Ulysses: by Alfred Lord Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      Ulysses, published in 1842, is based on a story from Greek mythology related in the Odyssey, written by Homer. Ulysses or Odysseus, King of the Greek island of Ithaca, fought in the war of Troy. When the war was over, Ulysses wandered long and met with many strange adventures, but at last he reached home and got back his shrone. Tennyson's poem describes Ulysses overtaken by a mood of restlessness and longing for travel once again after he has settled down in Ithaca. Ulysses and The Lotos-Eaters are companion pieces but in tone and thought they are opposites — whereas Ulysses is remarkable for its healthy tone and masculine vigour and the other is on sleepy softness of tone and vigour. Ulysses is an adaptation of a classical story to embody a modern ideal. It has been suggested by Mr. Churton Collins that, the spirit and sentiment of this poem are from the 26th Canto of Dante's Inferno, but as is usual with him in all cases when Tennyson borrows, the details and minute portions of his work are his own; he has added grace, elaboration and symmetry.

Ulysses is the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. It is the Latin form of the Greek name Odysseus. He is the King of Ithaca, a small, barren and rocky island, of the West Coast of Greece. Like other Greek princes of the time he was, in his youth, a suitor for the hand of Helen, the peerless beauty of the ancient world. But Helen chose Menelaus, King of Sparta, as her husband. At the time of her marriage, Ulysses, too, like other unlucky suitors of Helen, gave her the solemn promise that they would help her whenever she was in danger. So when Helen was carried away by Paris, Prince of Troy, and the Trojan War broke out, Ulysses joined the war in fulfillment of his promise. In the ten years war at Troy, Ulysses played a leading part. It was he who devised the stratagem of the wooden horse in which the Greek heroes were concealed, and carried to the city. When Ulysses sailed for home after the Trojan War, he met with many thrilling and perilous adventures in strange lands and seas. Some of his adventures were: the blinding of the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus; visit to the enchantress Circe; sailing past the island of the Sirens and so on. These took another ten years of his life. So, after an absence of twenty years, Ulysses reached his island home in Ithaca. It is said that Ulysses entered his house in the guise of a beggar and revealed himself to his aged father Laertes and wife Penelope, who had given him up for lost. Ulysses faithful dog recognised its master though he was disguised as a beggar.
Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson

Note on the Hero of the Poem

      Ulysses is the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. It is the Latin form of the Greek name Odysseus. He is the King of Ithaca, a small, barren and rocky island, of the West Coast of Greece. Like other Greek princes of the time he was, in his youth, a suitor for the hand of Helen, the peerless beauty of the ancient world. But Helen chose Menelaus, King of Sparta, as her husband. At the time of her marriage, Ulysses, too, like other unlucky suitors of Helen, gave her the solemn promise that they would help her whenever she was in danger. So when Helen was carried away by Paris, Prince of Troy, and the Trojan War broke out, Ulysses joined the war in fulfillment of his promise. In the ten years war at Troy, Ulysses played a leading part. It was he who devised the stratagem of the wooden horse in which the Greek heroes were concealed, and carried to the city. When Ulysses sailed for home after the Trojan War, he met with many thrilling and perilous adventures in strange lands and seas. Some of his adventures were: the blinding of the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus; visit to the enchantress Circe; sailing past the island of the Sirens and so on. These took another ten years of his life. So, after an absence of twenty years, Ulysses reached his island home in Ithaca. It is said that Ulysses entered his house in the guise of a beggar and revealed himself to his aged father Laertes and wife Penelope, who had given him up for lost. Ulysses faithful dog recognised its master though he was disguised as a beggar.

