Ulysses And Tennysons Narrative Techniques Essay
Ulysses And Tennysons Narrative Techniques
A: Look again at “Ulysses” and write about Tennyson’s narrative techniques
In “Ulysses”, Tennyson presents the characteristics and attitudes of the eponymous central character through the dynamic form of the dramatic monologue. Through an adroit blending of literary techniques including those of structure, form and language, he seeks to clarify much of the mystique behind the mythological background of Ulysses, and reveal his persona of desire and heroism, alongside his undesirable traits of contemptuousness and hubristic pride.
Throughout the poem, its form and structure allow Tennyson to reveal the character of Ulysses as he wishes him to be portrayed. “Ulysses” takes the form of the dramatic monologue, with Tennyson adapting the persona of his mythical character and using this form to reveal Ulysses’ character through his own words. This choice of form, combined with the structural use of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, allows the poem to adopt a rhythm that is one of the closest imitators of human speech in verse.
This makes the words that Tennyson, writes and Ulysses “speaks” take on a much more personal tone and a deeper meaning, fully disclosing his character and attitude in a way that a more artificial and structured form, for example the Spenserian, simply could not achieve. This effect is added to the by the extensive and contrasted uses of enjambment and caesurae, further imitating the depth and sincerity of speech rhythms, examples being “The long day wanes: The slow moon climbs: the deep/Moans round with many voices”, the listed pauses of “wanes” and “climbs” accentuating the slowness of the day and moon, and the enjambment through the deep stressing the true profundity of said “deep”.
Furthermore, the extensive use of enjambment allies with the themes of endeavour to an excessive, almost unattainably foolish level, the line “beyond the utmost bound of human thought” exemplifying this, the poem runs on to the excess of Ulysses’ mind. Finally, the balance between lines and theme is also important- twenty-six lines go on the zeal of Ulysses’ previous explorations, and a further twenty-six go on his hopes, fears and attitudes for and towards the future.
In contrast, he spends only eleven lines on his government and responsibility, and can spare just a single bitter indictment, “aged wife” for the ever faithful Penelope. This structure echoes the theme of responsibility against detachment- Ulysses’ excessive description of himself and the fleeting mention of his subjects illustrates his abdication of responsibility and the egocentric nature of his character, although this could be expected from a great classical king. It also exemplifies the excessiveness of Ulysses’ ambition, an excess that as the monologue progresses, can be seen to expand to encompass the boundaries of the foolish, the detrimental and the unattainable.
However as in much of his verse, the main techniques that Tennyson uses to portray the ideas and themes of Ulysses’ character are those of imagery and language. This is especially evident through the contrasting imagery and rhythm of his description of his people against his adventures. The initial imagery of the poem, of an “idle king”, and the “barren crags” of his kingdom of Ithica, sets up a tone of monotony, suggesting Ulysses’ lack of passion or feeling for his duties and who unto his duties are performed. This takes another level with his description of his own people, “Unequal laws unto a savage race, /That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”. This description shows his contempt and lack of compassion for his people, as they are given a primitive, uneducated character as opposed to his own illustrious nature that is revealed throughout the poem.
Furthermore, the lack of even a personal pronoun, “that” instead of “who”, for example, furthers the distance between him and his people, the idea of detachment being inverted in conjunction with that of responsibility. The final nature of this point is in its structure- the monosyllabic, strong and harsh beats of “hoard, and sleep, and feed” portray the tedium that Ulysses sees himself to rule. This contrasts directly with the opening descriptions of Ulysses own character, and his views and memories of his past adventures.
He states, “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink/Life to the lees”, with the enjambment through the two lines portraying the excess and the metaphorical consumption of the “lees” that he strives to reach- the words could also suggest a curse however, with the extent such that as he consumes so much of life, he will inevitably take in the less desirable and the negative aspects. This consumption imagery is continued with “For always roaming with a hungry heart/Much I have seen and known: cities of men/And manners, climates, councils, governments”, the listed monosyllables now highlighting how far he has gone, rather than the extent of his contempt in the previous usage- this highlighting the contrasting areas of Ulysses’ character.
