By Dr Oliver Tearle
A poem about growing old, but written when Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) was a young man in his early twenties, ‘Ulysses’ has been analysed as a response to the death of Tennyson’s close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
In summary, ‘Ulysses’ takes the warrior Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) as its focus, and – using the then-new form of the dramatic monologue, which Tennyson helped to pioneer – reveals an ageing king who, having returned from the Trojan war, yearns to don his armour again and ride off in search of battle, glory, and adventure (leaving his poor wife Penelope behind).
’Tis 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.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
The poem ends with Ulysses triumphantly announcing his intention to sail off again on yet more adventures, with Ulysses offering stirring, affirmative words of encouragement to his fellow men:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
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.
After being away from home for ten years while fighting in the Trojan War, and then taking ten years to get back home to the island of Ithaca to his family (having many adventures along the way, which Homer writes about in the Odyssey), Ulysses/Odysseus feels ill at ease at home.
The civilian’s life is not for him: he is made for battle and adventure and voyaging (even though, in the Odyssey, he manifestly hates travelling on the sea), and will never be content to be the stay-at-home king with a wife and son, living out the rest of his years on Ithaca and enjoying ‘the quiet life’.
Tennyson once remarked that ‘Ulysses’ was ‘written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end.’ In particular, the ‘sense of loss’ Tennyson was coping with (and barely at that) was the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, his university friend from their student days at Cambridge, who had dropped down dead, aged just 22, in 1833.
Indeed, Tennyson claimed that ‘Ulysses’ was ‘more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many poems in In Memoriam.’ In Memoriam was Tennyson’s great elegy for his friend, but ‘Ulysses’ had its roots even more firmly in Tennyson’s private grief for his friend.
We need to bear in mind Tennyson’s remarks in any analysis of ‘Ulysses’. A commentary on the poem that neglects to address the role that Hallam’s death had in inspiring this poem about courage and fighting on, and fighting even when one personally sees no point in such things because all that mattered has been lost, is likely to miss the real message of ‘Ulysses’: that though we may personally be ‘made weak by time and fate’ we must remain ‘strong in will’ and keep going.
But how convincing we find Ulysses’ act of courage here can be questioned. Around the same time as he wrote ‘Ulysses’, Tennyson also wrote another Ulysses-inspired poem, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, which begins with that very word, ‘Courage!’, spoken by Ulysses/Odysseus himself.
The poem that follows, however, sees Odysseus’ crew sink into lethargy and listlessness as they fall under the spell of the lotus fruit. Odysseus’ call for ‘courage’ there promptly gives way to inactivity and passivity, as his men become slaves to the drug of the lotus. And of In Memoriam, already mentioned, Tennyson once famously said that it was more hopeful than he was himself (among other things, he struggled to maintain the hope that he and Hallam would see each other in heaven).
We might analyse the Ulysses of Tennyson’s poem in quite another way: as talking big words which he is unable to live up to. As at least one academic has said, there is something of the ageing fighter saying he’s going to make a comeback to the boxing ring, convinced (deluded) that he’s still ‘got it’, about Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem.
He doesn’t feel at home on Ithaca (describing himself as an ‘idle king’ surrounded by ‘barren crags’, with ‘an aged wife’ next to him, ruling over a people who ‘know not me’), so his determination to sail off beyond the sunset may owe more to his inability to adapt to ordinary life than to his sincere belief that he will be able to go on striving, seeking, and finding forever.
Or, if he does believe it, he may be deluding himself. As one Victorian commentator, Goldwin Smith, put it in 1855, Ulysses wants to take to the seas again ‘merely to relieve his ennui’ and that ‘he roams aimlessly’ since ‘he intends to roam, but stands for ever a listless and melancholy figure on the shore.’
And even in the poem that inspired Tennyson’s own, Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus spends more time stranded on an island or sitting about than he does actually doing something. He spent seven of the ten years it took him to get home from the Trojan War a captive on Calypso’s island. In the last analysis, readers of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ may find that he speaks of doing things far better than actually doing them.
For a good edition of Tennyson’s poetry, we recommend The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.