to find comfort in Hallum's death--he died as an active man engaged in meaningful activity.
FORM The genre of the poem is dramatic monologue. It is an ancient genre that had recently been popularized again by Robert Browning. In a dramatic monologue the entire poem is spoken by a single character, whose identity is revealed by his own words. The lines are in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which serves to impart a fluid and natural quality to Ulysses's speech. Many of the lines are enjambed, which means that a thought does not end with the line-break; the sentences often end in the middle, rather than the end, of the lines. The use of enjambment is appropriate in a poem about pushing forward "beyond the utmost bound of human thought." Finally, the poem is divided into four stanza-like sections, each of which comprises a distinct thematic unit of the poem. Characteristics of a dramatic monologue: 1. somebody is speaking 2. the whole poem is the character's speech 3. the character is in a dramatic setting; there is a particular audience, time, and place. 4. the reader must determine from hints in the poem: • the identity of the speaker • the identity of the audience & the relationship between them • the setting & time PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-ISC/2006
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the speaker's purpose.
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