Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Background and Context
Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses is a first-person imagining of how Homer’s epic hero Odysseus felt after returning from his trip in The Odyssey. This was the story of a king who sailed the world and encountered mythical creatures, eventually returning home to his wife and to reassert himself as king. Homer’s Odysseus was then explored by the Italian renaissance writer, Dante. Dante, in his celebrated Divine Comedy, shows Odysseus (‘Ulisse’ in the original Italian) in Hell for forsaking his familial obligations and taking his pursuit of Earthly knowledge too far. Lord Tennyson’s hero is an amalgam of the two – obviously based on the original Odysseus, but heavily influenced by Dante’s themes and ideas.
A useful entry to discovery in this poem is a line spoken by Dante’s ‘Ulisse’ in the Divine Comedy: ‘Men are not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.’
Upon returning to his throne, Ulysses quickly grows restless. This is immediately apparent in the lexical chain of ‘idle … still … barren’ in the first two lines. Lord Tennyson also juxtaposes Ulysses’ stillness with dissatisfaction: his wife, who in Homer’s original Ulysses had to compete for upon his return, is no longer prized but ‘aged’, and the kingdom he has come to reclaim and his rightful position as king is viewed as merely leader to a ‘savage race’. This dissatisfaction is emphasised in ‘hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me’, with polysyndeton making the list seem longer and more laboured when spoken.
The audience can also see Ulysses’ disdain for stillness in the motif of colour and brightness. The untravelled world is an ‘arch’ that ‘gleams’ and draws him towards it. Only when he has passed through and seen does the temptation, the ‘margin’, ‘fade’. But really, ‘How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!’ The exclamation there points to how passionately he feels, but the major point is the motif of colour and brightness (gleam, fade, dull, rust, unburnished, shine).
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