Tennyson also employs the technique of antithesis to highlight the extent of Ulysses’ zeal for travel, and to show that this may reach the realms of foolishness, introducing the idea of the glamour of the unattainable. He states “All times I have enjoyed/Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those/That loved me, and alone”, the use of antithesis in the images and the enjambment of the lines combining to highlights Ulysses’ powerful, almost excessive desire for travel- the excess continues through “the drunk delight of battle”, as he metaphorically revels in the bitterness of war to the extent that it is almost an addiction of the mind, to the extent that he has “become a name”. This can be interpreted in many ways- he could be known world over for his great journeys, or left simply as a shadow of a man, with just the superficiality of a name to back up his previous greatness, his involvement with “a part of all that I have met”.
He then moves on to talk of celestial imagery filled with gravitas- “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’/Gleams that untravll’d world, whose margin fades/For ever and ever when I move”, the enjambment of the lines highlighting the fading of the arch, as if he will never be satisfied, that the unattainable is the most desirable. This continues to the extent of “To follow knowledge like a sinking star,/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”, the simile of celestial permanence being juxtaposed against its own “sinking” possibly revealing an acceptance of his plausibly misguided nature, and the exaggeration of “utmost bound of human thought” showing the foolishness in his wants, or simply highlighting the zealous heroism that runs throughout the poem.
The tone of the imagery changes upon his reference to Telemachus- his son who will inherit his title of King. He describes him as “blameless” and “decent not to fail”, ending the reference to his son with “He works his work, I mine”. This shallow praise highlights a caring for his son, but more interestingly reintroduces his contempt and condescension towards his responsibilities- the final patronising and heavily accented “I mine” implying a scornful attitude towards the insignificant duties that he considers Kingship to be. These descriptive epithets of Telemachus, “blameless”, “discerning”, are spoken with an air of indifference bordering on malicious contempt, and become ironic through Ulysses’ own abdication of duty, though this does not have the effect of removing the depraved tone. The shortening of the lines when referring to Telemachus also relate to his attitude through structure- the zeal of the enjambment and fleshed out lines of his memories (and future plans further on in the monologue) is replaced by short, sharp lines, as if they are confined, as opposed to the free flowing, almost liberated verse of his memories.
As the tone changes with thoughts of the future, he talks of his trusted mariners, those who have “Toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me”, the use of “thought” over “fought” being an interesting idea, possibly highlighting Ulysses’ earlier intellectual superiority over his “savage” race. He then moves on to talk of death and its consequences- “Death closes all: but something ere the end,/Some work of noble note, may yet be done”, his acceptance of death’s reality juxtaposed against his overwhelming zeal for exploration heightening the sense of purpose to a possible extent of foolishness.
This is furthered by lines like “It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles…/ One equal temper of heroic hearts/Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will”, the idea of the acceptance of time and fate being more powerful than himself removing the previous hubristic tone that accompanied his words. The final line, “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”, exemplifies all that is revealed about Ulysses in the monologue- he will endure to the end, whether or not if it is the right, or even most rational course of action- his desire will conquer all, as much as he accepts that ultimately, death has the same enduring power.
In conclusion, Tennyson uses many literary devices to portray the nature and attitudes of the mythological character of Ulysses. Through artfully blending technically adept poetic devices against the purest echo of human speech, he reveals the multi faceted character of Ulysses through his words, allowing the reader to fully understand the motives behind Ulysses’ seemingly limitless ambition, and the more sinister power that this ambition can hold to the detriment of the individual- a powerful message to society, as well as an exploration of one of the most remarkable characters of mythology.
B: How far do you agree that the character of Ulysses is far from heroic?