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      Ulysses, King of Ithaca, has returned to his kingdom after twenty years of the Trojan War. He has journeyed through unknown strange seas unknown, seen many countries, and has come back home full of experience. All the experiences that he has gained have made up his present character. This poem is a dramatic monologue in which Ulysses is supposed to be speaking and expressing his ideas. Ulysses is sick of his quiet, peaceful, unexciting life as a king passing his days in the company of his aged wife and performing the dull and uninteresting duties pertaining to his position. He recalls his past which was full of action and adventure. He remembers how he has enjoyed himself greatly suffered greatly, both in the company of his friends and alone. He spent his youth roaming about with a mind eager for knowledge and discovery. But he cannot rest from travel. There spreads out, before him an infinite vista of knowledge yet unexplored, of experience yet unacquired and therefore, he is filled with a burning desire to spend the rest of his life in quest of further knowledge. He wants to go out once again with his sailors to see more of the world abroad. He would never remain idle at home and rust in disuse. His son, Telemachus, is good enough for the task of governing the savage people of his land and making them civilised. There is no pleasure in resting. One must "shine in use". Knowledge in the world is limitless and even a series of lines would not suffice together all that knowledge. Why should he, then, not make use of the remaining years of his life to acquire fresh knowledge?

      The wind is favourable and the ship is ready. Ulysses exhorts his companions to achieve something noble and splendid before they die:

Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

      He asks his companions to join him and sail 'beyond the sunset'. Who knows they may be engulfed by the waves of the sea or they may reach the Happy Isles where they may see the great Achilles? Although they have not got that strength which in the old days enabled them to move heaven and earth, though they have been made "weak by Time and Fate" yet they possess a strong will—

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

Subjective Note

      Tennyson himself said that Ulysses which was written shortly after Hallam's death, gave his "feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life, perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam." The death of his friend Hallam in 1832 had stunned him for a time, but he gradually recovered his strength of mind when the poignancy of the grief subsided, and he found that activity and ceaseless pursuit of knowledge is real life. He kept up his attitude of mind throughout life and repeated in poem after poem the idea of the eternal search after truth beyond the limits hitherto attained. In his artistic life also we see him seeking "fresh fields and pastures new".

      The poem expresses the insatiable thirst of the human soul for knowledge. It was the spirit of the Italian Renaissance that made modern Europe what it is today. Tennyson has also given us here a picture of that mind. There never was a better description of the temper of the higher spirits of the Renaissance in Italy. We seem to listen to the very soul of Leonardo di Vinci.

Forward-looking Philosophy

      The philosophy of Ulysses in the poem is Tennyson's own. Indeed Tennyson never thought it too late to seek in his own art a newer world. Even at the age of eighty, he took new subjects and tried new ways to write poetry. Tennyson followed the 'vision' or 'gleam' throughout life and that took him onwards.

      Ulysses is, in the words of Prof. Hales, the embodiment of "the modern passion for knowledge, for the exploration of its limitless fields, for the annexation of the new kingdoms of science and thought." His ruling passion is

To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

      He has gathered much knowledge and experience in the course of his long wanderings. But all has only served to whet his desire for further knowledge. Indeed, experience is like a gateway, through which he has gleams of the vast world of knowledge, yet unknown.

      Ulysses is an inspiring poem. The thought of the poem is psychologically true. The richer is mind, the greater is its capacity for more knowledge and experience. He is aware that life piled on life is too short for acquiring all knowledge. And he has only a few years of life to live. He is resolved to make the best use of his life. Before death ends everything, he will do something noble. It is in this respect that Ulysses stands for the modern yearning for knowledge — knowledge that advances from one unknown to another unknown. "It is not too late to seek a newer world" — strikes the keynote of the mood embodied in this poem.

Passion for Knowledge

      The human spirit is dauntless. It can never grow weary in its search for knowledge. Old age need not dampen the enthusiasm of a person wanting to learn. In old age we can still learn provided we are strong-willed and self-confident. There is in the human spirit an insatiable curiosity, a strong urge to know more and more of the mysteries of the universe. If we lead a life of mental activity, we are sure to prosper. A settled and lazy existence is bound to kill the soul. "Ulysses is the noble expression of that eternal and everlasting element in man's nature, which at different periods in history has characterised nations and individuals in their superhuman effort after knowledge."

      Tennyson seeks to present a "philosophy of life" in the person of Ulysses as the very embodiment of strong passion for knowledge. He hates a stay-at-home existence and loves adventure. Though grown older, he is still young in spirit. "Ulysses shows that heroism, prompted by no more than the love of knowledge and the scorn of sloth may be possible even in old age." Thus, Tennyson's Ulysses is an embodiment or a symbol of the modern passion for knowledge, exploration of limitless fields and conquest of new regions of science and thought. Ulysses sails westward and the reader's mind turns to the unknown lands that were waiting for an adventurous spirit to explore them.

