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Tennyson's Ulysses: A Victorian Take on Greece

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  • 0:03 The History of Ulysses
  • 1:05 Background:…
  • 4:42 The Poem
  • 13:18 Tennyson or Ulysses
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

'Ulysses' is a very popular poem by Victorian superstar Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Watch our lesson to learn all about this portrait of a hero... or is he a major jerk?

The History of Ulysses

It's been about 180 years since Tennyson published 'Ulysses.' It's regarded as one of the more significant works from Victorian times, certainly one of his more significant works. It doesn't hurt that it falls into a long tradition of writing things that are based on The Odyssey. Odysseus is also known as Ulysses to the Romans. Homer, the Greek poet, basically started out writing The Odyssey. Dante uses Ulysses; the narrator encounters Ulysses down in Hell. Tennyson does this; James Joyce does it in his big, awesome novel Ulysses. So there's a long tradition of people using this character or this idea. Tennyson fits into that, and that's one of the reasons why we still read this, look at it and wonder: what's he doing to this story?

This Tennyson poem is one of the more significant works from Victorian times.
History of Ulysses

Background: Publication, Format and Subject Matter

It stars Ulysses, who, in Tennyson's poem, has returned from the epic quest that's detailed by Homer, where he was trying to come home from the war and got lost. He was all over the ocean looking for home, essentially. This is after The Odyssey is completed. Tennyson picks it up, and now Ulysses is older, restless and yearning for the adventures of his youth. In a lot of lights, this poem can be read as a call-to-action against age, against monotony and against feeling down. That's one way people read it that you'll see as we look at it.

It was originally published in 1842 in Tennyson's really super-popular book not-so-creatively titled Poems, but it was actually written a long time before that; it was written in 1833. This was part of Tennyson's grieving process for his friend who died, Arthur Henry Hallam. This also inspired other big deal work that we also have a video on called 'In Memoriam, A.H.H.' He held it back from publication because there was a book that was published earlier of his that didn't get great reviews, also called Poems. He didn't really feel like publishing anything else for a while, so that's why he waited so long.

Part of the reason we love 'Ulysses,' or why it's so interesting in relation to other Ulysses-centric works, is that it's a really good example of dramatic monologue. This is a form that Robert Browning, another Victorian poet, really got into. Tennyson takes a stab at it in this poem, and he does a really good job. Basically, it's when a character is speaking as that character. It's addressing someone or a thing, but revealing the character is a huge part of the poem, rather than a speaker talking about stuff. We're not really sure who Ulysses is addressing in this poem - he might just be talking to himself, he might be talking to someone else. We don't really know.

'Ulysses' is also interesting because it tends to generate a certain amount of controversy in terms of how we should read it. When it was first released in 1842, people saw it as a pretty straight heroic tale, an epilogue to The Odyssey (maybe an epic-logue). But starting in the twentieth century, critics started to wonder if maybe the poem shouldn't be read in such a straightforward way. This could be because the twentieth century had looser morality and poets that were more likely to be more ironic than straight. To those critics, there's a real harsh irony buried in 'Ulysses,' which is that the poem's subject is unfit, kind of an awful statesman. He's not a good leader. He sacrifices his social and familial responsibilities in a snotty way. He's pretending to be young again. So there's one way where you can read it as noble, striving-against-old-age stuff; there's another way you can look at it where he's just a petulant dude. We're going to go through the thing, and keep these two poles in mind in terms of which you think it might be. We're going to go through it; we're going to stop and talk about its interesting aspects and by the end see if you know what you think about it.

The Poem

'It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.'

That sounds depressing. As 'Ulysses' opens, our speaker is not happy: he's 'idle,' lives near a 'still hearth' among 'barren crags' and has an 'aged wife.' Don't say that, people; don't say that about your wives. It's also not cool because she waited 20 years for him while he was out making war, whoring and pillaging and all that stuff. Not cool, Ulysses; I hate him already. He's not happy with his social duties: he gives out 'unequal' laws to a 'savage race' that doesn't know him. The way he describes that they 'hoard, and sleep,' he clearly has a lot of disdain for his people. We also should note that he does say that he's giving the unequal laws. He might be taking a little of the blame for this. Who knows? That's kind of up for debate. He goes on:

'I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed

Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when

Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honoured of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.'

So Ulysses is going over some of the details of his glory days of his journeys. He makes it plain that he really misses them. We have the more active language than we got in the beginning - 'drunk delight,' 'enjoyed/greatly.' He's having fun just thinking about all this stuff that he did. He also seems to have a really high opinion of himself; he says 'I am become a name' and that everyone was honored to know him. He seems a little arrogant, but the 'I am become a name' phrase is an interesting trick on the reader. When we see the title of this poem, 'Ulysses,' we know who that is. So now when he says this, we can almost see this process of him turning from a man into a legend that we can all use, something that he may be objecting to. His time isn't done; he isn't malleable for everybody at this point. He goes on and he says:

'I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this grey spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.'

Now we get more listlessness, 'How dull it is to pause… not to shine in use!' He's basically saying that what he's doing now doesn't count as living. That's taken up in a modern way by Nicki Minaj in her song: 'I am no longer tryin' to survive… but to live doesn't mean you're alive.' It's practically Tennyson! He refers to himself as the 'grey spirit yearning in desire' and that he wants to pursue knowledge 'Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.' He got these lofty aspirations, but he's also recognizing that he is old. He wants to live up to the adventures of his younger self. Now he turns his eyes to his son. He says:

'This my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle--

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill

This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and through soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Meet adoration to my household gods,

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.'

He doesn't sound that excited about his kid, does he? He's looking at Telemachus, who's going to govern the isle if he does leave to go on further adventures. This is really where we can see why twentieth-century critics were not that keen on Ulysses as a noble dude. He does not say nice things about his kid, right? He refers to his son's governing style with phrases like 'slow prudence' and 'soft degrees'; he's concerned with 'common duties' and he prays to 'household gods'. He even goes so far as to call him 'Most blameless,' which implies that he has some blame. It's really a limp phrase, a backhanded compliment in a lot of ways. The last sentence really cements Ulysses' separation from his kid: 'He works his work, I mine.' They clearly do not have a good relationship. Let's find out more:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought

with me--

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads--you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.'

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