Professor Peter Cassidy
LIT 222 C00
08 March 2015
Few writers fully expressed the Victorian period as soundly as Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Ulysses, written in 1833 and published in 1842, is a lesser known work of the poet, laden with underlying meanings and common Victorian themes. It characterizes all of his “three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence” (Elliot 175). Distributed throughout three stanzas written in blank verse, a variation from Tennyson’s standard rhythmic quality, Ulysses is the story of an old man yearning to return to his adventures upon the sea.
One of the first noticeable influences of the Victorian culture is Tennyson’s utilization of the dramatic monologue. This form is where the speaker of the poem is a character verified as distinct from the poet, addressing an unknown or known listener. Ulysses is the speaker, and he is talking to his mariners, specifically the men who have fought with him in the Trojan War. He tells them that he feels he is an “idle king” with nothing to do now that his glory days have passed (Damrosch et al. 1189). He later on introduces a character dear to him, his son Telemachus, and he leaves him “the septre and the isle” (Damrosch et al. 1190). This is his way of explaining that Telemachus is now more fit for being king of Ithaca in his stead, and he regretfully steps down (Damrosch et al. 1190).
This leads to another notable Victorian theme, which encompasses Tennyson’s usage of mournful attributes. Written shortly after the death of Tennyson’s dear friend, Arthur Hallam, it was one of many elegiac poems dedicated to him (BBC News). His remorse is reflected in the poem with vivid similarities, as Ulysses lamented the end of a life filled with adventure, Tennyson mourned the end of his days with a beloved companion. He eludes to some hope though, stating “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (Damrosch et al. 1191). This perhaps expressed Tennyson’s hope for a life without Hallam.
Another Victorian message is the lack of satisfaction with life itself. Victorian thinkers often saw the bleaker side of life, which was closely knit with realism. This is illustrated by Ulysses complete dissatisfaction with his now idle existence, which used to be filled with the glories and adventures of the Trojan wars. He never viewed his days as “life piled on life,” and instead he considers it a collection of memorable experiences that he worked hard to get (Damrosch et al. 1191). The experience, of what is today called retirement, drains the vigor from his life “how dull it is to pause, to make and end,” while the excitement he once experienced made him feel as if he could live forever “we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heavens” (Damrosch et al. 1190-1191).
Exploration and colonization were greatly at large during the Victorian era, and these themes found their way in to the literature of the time. Tennyson was well aware of the times, and Ulysses captured the heart of exploration through its main character’s valor and thirst for expedition. It could also be said that Ulysses son, Telemachus, is used to represent the act of colonization, as he is left to “subdue them to the useful and the good” (Damrosch et al. 1190). Finally, Ulysses pushes the other mariners onward to discover and inhabit new places.
The poem ends in a state neither happy nor melancholy. It embraces the Victorian point of view that one cannot know or control much of life itself, especially that which may or may not lie beyond death. Ulysses, much like Tennyson and the other poets of that era, finds peace in the chaos, accepting that “it may be that the gulfs will wash us down…[or] we shall touch the Happy Isles” (Damrosch et al. 1191). Ulysses will forever be a timeless Victorian piece, reminding one to be aware of what may lie ahead, and to live life to the fullest in the meantime.
“Arthur Hallam and Alfred Tennyson.”BBC News. BBC, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 Mar. 2015. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/bonekickers/history/arthur.shtml>.
Damrosch, David, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Susan J. Wolfson, and Peter J. Manning. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2B. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.
Eliot, T. S. Essays Ancient and Modern. London. Faber and Faber.1936. Print. 175.