Life of Action and Adventure

      "The dominant interest here", says Brooke, "is the human interest in the soul that cannot rest, whom the unknown always allures to action." Ulysses"caged like some bird with strong pinions", would break from his prison and be on his way through the storm and gaze in the face of the sun. Knowledge is infinite, for

...all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

      In Ulysses, Tennyson attempted an expression (in a dramatically conceived situation like Browning's dramatic monologues) of the mood of striving, inquiry, aspirations, and restless intellectual curiosity. The poem thus teaches us a highly useful lesson —

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Contrasted Attitude in Role of Telemachus

      Telemachus is a home-loving youth. He is centred in the sphere of the common duties of life. Ulysses gives him the role of doing the duties at home, to love and take care of the members of his family, and to worship the household gods. Telemachus knows the art of ruling mildly over a strange race. He has the tact and patience to bring these people to civilised ways of life by giving them the light of knowledge and humanity. He is a young man of pure character, well beloved of his father and his subjects. Hence, Ulysses confidently hands over the government of the island to his son and leaves home, once again, to sail beyond sunset and the baths of the western stars. That is why he is fully justified when he says, "He works his work, I mine."

Form: A Dramatic Monologue

      Ulysses is what is called a dramatic monologue. In it, Ulysses himself is supposed to be speaking and expressing his feelings. It is dramatic because, as in a drama, the poet does not speak in his own person but presents a character who speaks throughout the poem. It is a monologue because only one character (Ulysses) speaks in it. The aim of the poem is (a) to present the character of Ulysses and (b) to present a philosophy of life. It also gives us an indication of the story of Ulysses. The occasion of the utterance is one that illustrates and emphasises the character of the speaker. The dramatic vividness is worked out not merely into the thought but into the style. "The terse, laconic, almost epigrammatic vigour of language put into the mouth of Ulysses marks the man of action and resource in time of danger, the man accustomed to rule and to be obeyed." The dominant interest is the human interest—the soul that cannot rest, whom the unknown always allures to action.

Word Pictures

      The background of the poem — that of the rocky island of Ithaca, the sea, and the palace — is built up in scattered phrases that evoke a picture in our mind. The king seems to soliloquize from the portico of his palace, as he is about to step down to the harbour, where the vessel that is to take him and his fellow-mariners on perilous enterprises once again is ready to put off. The rocky ledges take us to the hamlets of the island; when the dusk deepens we see their lamps beginning to twinkle."There gloom the dark, broad, seas"; "The long day wanes, the slow moon climbs, the deep moans round with many voices" The Stormy moods of the sea and the crowded canvas of Ulysses eventful life are conjured up before us in:

All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea....

      As we read, we march down to the boat with the king and, presently, seated with him on one of the thwarts bid the mariners "sit in order and smite the sounding furrows". The monologue thus gives us a sense of movement. The poem is not written in that ornamental and embellished style which marks The Lotos-Eaters. That style would not have suited a poem with such a vigorous theme. The accumulation of vowel-sounds which produce a musical effect. These two lines show the word-pictures:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad sea.

Artistic Qualities of Style

      The nervous blank verse is pitched in a tone of austere rhetoric, "sententious and weighty". The wisdom of hoarded experience and resolution speaks in its slow deliberate movement. The verse relaxes every now and then, only to gain momentum for a fresh sweep of controlled eloquence —

I am a part of all that I have met
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

      The first line sums up the record of Ulysses experiences, and just pauses to take the next leap. The reader can notice for himself this movement. Besides, there is throughout the blending of bridled energy with flowing music, which is characteristic of his tercets.

      The diction is full of surprises, the poet wringing the utmost value from words: 'I will drink life to the lees'; I have enjoy'd greatly; the rainy Hyades vext the dim sea; a hungry heart: drunk delight of battle; hoard myself this gray spirit. Took the thunder and the sunshine; etc.

