Alferd Tennysons’s “Ulysses ”Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ is both a lament and an inspiring poem. Even modern readers who are not so familiar with the classics, can visualize the heroic legend of Ulysses, and so is not prepared for what he finds in the poem— not Ulysses the hero but Ulysses the man.
Tennyson brings out the agony felt by Ulysses at his old age, The influence of the Industrial age can be seen in Tennyson’s usage of the word ‘profits’ in the very first line . The character calls himself ‘idle’ showing his disillusionment at this ripe stage of life .The “still hearth” and “the barren crags” symbolize death. He continues complaining about his hapless state and the reader begins to detect the shallowness of character of this otherwise larger than life legend. He is so self-centered and full of self pity that he shows scant respect for those close to him and those that he rules as seen in lines 4-5. His pride keeps him from calling himself old, in that many words ; He has to allude to his wife’s age to let the reader in on his own advanced years.
The wisdom and grace of old age seem to elude him completely as he metaphorically claims “I will drink life to the lees.”Tennyson uses vivid imagery in lines 10 – 11, the “rainy Hyades”again bringing out the fear of death in the narrator . The lines “I am become a name”, and “ myself not least , but honored them all” reflects the awareness Ulysses has of his legendry fame . The reader begins to identify with the character as he seems fraught with the same faults that afflict normal men . “A hungry heart’ is a personification used to highlight the character’s insatiable desire to travel and explore “ I am part of all that I met “, portray the swelling pride of one who knows he is a legend.
In lines 22-25 the character laments at having to , ‘pause’ and “ to make an end” symbolizing imminent death. He hates his infirm state as can be seen in lines 24- 30.”For some three suns “ is a connotation suggesting he has been in bed for three days, which for him is the most demeaning of all . Ulysses can see death at his doorstep , yet feels every hour can be used for the unending quest for knowledge. Tennyson uses a powerful simile in line 31 equating ‘knowledge ‘ to ‘the sinking star’ which is the most elusive and the most difficult to discern in the sky. In line 32 he uses a hyperbole to dramatize the extent of the character’s desire for the unknown and the unexplored .
The second part of the poem, lines 33-43 are devoted to the contrast between father and son , one can feel the heavy sarcasm in the words “ slow prudence” “blamelessness” and “decency” of his son. He is contemptuous of these traits, which maybe harmless and noble, yet are hardly worthy of a great king.
Ulysses’ wandering spirit looks upon any kind of softness as a failing. He sneers at the more ‘centered’ personality of his son who governs his people in a mild and orderly manner .In lines 37-38 he reveals his paradoxical personality as he feels soft handling is a form of subjugation that “ subdues them to the useful and the good”.Here the reader can peer into the maverick character of Ulysses and his complete disregard of anything normal and routine.
Another character trait that shows through in lines 41- 42 is that of an agnostic or to put it less strongly, he shows a “jovial agnosticism”.(Landow) .The poem is a dramatic representation of a man who has faith neither in the gods nor in the necessity of preserving order in his kingdom and his own life(Landow). Just as the reader is wearing down under the relentless spate of negative traits of Ulysses, Tennyson brings respite in the third stanza reminding one of the past glories of this fabled soldier of the Trojan war. With rich usage of symbols and visual imagery, he manages to finally make a connection between the character and the reader .
The last stanza is directed to his mariners as also to the readers who after visiting upon all the negative traits of his character realized that he too was human like them . He calls upon them, “souls that have toiled ,and wrought ,and thought with me”(46),immediately connecting them to his struggle. Tennyson uses symbolism all through this last stanza.”The port” symbolizes the final place(44),the “vessel puffs her sail” symbolizes the soul ready to leave. “ there gloom the dark, broad seas”(45) denote the unknown nature of the final journey.
Ulysses calls upon his friends to take up the challenge in the face of death and like a true soldier ,to fight till the end. He refuses to give in to the vagaries of old age and extolls the readers to join him in th final battle. “this open invitation to join Ulysses in his last heroic attempt seals the bond between reader and speaker” ( Cleverly) .The hero in us rises to the fore as he implores us with his appeal in line 56-57 “come , my friends .’Tis not too late to seek a newer world”.
In lines 60 – 65 Ulysses is not certain where death will take him. “Maybe that the gulf will wash us down”(62) symbolizes the possibility of hell but “Happy Isles” (63) stand for heaven where he feels he will be greeted by his old friends like Achilles .In line 67 Tennyson uses the hyperbolic expression “Moved earth and heaven”,to highlight the legendry strength of Ulysses.”That which we are , we are”,indicate the coming to terms with life or maybe it could even mean the final realization that the soul is more powerful that the body .
In the end there is a strong message for the reader – more than a message it is a model to base ones life on -“Made weak by time and fate ,but strong in will .To strive ,to seek , to find, and not to yield.(66-70).As the last lines unfold a realization far beyond what is apparent starts emerging.
In th initial stanzas of the poem was Ulysses lamenting at his sorry state because he couldn’t gracefully accept old age or was it an appeal to those who pod along,”That hoard, and sleep, and feed” to take notice of life. In that light Ulysses seems to be an enlightened soul, who saw far ahead of the normal people. His quest for knowledge like a ‘sinking star’ was unquenchable. Was he seeking the higher truth. Did he know something that the others were not aware of? “Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”(32).
He was seeking something beyond death is evident in “for my purpose holds .To sail beyond sunset.”What does he mean by “ seek a newer world”(57).When we see Ulysses in this light we realize that the faults we sought in him in the initial stages of the poem are failings only as perceived by a society “centered in the sphere of common duties”(39). Otherwise they were not faults but relentless endeavors of a restless soul to seek that which is beyond the realms of human thought.
List Of Sources
Cleverly , Rachael . “A Hero Among Men, A Man Among Heroes.” Critical Analysis of Tennyson’s Ulysses
Landow , George . “Literature, history and culture in the age of victoria”