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Ulysses Summary By Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ulysses Summary By Lord Alfred Tennyson

 

1. Date and Occasion :[Ulysses Summary By Lord Alfred Tennyson]

The poem was written most probably after the death of the poet’s friend Hallam. It was first published in Tennyson’s Poems (1862).

The poem was largely inspired by the poet’s grief for his friend, Hallam. But Tennyson did not break down in despair. He rather seems to have accepted here the struggle of life in right earnest.

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Lord Houghton related that he induced Peele to grant a pension to Tennyson by giving him Ulysses to read.

2. Sources :

The poem, as noted already, was mainly occasioned by Tennyson’s grief for Hallam. Its materials, however, have their origin in Homer’s epics. But the central thought of the poem is found not on Homer but on Dante’s Inferno XXVI.

Ulysses is the Latin name of Odysseus, the famous Greek hero of Homer’s celebrated epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The tale of his life, as found in Homer, is given below very briefly.

 The elopement of Helen, the queen of Athens, with Paris, the prince of Troy, led to a war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Ulysses, the king of a small island, Ithaca of Greece, went with other Greek princes to besiege Troy. Troy fell after ten long years. After the fall of Troy, Ulysses made his homeward journey along with his crew. His ships were led astray. He had to wander ten more years in order to reach his home country. All his mariners died, or were killed. And Ulysses returned alone. After some scuffle with the ‘island princes’, he became the king of Ithaca again.

Tennyson’s source is Homer. But his ‘Ulysses’ is his own creation. The ideal of life, that Tennyson’s Ulysses breathes, is no Homeric thing (for further details see below).

3. Homer and Tennyson :

Tennyson’s poem is based on the epics of Homerthe Iliad and the Odyssey. But this fundamentally differs from Homer’s account in many respects. Homer’s Odysseus is a chivalrous fighter-a man of action. Tennyson’s Ulysses, too, is a protagonist of a life of action. But Ulysses’s attachment to the life of action is more philosophic and less practical.

Again, Homer’s treatment of Odysseus is objective, but Tennyson’s treatment of Ulysses is all subjective. Whereas the Greek poet depicts the heroic exploits of the great general, Tennyson unveils the inner soul of a great idealist.

Moreover, in Homer’s account, the Greek hero returns alone to his native shore. But Tennyson makes the mariners of Ulysses alive to suit the purpose of his philosophic poem.

Lastly, Tennyson begins where Homer ends. Homer’s Odyssey ends with Odysseus getting back his throne. But Tennyson deals with the mental unrest of Ulysses after he has become the king again.

In short, Homer’s Odysseus is a typical Greek hero of a great past, whereas Tennyson’s Ulysses is an idealist of modern times, with illimited passions for science and knowledge and experience.

4. Substance :

Ulysses, after his return to Ithaca, feels disgusted with the monotony of his work-a-day life. He finds his life at home unbearably dull and colourless. The inward urge for exploring new lands makes him restless. He must travel abroad and make the best use of his short life. He recalls his great achievements on the battlefields of Troy and on the wide seas. He has wandered much, suffered and enjoyed much with his brave comrades. He has seen many countries, gathered vast experiences and became a famous man. But still, he has seen very little of this wide world and touched only the borders of knowledge. Life is short, but knowledge, unlimited. And only a few more years of earthly life is left to him. So Ulysses wants to devote every hour of his remaining life to the pursuit of the things unknown. Life means to him ceaseless activities. Inaction is equal to death. Mere breathing is no life. So Ulysses feels that he must spend the rest of his life in ceaseless activities. He points out that he must entrust the duties of kingship to his son, Telemachus, who is better fitted by nature for this sort of life. He appeals to his comrades to make another voyage to the unknown seas beyond in quest of fresh adventures and experiences. They have, no doubt, lost much of their old vigour because of age and suffering. But they have not lost their undaunted spirit. And they must sail on and on till they die.

5. Central Thought :

Tennyson’s Ulysses is a gospel for a life of action and a thirst for knowledge. Ulysses is not satisfied with the limited life of a king, with his limited kingly duties. He is a man of action. Activity is life ; inactivity is death. To him work, ceaseless work, is the sole end and aim of life. So he hates a comfortable and easy life at home. Life is short, but knowledge is limitless. Every hour of human life must be spent profitably in the pursuit of new knowledge and experience. Ulysses is old now, but his spirit is young. It is ever fresh and full of energy.

It has been said that Ulysses is but a projection of Tennyson’s own mind. Indeed, the poem embodies the long cherished aspiration of the Victorian mind-its quest for the unknown and the unexplored. The central thought of the poem is struck in Ulysses’s insatiable thirst for the unattainable ideal of life, in his great mission of life to see the unseen, to know the unknown and attain the unattainable till he dies.For my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the bathsOf all the western stars until I die.

6. Title :

The poem is a monologue of Ulysses. It celebrates the undaunted ideal of this great Greek hero. Of course, through the Homeric hero, Tennyson has given out here the morale of a modern man. Yet, the towering character of Ulysses is present all through the poem. As the poem deals with Tennyson’s treatment of Ulysses and his philosophy of life, it has rightly deserved the title Ulysses.

7. Critical Appreciation :

It is said that Peele was so much moved by reading Ulysses that he granted a pension to Tennyson. This account shows how great was the hold of the poem on the intellectual people of Tennyson’s times. As a matter of fact, Ulysses won unique popularity in the age in which it was written.

But the popularity of this poem has not waned even today. A great poem belongs to no age, to no people. Ulysses is a great poem, and its appeal is not least to a modern man. It stirs, in no insignificant way, every thoughtful and energetic heart of modern times.

The greatness of Ulysses chiefly lies in its theme, which embraces the gospel of action. Tennyson celebrates here the great truth that the essence of life lies in action, not in contemplation. Ulysses is a man of action, and his call is for a life of ceaseless activities. He cannot rest from travel. He will drink ‘life to the lees’. He cannot bear the very idea of a slothful and inactive existence :

How dull it is to pause, to make an end

To rust unburnished not to shine in use.

 

But the ideal of action, propagated by Tennyson in the poem, has no circumscribed aim. Ulysses does not crave after a goal, that, when reached, has nothing more to look for. He must work ever to get more and more knowledge, to realize what has still remained unrealized, to reach the place where no man has still trodden.

 

And this unique ideal of Ulysses is essentially modern. It bespeaks the irresistible passion of modern times for science and knowledge. In Ulysses’s determination to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’—is echoed in the undaunted spirit of a modern scientist to fight against all odds in order to wrest from Nature her great secrets.

 

Tennyson is a great artist.

His artistic power is equally evident in this poem of a great theme. He draws pictures with a painter’s skill. How exquisite is the description of the evening scene as Ulysses becomes ready to set sail once again !

 

The light begins to twinkle from the rocks. The long day wanes : the slow moon climbs : the deep

 

Moans with many voices. Written in iambic pentameter, with occasional variations, the poem has a cadence  that easily touches a reader by its profundity and simplicity.

8. Analysis :

I. Ulysses’s dislike to the slothful life of a king. (Lines 1-5) II. Ulysses’s past life of daring adventures and varied experiences. (Lines 6-17) III. Ulysses’s great ideal to utilize every moment of life fruitfully by gaining new knowledge and new experiences. (Lines 18-32) IV. The difference between Ulysses’s ideal and his son Telemachus’s.

9. Monologue :

Ulysses is a monologue. In a monologue one person only speaks. Here the sole speaker is Ulysses. The entire theme of the poem is expressed through him. Only one voice is t eard in the poem, and that is the voice of the hero, Ulysses. The poem is, indeed, the monologue of Ulysses.

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