Tennyson’s dramatic monologue, “Ulysses” has been subjected to many literary interpretations since its first drafting in 1833, just weeks after the death of Tennyson’s closest friend, Hallam. One of the most debated points is on the nature of Ulysses’ character in relation to heroism, and whether he is the typically zealous and gallant mythological king, or a misguided and erroneously naï¿½ve individual, who obsessively seeks the unattainable alongside a malicious contempt for those for who he should hold responsibility. Of course, the concept of heroism is not the only interpretation of the character of Ulysses that has been presented- ideas of responsibility and of social symbolism have also been put forward.
Ever since its publishing, literary critics have understood “Ulysses” to have the underlying theme of heroism with it, and one of the secondary interpretations of this is that the character of Ulysses is in fact far from heroic. Chiasson states that Ulysses is “a type of human being who held a set of ideas which . . . [are] destructive of the whole fabric of his society”, suggesting that he was not in fact a hero, but someone with no comprehension of responsibility for his people, to the extent of selfish desire over support of his people. This is exemplified by the words of the poem, where he describes his people as a “savage race”, who “hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”, highlighting the arrogance and superiority that he feels for over his people, and his subsequent contempt of life’s duties.
This is furthered by the virile condescension of his description of his son, “blameless” and “discerning”, culminating in “He works his work, I mine”, highlighting the lack of heroism in his selfish actions of pursuing his aspirations of travel and excess, rather than the basic humanitarian needs of his people. A secondary idea about his lack of heroism is the air of misguided, unattainable desires that permeates some of the description of his character. His desire to “To follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought” has a sense of foolishness and excess upon reading it, as if it is too far, as if the heroism of the character is being overtaken by this cursed “drunk delight”- by convention a true hero would know when to stop, yet many of the greatest heroes have had their own hubristic, tragic flaws- perhaps this inability to recognise the boundaries of the “gleaming arch” is the one that can be put alongside Ulysses.
As a tertiary interpretation of a lack of heroism, the closing parts of the poem can be seen to take on a tone of acceptance, almost a suicidal wish for release juxtaposed against the powerfully stirring rhetoric that undercuts the entire poem. Critics have agreed with this interpretation in the past- McCulloch describing the “masterly, inspirational oratory of the closing lines of this poem with a recognition that what it encourages is reckless and suicidal”, and Buckley has the interpretation that Ulysses does not have a complete “will to go forward . . . but a determined retreat, a yearning, behind allegedly tired rhythms, to join the great Achilles (or possibly Arthur Hallam) in an Elysian retreat from life’s vexations”.
The context of the poem, written just after Hallam’s death certainly complements this interpretation, with the suggestion of Tennyson wishing to regress from the trials of life into a stupor in memory of his friend, and the words of the poem “We may touch the Happy Isles” and “Death closes all” also reflect this interpretation. Therefore the monologue does present a case for Ulysses’ character to be described as far from heroic, as if he is a symbol of naivety and endless greed, disinterested and indifferent to those who it is his duty to serve.
However, alongside the presentation of Ulysses being far from heroic, the idea that Ulysses is indeed heroic immediately comes into focus. The images of consumption early in the poem could suggest a dangerous addiction to his adventure, but equally could suggest the admirable quality of taking life with both hands and throwing himself into experience, “I will drink life to the lees” and “I have enjoy’d/Greatly, and have suffered greatly”, the juxtaposed ideas heightening the sense of depth that Ulysses goes to as he fully experiences life, and how his seemingly limitless ambition could, or should be an example to the readers, the “savage race”. This can be applied to much more of the poem- his views on life itself can be extended to heroism. He states that “How dull it is to pause…/As if to breathe were life”, as if he is advocating the proactive approach to life, that “pausing” turns life to a mere existence- possibly echoing a secondary attitude of Tennyson to Hallam’s death, that he in fact must go on to continue is own life, instead of fading into a mere existence.