      The style is held by the classical spirit, and there are echoes of classical phrases. Now and then, the imagination is beckoned on to the horizon of thought, by lines that throb with the lure of the unknown:

And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star.
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

      To read for the first time —

come my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world...

      is to be haunted by the words for ever.

LINE BY LINE PARAPHRASE

      L. 1—5. It little profits that.....know not me: These lines are from Tennyson's Ulysses. Here the great hero tells us that he is sick of his idle life in the rocky island of Ithaca. Such a life has no charm for him. The island itself is wild and rocky. The people living there are savages. They merely eat, sleep, and make piles of money. They have no ideal in life. Hence they cannot appreciate and understand a noble heroic soul like Ulysses. His wife Penelope has grown old and cannot share her husband's ever-youthful spirit. And, as the king, he is to rule by laws which are imperfect and unfair. Ulysses feels that a dull spiritless and indolent life has no charm for him. In these lines, Ulysses expresses his discontent with a soft, inactive life. Such a life is unworthy of a man of heroic mould like Ulysses.

      L. 6—11. I cannot rest from travel.....vext the dim sea: These lines are from Tennyson's poem, Ulysses. Here the great hero speaks to us of his past experiences of life and his resolve to live a life of adventure to the very end. He is sick of ruling over wild people too dull to appreciate and understand a man of heroic life at home. He will enjoy his life to the full. He compares life to a cup of wine. Just as a man drinks till he has reached the sediment at the bottom, Ulysses will taste all aspects of life, without leaving anything behind. His whole life has been spent in travels and he has won much knowledge and experience in life. During his long wanderings he has had his spell of joys and sufferings, yet he has sailed on in quest of knowledge. He has enjoyed and suffered with his companions when they were alive; when all of them died, he enjoyed and suffered alone. He has experienced life on land as well as on the sea at all times and in all places. Ulysses suffered and enjoyed with equal fearlessness. It is the memory of these things that urge him on, even in his old age, to sail in quest of knowledge.

      L. 19—21. Yet all experience.....I move: In these lines from Tennyson's Ulysses, the great hero tells us that he has travelled in many lands and studied their men, manners and the methods of government. But he is not content with what he has learnt so far. This has simply opened before him the prospect of a vast world of knowledge, yet unknown. It is the tempting vision of a world, which seems to be always retiring before him in the distance as he tries to come nearer and nearer to it. In other words, the knowledge which Ulysses has already won, enables him to feel that there are still many things to learn—many things yet to know. It is this feeling which has greatly increased his passion for knowledge. The more he learns, the more he desires to know. Here the knowledge and experience which Ulysses has gathered so long has been compared to an ocean, through which he can see gleams of an unknown world. It tempts him from the distance but eludes his grasp when he approaches it. In other words, knowledge is not only tempting but also most difficult and deluding to those who seek it most ardently. It is an inexhaustible field.

      L. 21—23. How dull it is.....life: These lines from Tennyson's Ulysses reveal Ulysses ardent desire for knowledge. All his knowledge and experience bring home to his mind the fact that knowledge is unlimited. The more he advances in the path of knowledge, the more is he baffled and deluded. But his love of knowledge is still as keen as ever. The more he learns, the more he desires to know things unknown. That is why he must go on a quest of knowledge. A life spent in idleness is no life at all. Just as a sword loses its polish and gets rusty when it is kept out of use for a long time, so also our vigour and energy will be dulled and blunted if we do not exercise them always. Life means ceaseless activity. Mere breathing does not make life. Hence. Ulysses is bent upon spending every moment of his life in work — in search of knowledge. These lines embody the active philosophy of life.

      L. 25 — 29. Life piled on life...new things: In these lines from Tennyson's Ulysses, Ulysses speaks of his burning passion for knowledge. Knowledge is vast and unlimited and our life on earth is all too short to learn everything. Even a number of lives taken together would be too short, for gaining all knowledge. So far as he is concerned, he has only a single life to live. And of this single life too, a greater part has already been spent. Only a few years of life are still left to him. In other words, he is an old man and can best hope to live for a few years only. Hence he is determined to make the best use of every moment of the remaining years of life. An hour spent in some profitable work means an hour saved from the hands of death. It is an hour which has been rescued as it were from the silence of death. Not only that, but every hour enables us to learn something more, something new that is unknown to us. This fresh knowledge means an addition to the worth and length of life. On the other hand, hours spent in laziness are hours lost of life. That is why Ulysses resolves to use every moment of his short life in working and in seeking knowledge.

