Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tennyson's Ulysses

Written in 1833
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In English Literature 12 I encountered this poem of Tennyson's, a monologue from the perspective of Odysseus, written long after the sharpwitted Greek had sailed for the Trojan shore to preside over war strategy with Menelaus and Achilles, and returned to the island of Ithaca after interminable obstacles to find peace with his wife Penelope and their son Telemachus. Homer's Odysseus (I use the Greek instead of the Latin Ulysses since in terms of antiquity I am a Graecophile and Rome-skeptic) had a various and heroic life, and one would expect him to live out his old age with wisdom, a sense of having surfeited on travel, and intelligent reflection — perhaps even with an eager correspondence and traffic with voyagers through his territories.

In Tennyson's poem, however, he comes across ingloriously lesser. This perception and the following, however, may be coloured by the fact that I hate the guts of "Ulysses"'s mentality.

Photo: Odysseus from a marble sculpture group (Greek, c. 2nd century BC)
by Jastrow, via Wikimedia Commons


The verse is intended as a paean to aged heroics. Instead it constitutes a perhaps unconscious satire of an overambitious individual, not too bright or profound, in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Where craftsmanship is concerned, I think, the poem is not the best-achieved in his oeuvre. The echoes of the fine lines of fellow poets (like Shakespeare in "the sceptre and the isle" and Homer in "Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy") are awkward, the other pieces of too selfconscious monumentalism trip me up, and it is in the end a distracting and distracted item. The old sailor motif reminds me of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which treats it infinitely better; the thoughts on the frontier of life and death remind me of Tennyson's own "Crossing the Bar," which also treats it better; and the worries about achievement prior to kicking the bucket seem far outclassed by Milton's sonnet "When I Consider How my Light is Spent" as well as John Keats's "When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be" and "Ode to a Nightingale."

If one ignores the essential triviality of Ulysses himself, and pretends that his wife is not the faithful and clever Penelope or that a people which toils to keep one in comfort can rightfully be termed savage and implicitly stupid, the lines in themselves are often beautiful and solid:
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.
All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly
But he is a twerp. Even the praise for his son and heir Telemachus, who is perfectly suited to take on the boring burdens of governance, is backhanded.


The passages where he wishes to sail again and reminisces about and with his old comrades are once again supposed to be profound. But they are essentially distasteful because the hero's Odyssey was by no means about the excitement of discovery — it was meant to be a straightforward homebound journey — and after the Iliad he should be very thoroughly tired of war.

There is nothing glorious in slaughtering hundreds of people, gradually, over painful years; in relinquishing one's sense of honour as the battlelust or impulse for vengeance overtakes one and leads one to drag subdued foes around after one's horse until their corpse is completely battered, etc.; and in taking over a townful of widows to be married off nolens volens to their predatory captors.

The wisdom of the great Greek playwrights has not reached Tennyson, it appears. But from the man who could glorify the Charge of the Light Brigade, a piece of bloody stupidity if there ever was one, one cannot expect much more. Like in Rudyard Kipling's "If" (of course many people are fond of it, so one must respect what it means to them, but it grates on my nerves) there are overtones of military kitsch which reinforce its Victorianism:

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

Nevertheless, the final line — "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" — is eminently quotable; and what has remained with me too is the strikingly conveyed brooding and petulant atmosphere.


"Ulysses" [University of Toronto: Representative Poetry Online]
Lightly footnoted and line-numbered text.

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