Furthermore, much of the hyperbolic imagery of the monologue, the ideas of “utmost bounds” and “gleaming arches” could exemplify the glamour and beauty of heroism, which for many of the Victorian people was what Ulysses represented, a revolt against the bourgeoisie imposed laws of monontony, to simply “hoard, and sleep, and feed”. Finally, the acceptance of death’s implications and meaning in the closing lines of the poem could represent an intelligent heroism, as if Ulysses is a true hero, knowing that he cannot go on forever, “not now that strength that in old days/Moved earth and heaven”, his acceptance that there is a limit showing compassion for those who accompany him, and the idea of “to strive, to seek, and not to yield” adding to the never-say-die attitude of a hero.
A secondary interpretation of the final line is its supposed irony underneath its resoluteness, made relevant to the similar attitude of Satan in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, “never to submit or yield”, going back to the perception of Ulysses as an anti-hero of his own resolve. James D. Kissane addresses this idea of a heroism in both sides of his character with “desire to escape the wearisome present . . . ; but it is after all the counter-melody to the main theme, a negative emotion which an affirmative must transcend. Thus the mood of ‘Ulysses’ is resolute though rooted in a sense of weakness as well as strength”.
As well as the ever-present idea of heroism, there are other interpretations of the dramatic monologue, and one of these is that of social responsibility, and its contrast with detachment from the vagaries of this and life, a similar theme to that presented in “The Lady of Shalott”. Ulysses is seen throughout the poem to want to escape from his own, enforced reality of Kingship, which is seen through his description of his land “barren crags”, and his people “a savage race”.
This is in contrast with for example, the “Lady of Shalott”, who while not in true contact with “life”, has a suppressed desire to be within it- what Ulysses sees as life is the complete antithesis of what his life was set out to be, and hence this creates a juxtaposition of his personality and adventure against his feelings for his people. This is highlighted with the contrast of the imagery above with his glamorous desires and memories, examples including “Gleams that untravll’d world” and “Drunk delight of battle with my peers”, accentuating Ulysses’ lack of concern for his people, but at the same time showing that despite his egotism, his desires for experience and life are ones that can be admired, and could even be seen by him to be his example to his people, that they should know him rather than “know(ing) not me”- it does also however suggest his inability to look back on and be satisfied with his lot- he can only look for more.
A final interpretation of the poem is how it fits in with Tennyson’s own attitudes, and how he could be seen as symbolic to the Victorian people. The poem was of course written shortly after Hallam’s death, and as a result numerous conclusions can be drawn as to how the poem relates to Tennyson, and how he sees himself through the persona he adopts. The idea of the poem being an exercise in catharsis for Tennyson is certainly relevant, and one of the attitudes that can be portrayed is that of a desire to go forward from Hallam’s death, as Charles Tennyson put it in his 1849 biography, “Tennyson “expressed his realization of the need for going forward and braving the battle of life, in spite of the crushing blow of Arthur’s [A. Henry Hallam’s] death”- this is highlighted in Ulysses’ desire for exploration and experience, “I will drink life to the lees”.
A second idea is that of Tennyson wishing to regress into a stupor of death, as the resigned and almost suicidal air of the closing lines of the monologue indicates, to an extent, an example being “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,/It may be that we will touch the Happy Isles”, as if he wishes to join Hallam in the “Happy” comfort of death. As effectively explained by Thomson, the poem could be “recognizably the product of internal debate”, suggesting that Tennyson’s confusion over his own reaction to Hallam’s death comes out in the two sides to Ulysses’ attitude to adventure in the poem itself. Finally, the closing line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” came to be a symbol for the people of the Victorian age, a symbol of proactivity and change that they could fully relate to, ironically in contrast to the receptors of Ulysses in the monologue itself, his “savage race”.
In conclusion, I agree that the character of Ulysses is far from heroic. His contemptuousness in terms of his people, combined with the overly hubristic and foolish desires upon the greatest of knowledge shows him to be an egocentrically misguided character, despite some of the qualities portrayed by Tennyson seeming, and being admirable. However, on a grander scale I feel that he character of Ulysses is more driven by Tennyson’s feelings than the individual portrayed in Homer’s “Odyssey” and Dante’s “Inferno”, with the character representing more than anything the deeply personal and highly conflicting emotion of grief.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 July 2017
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