      L. 29—32. Vile it were.....human thought: Here Ulysses speaks of his burning passion for knowledge. Knowledge is vast and life is all too short. Not to speak of one life, even a number of lives taken together would not be enough for gaining all knowledge. But Ulysses is an old man and can hope to live only a few years at the most. So he must make the best use of every moment of the remaining years of his life. It will be really mean and disgraceful on his part if at the end of his life he tries to sit idle and store up his energy. He will then be actually like a miser hoarding his wealth. It is surely mean and contemptible to live a life of ease and comfort without doing anything. His mind is ever yearning for new knowledge though he is an old man. A sailor may be tempted to follow the course of a star, which has set in this world, to the world beyond. So an ardent and passionate lover of knowledge will yearn to learn new things every moment of his life. He will not be content with what he knows. He will long to follow the course of knowledge from the known to the unknown.

      L. 35-39. Discerning to fulfill.....and the good: Ulysses says that his. son Telemachus is quite fit to perform the kingly duties and responsibilities in his place. Telemachus is wise and would gradually introduce wise laws which will turn the wild, uncivilized people of Ithaca into a civilized nation. He will thus be able to divert the energies of his subjects to good and useful channels. Note that Telemachus, young in years, is to stay put in a place while Ulysses, old in years, is to seek adventure.

      L. 41-45. Most blameless is he.....when I am gone: Ulysses says that Telemachus does not have any defect in his character. He is a worthy young man who has taken great interest in performing the ordinary duties of life.

      L. 49-53. You and I were old.....that strove with gods: Ulysses makes an appeal to the sailors to enter upon a life of exploration with great courage. In these lines he reminds them that he and they have grown old. He thinks, however, that old age cannot kill the courage and the spirit of adventure in them. He believes that old men can also earn great glory and achieve great deeds. It is possible to earn new honour though the body grows old. He admits that death puts an end to life, He knows that he and his sailors, being old, are nearer death. Even then he has not given up hope, nor does he believe that his job is over. He inspires his sailors to achieve some great deed even in their old age before they die. He reminds them that they are no ordinary people. Long ago they fought in the battle of Troy in which the gods also took part. He wants his men to remember this and to undertake new adventures which should be worthy of heroes like them.

      L. 62—64. It may be.....whom we knew: These lines have been taken from Tennyson's immortal poem Ulysses. Ulysses knows that there are great dangers in the way of their new adventurous journey. It is possible that their ships would be wrecked by the stormy waves of the ocean. On the other hand there is the possibility that they would reach the Happy Isles in the course of their travels. The Greeks believed that dead heroes went to a perfect world situated in the far-off seas. Ulysses thinks that they may meet Achilles, the great hero of the war of Troy, in the Happy Isles. For this purpose Ulysses will direct his ship to the last point of the western sea.

      L. 65-70. Though much is taken.....not to yield: These lines occur in Tennyson's poem Ulysses. Here Ulysses makes a noble appeal to his sailors to show the same courage in face of troubles which they showed in their earlier travels. There is no doubt that both he and his sailors have grown old. They are not as strong as they used to be when they fought in the battle of Troy. Then they were young men full of the vigour of youth. Then they were able to fight with the gods and show their great strength in the war of Troy. They had the power to bring about great changes. But Ulysses is a man of great courage. He is not upset by the passing away of his youth and his bodily strength. He knows that even old age cannot rob great men of their courage, bravery and other spiritual qualities. Therefore he asks his sailors to show the same courage that they had in youth. He points out to them that everyone of them are brave and strong-willed. Everyone of them knows how to labour, how to struggle hard, how to pursue a great aim. None of them will ever bow his head before hardships and troubles.

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