Ulysses A Complex Heroic Figure in The Poem Ulysses

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      In any discussion of a poem, the poet's intentions must be kept in mind. But with Ulysses, we tend to be stopped at once, since we are not sure of Tennyson's intentions. The mode may not help us very much: it is that of dramatic monologue, and we are accustomed to thinking of dramatic monologue as a form in which it often happens that the speaker tells us more about himself than he is conscious of. Tennyson remarked that the poem, written after Hallam's death, under a sense of great loss, gives the feeling of going forward and braving the struggle of life, and also that (in spite of everything) life must be fought out to the end. The need to fight it out to the end probably expresses his sense more completely than the need to go forward. Ulysses is weakened by age, as Tennyson is by grief, but there will be no yielding. To that extent, the poem celebrates will, as does In Memoriam.

Does this mean that it is unheroic? What is heroic language for one age may not be recognisably heroic for another. The apparent dismissal of his aged wife Penelope, who had remained faithful to Ulysses during his long absence, is difficult to reconcile with nobility, or heroism. Perhaps Tennyson is taking advantage of the idea of another age, with other ideas of conduct. On the other hand, although Ulysses intends to leave, is he brutally dismissing Penelope, as some critics have thought? "Matched with an aged wife": It is uncompromising enough, but it is probably meditation, not speech to Penelope. For all we know to the contrary, this Penelope might have approved of an appropriately heroic death for her husband. As for the characterisation of Telemachus, we must remember that words like 'prudent', 'useful', 'blameless', and 'decet', though hardly Romantic, are not condescending. They indicate high attributes, not limitations.
Ulysses: Heroic Figure

      It has been argued that the language of the poem is elegiac rather than heroic and also that Ulysses after all, abandons his aged wife and his Ithacan subjects. It has also been argued that in the third paragraph, where he hands over his duties to his son Telemachus, he seems to speak of him with something like contempt, as of a lesser man fit to undertake an unheroic task, that of civilising the savage Ithacans. One critic has gone so far as to argue that Tennyson presents Ulysses as an example of arrogance and selfishness. Whether or not Tennyson presents Ulysses as noble seems therefore to be a puzzling question. We should remember, perhaps, that he took the idea of the last voyage for the Greek hero from the great Italian poet Dante, who tells how Ulysses insisted on voyaging farther than man should, in pursuit of knowledge, and how he was punished for it by God, and suffered in Hell. At the same time, there is no clear evidence that Tennyson is using Ulysses as a type of searcher after forbidden knowledge. The question of what might and might not be permitted to man had changed somewhat since Dante's day, and a man of Tennyson's age would view a Romantic quest rather differently.

      As for the language, it is obviously slow-moving, and sometimes elegiac in tone:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.

      Does this mean that it is unheroic? What is heroic language for one age may not be recognisably heroic for another. The apparent dismissal of his aged wife Penelope, who had remained faithful to Ulysses during his long absence, is difficult to reconcile with nobility, or heroism. Perhaps Tennyson is taking advantage of the idea of another age, with other ideas of conduct. On the other hand, although Ulysses intends to leave, is he brutally dismissing Penelope, as some critics have thought? "Matched with an aged wife": It is uncompromising enough, but it is probably meditation, not speech to Penelope. For all we know to the contrary, this Penelope might have approved of an appropriately heroic death for her husband. As for the characterisation of Telemachus, we must remember that words like 'prudent', 'useful', 'blameless', and 'decet', though hardly Romantic, are not condescending. They indicate high attributes, not limitations.

      Perhaps the best thing to bear in mind is the idea of not yielding to a life of desolate commonplace which threatens to destroy you. It is likely that this must override most other considerations. One thing which is clear is that the poem is of an unusual complexity, and that no easy decisions about it are possible.

      Perhaps on re-reading, however, one might have some second thoughts about Ulysses. The words are stirring, the scene is so colourful and the spirit so manly that one can overlook the fact that this too is really a poem of escape. Look at it with an unenchanted eye and what one sees is an old man abandoning his old wife, his responsibilities, the people under his rule, the slow labour of bringing them "through soft degrees.....to the useful and the good", and leaving his son behind to get on with it. He calls himself "an idle king, with a kind of contempt for the unexciting arts of peaceful government". He also speaks in the grandiose terms of the egoist: "I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees". And off he goes on some hare-brained scheme to "touch the Happy Isles". This, of course, is an irreverent commentary, one which is being deliberately awkward. Tennyson presents an adventurous, aspiring and exceptional leader, and the dignity of language befits the nobility of soul. But the fact remains that there is another way of looking at the situation and that Tennyson does not see it. He has presented us with that insidious kind of escapism which renounces sober responsibility in favour of excitement; and he does not even see that it is a form of escapism. This is the kind of thing W.H. Auden has in mind when he asks: "What is Ulysses but a covert.....refusal to be a responsible and useful person and a glorification of the heroical dandy?" But to Tennyson and his contemporaries it was very uplifting, bracing the spirit to live greatly, look to the future and keep cheerful in old age, for:

Tho' much is taken, much abides.

University Questions

How is the figure of Ulysses portrayed in Ulysses? Does he come out as a heroic or unheroic figure?
Or
How far is will power celebrated in Tennyson's Ulysses?
Or
Consider the complex shades of meaning in Tennyson's Ulysses.

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