Ulysses By Alfred Lord Tennyson


Introduction

Ulysses is an oft-quoted poem written in blank verse by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1833 and was published with his Poems in 1842. He takes up the hero from Homer’s Odyssey and the medieval hero of Dante’s Inferno and reworks on it to create a hero with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Ulysses makes this speech shortly after returning to Ithaca where he finds his wife aged and a rocky island which he is supposed to rule. The poem also describes Tennyson’s personal journey after the death of his dearest friend. He talks about the inevitable hour in everyone’s life and takes a strong resolution to move on though his friend is no more alive. The poem also did have contemporary relevance. It talks about the desire to reach beyond the limits of human thought.


Summary of the poem


Ulysses is a dramatic monologue where Ulysses is speaking to his fellow mariners about his present situation and his attitude and ambition towards his life. He says that he does not want to waste his talents and time by ruling the ignorant masses of Ithaca whose only aim in life is to “hoard and sleep and feed” and is never able to understand his real value.

He proclaims the fact that he “cannot rest from travel”. He wants to live life to its fullest, wants to enjoy life to its last drop. He has always enjoyed his life. He has also had many setbacks in life which he had to endure patiently. He had experiences which he had enjoyed and suffered greatly both on land and sea and he considered himself as a symbol for adventure. He has a place wherever he went. His travels have exposed him to various people, manners, states, attitudes, climates and governments. But he feels that the more he travelled, the more untraveled world is left behind him.

Ulysses does not want to stay in one place, bored. He always wanted to shine in use and not to gather rust without doing anything at all. He feels that the purpose of life is not just to breathe but engage in worthy activities, to explore the new worlds, to amass more knowledge. He wanted heaps of life to enjoy and experience life to its fullest. His spirit always yearns to acquire and amass more and more knowledge and to “follow knowledge like a sinking star”.

Ulysses now talks about his son Telemachus who is so keen and responsible to rule the subjects of Ithaca. He will be his heir and rule Ithaca for the rest of his life. He is well equipped with the tactics to deal with the masses in Ithaca. He is always dutiful to pay homage to the household gods. Ulysses praises his son’s abilities as an administrator and his sincerity in ruling the country and devotion to gods.

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In the final stanza, he encourages his mariners to move on in life. Though their bodies have grown old their minds and spirits are still strong enough to explore the unexplored lands. Though they are not able to fight with gods as the used to do in their salad days, their spirits have the potential to seek newer worlds. Before the “eternal silence”
takes its hold on them they would like to do some work of noble note by making use of their old age. Perhaps they will reach the happy isles where they meet great Achilles. They are strong in will “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.


Analysis of the Poem


Ulysses was the king of the island of Ithaca. Soon after the Trojan War, he sailed for his own Kingdom and met several adventures on his way back home. At last, he reached Ithaca, where he ruled over his people for three years. Ulysses expresses the lofty ambition of man’s eternal quest for knowledge. Tennyson himself said, “There is more about myself in Ulysses which was written under the sense of loss and all that had gone by.”

After a long absence from his, kingdom Ulysses has returned home. He has been ruling over the people of his kingdom, Ithaca for quite some time. But he soon becomes tired of his life and embarked on a voyage. He already successfully has completed so many adventurous voyages and now he feels allured to undertake more voyage. So, he desires to set sail again to have a fresh experience of life. Ulysses has travelled far and wide and he has a lot of experience of many adventurous voyages. But the more he has travelled and gathered experiences, the greater has become his hunger for undertaking a voyage to discover new regions and to have more knowledge and experience. He considers his present state of life as dull and useless and wishes to set sail again to have fresh adventures and knowledge.

The area of knowledge is vast and varied. It is infinite, but human life is short. Ulysses has grown old and he has only a few more years to live. That is why he would like to have more experiences and knowledge. He is so determined to sail for a voyage, and for this, he wants to hand over the responsibility of his kingdom to his son Telemachus who is wise and kind-hearted. Telemachus is a spirited young man and Ulysses believes that Telemachus would be able to discharge his royal duties with satisfaction to all, and would also be dutiful to his mother. Keeping this in mind, Ulysses is now free to leave his kingdom.

For the purpose of undertaking the voyage, Ulysses requested his old mariners to accompany him. In quest of new regions and experiences, Ulysses is firm in carrying out his voyage beyond the Western Horizon. He with his company would travel to have more and more experience till their last breath of life. Beyond the Western horizon, Ulysses hopes to reach the land of Happy Isles where he hopes to meet Achilles, one of the great Greek heroes of the Trojan War. Ulysses is determined “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield till the end of his life.” Thus, Ulysses wants to travel to have adventures and experience.

