Critical Analysis of Ulisses by Tennyson



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A Hero Among Men, A Man Among Heroes
The Ulysses of Tennyson's imagination has power to inspire not in spite of his faults, but because of them.

The name Ulysses instantly conjures up images of heroism and adventure. Even modern readers who are less well versed in classical literature recognize the larger-than-life character, if not the specific details of his legend. It is with these associations in mind that one approaches the poetic monologue "Ulysses" by Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson, however, presents the reader with a man rather than a hero. The Ulysses of his imagination is restless rather than self-satisfied, irresponsible and selfish rather than altruistic. This Ulysses feels unrepentant contempt for his home, for the people who have cheered him on and anxiously awaited his return from battle. Yet in spite of his faults — indeed, because of his faults — Ulysses has power to inspire. Were he entirely flawless, he would be out of the realm of readers' experience; though we would admire him, we would not see ourselves in him as we do in Tennyson's poem. Ulysses's humanity allows us to realize the hero in ourselves.
The inital contrast between myth and man comes within the first few lines. Ulysses does not gracefully acquiesce to the duties of old age as one would expect; he whines like a spoiled child. Nothing suits his taste: his homeland is barren; his wife is too old. He treats his loyal subjects, whom he ought to rule with wisdom gained from so much experience, as a complete subspecies, "a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me" (4-5). Ulysses maintains his tone of superiority throughout the first two-thirds of the poem, not sparing even his own child. He devotes lines 33-43 to mocking his son's "slow prudence," blamelessness, and decency. These traits, he sneers, are harmless but hardly worthy of great men like himself.
In addition to his arrogance, Ulysses possesses a level of irresponsibility few of us have the luxury to afford. Ulysses spent his entire life on the road, consorting with generals, kings, even gods, visiting "cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments" (13-14). Yet he seems to have gained nothing from the experience but an unquenchable thirst for more. He does not have the will-power to carry out his quotidian responsibilities; though he had strength enough to endure war and hardship, he cannot now muster the strength to endure a pleasant retirement. Ulysses yearns for adventure purely for adventure's sake, because he finds the life that everyone else must lead too dull to bear.
The poem "Ulysses" would have been lost in bathos if Tennyson had left his protagonist stuck in these ruts of all-too human pride and restlessness. Luckily, Tennyson gives Ulysses sufficient charisma to keep him in the readers' good graces. He speaks with such confidence and eloquence in describing his past exploits that the reader is almost as convinced of his superiority as he is himself. He casts the consistent abandonment of his family and kingdom in the romantic light of wanderlust that only the most cynical would dare challenge. More significant is Ulysses's own lack of cynicism. He may be old and unhappy in his present situation, but the unshakable, genuine childlike faith he has in his dream prevents anyone else from questioning its validity.
Another of Ulysses's redemptive qualities is his courage. Although he was a fabled soldier in the Trojan War, he exhibits more courage at the time these lines are spoken. The fight he wages this time will not win him medals or fame, will not leave him high on adrenaline after a successful charge. It is, in fact, a fight he cannot win, a fight, literally, to the death. He rarely alludes to his own old age; the obvious frustration he feels at being forced "to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use! / As tho' to breathe were life!" (22-24) hints at his understandable fear of dying. Yet Ulysses rises to the occasion. The inevitable will come, perhaps even soon, but Ulysses refuses to give Death any power over the way he lives his life.
The last third of the monologue serves as a call to arms to all who read or hear it. He directs the last stanza to his mariners, "Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me" (46). This description just as easily applies to the readers, who at this point in the poem identify with both Ulysses's imperfections and his virtues and feel somehow connected to his struggle. He draws us in with his charismatic address; each succeeding line swells like the sea, building to a crescendo, until it breaks over us in line 56:
... Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
This open invitation to join Ulysses in his last heroic attempt seals the bond between reader and speaker. These lines encourage the hero in us all; they give us permission and supply us with the courage to fight the battles of our own lives. We come away feeling inspired, strong, unapologetic, for though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (66-70)