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Poetic Style

Tennyson was one of the most accomplished poetic artists, who combined the observations of a scientist with the sensibility of an artist. He tried to reconcile the conflicting claims of science and religion. As a poet, his mastery of metre and language shows that he continued the tradition of Spenser and Keats in English poetry. Tennyson’s blank verse is inexpressibly finer in quality than any attempted by the poets of the Romantic Revival.

Some of the unique characteristics of Tennyson’ poetry are, – he is essentially the artist. He studied the art of poetry with a singleness of purpose. Of course, Swinburne also wrote poems with melody and perfect finish. And like all the great writers of his age, he is a teacher and a leader. In the preceding age, as the result of the turmoil produced by the French Revolution, lawlessness was more or less common in literature. But, Tennyson’s theme is characteristic of his age, which is the reign of order, of law in the physical world, producing evolution, and of law in the spiritual world, working out the perfect man.

Tennyson’s command of language and sense of poetry have earned him a lasting place in the history of English poetry. As a poet, his mastery of metre and language shows that he continues the tradition of Spenser and Keats in English poetry. These qualities find perfection in his shorter lyrics, where he deals with human emotions. Tennyson is hailed by critics as a philosopher-seer, a supreme interpreter of his age and a great voice of Victorian England. He is the finest expositor of the Victorian age and began his poetic career while still at Cambridge. Unlike Robert Browning, who is generally appreciated by more mature minds, Tennyson is for enjoyment and for inspiration, rather than for instruction. William J. Long, in English Literature: Its History and Its Significance, said, “The secret of Tennyson’s poetry is to be eternally young, and like Adam in Paradise, to find every morning a new world, fresh, wonderful, inspiring, as if just from the hands of God.”


Questions and Answers


Q. Describe the poem, Maud, by Tennyson in a few words.
Ans. Maud (1855) is a monodrama, telling the story of a lover who passes from morbidness to ecstasy, then to anger and murder, followed by insanity and recovery. This was Tennyson’s favourite poem. As a love poem, Maud is a triumph, not merely for the satisfying beauty of its phrasing, but as a glorious expression of the sheer ecstasy and rapture of passion.

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Q. Write a few lines on Tennyson’s widely popular contributions as the National Poet of England.
Ans. As a national poet, he was enormously popular, and his ode on the “Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852) and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) are the most popular poems. On the other hand, his Idylls of the King, recounting tales of the early English king, Arthur, together with his Ulysses and The Lotus-Eaters, which deal with classical Greek themes, were very popular and appealed to Victorian taste.

Q. Who was Ulysses?
Ans. Ulysses was the king of the island of Ithaca. Soon after the Trojan War, he sailed for his own Kingdom and met several adventures on his way back home. At last, he reached Ithaca, where he ruled over his people for three years. Ulysses expresses the lofty ambition of man’s eternal quest for knowledge. Tennyson himself said, “There is more about myself in Ulysses which was written under the sense of loss and all that had gone by.”

Q. What were the hopes of Ulysses and what did he look forward to in his voyage?
Ans. Beyond the Western horizon, Ulysses hopes to reach the land of Happy Isles where he hopes to meet Achilles, one of the great Greek heroes of the Trojan War. Ulysses is determined “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield till the end of his life.” Thus, Ulysses wants to travel to have adventures and experience.

Q. What are some unique characteristics of Tennyson?
Ans. Some of the unique characteristics of Tennyson’ poetry are,– he is essentially the artist. He studied the art of poetry with a singleness of purpose. Of course, Swinburne also wrote poems with melody and perfect finish. And like all the great writers of his age, he is a teacher and a leader. In the preceding age, as the result of the turmoil produced by the French Revolution, lawlessness was more or less common in literature. But, Tennyson’s theme is characteristic of his age, which is the reign of order, of law in the physical world, producing evolution, and of law in the spiritual world, working out the perfect man.

Q. “Tennyson is hailed by critics as a philosopher poet.” Explain.
Ans. Tennyson is hailed by critics as a philosopher-seer, a supreme interpreter of his age and a great voice of Victorian England. He is the finest expositor of the Victorian age and began his poetic career while still at Cambridge. Unlike Robert Browning, who is generally appreciated by more mature minds, Tennyson is for enjoyment and for inspiration, rather than for instruction.

One comment

  1. very informative post . A lot of things to learn.

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