I have a theory about
Tennyson’s poem, “Ulysses.” Not being a Victorian scholar, I’m not at all sure how original my theory is, but since you probably don’t know how original it is either, I’ll share it with you. Should you happen to know a great deal about Tennyson criticism, feel free to share your insights.
Not known as a great practitioner of the dramatic monologue like my distant kinsman, Robert Browning, Tennyson nonetheless engaged in that genre in this lyric. This much is utterly noncontroversial, as the poem is clearly written in the voice of Ulysses himself. What is less clear is who hears the Ithacan’s words as Tennyson presents them. To my mind, there are three audiences to be considered over the poem’s course.
The first 32 lines of “Ulysses,” can be imagined as Ulysses speaking confidentially to Telemachus as the two walk from the house toward the waiting ship. Alternately, this could be Ulysses speaking to himself. In either case, the great man is rationalizing his departure apparently three years after returning after an absence of 20 years. Despite his lofty words, Ulysses discloses the basically selfish aspect of his thoughts. Nine times over those 32 lines he uses the word “I.” When we consider all the first person pronouns and possessives, we can add another six cases. Therefore, Ulysses refers to himself roughly once every two lines. Even when his words do not directly reference himself, his desires and intentions are clearly at the fore:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end.
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life!
God forbid that the husband, father, and ruler of a place–even a place filled with a “savage race”–should have to endure dullness and mere breathing!
The second section extends from line 33 to 43. In this section, I would suggest that Ulysses speaks to those who will remain behind in Ithaca under Telemachus’ leadership. Suddenly, the hero’s words are not about him any longer but about his son. The “savage race” has become a “rugged people.” Yet even in this brief speech, Ulysses discloses the lesser esteem he shows to the one who would remain at home and perform the “common duties.” Telemachus is credited with “slow prudence,” “tenderness,” and piety. As much as Ulysses attempts to say good words on his son’s behalf, one can discern an emotion verging on contempt for this gentler person.
At line 44 and continuing through the poem’s end at 70, the tone shifts again. Having dispatched this pedestrian but necessary matter of Telemachus, Ulysses sets his mind again outward. In this portion, I would suggest, he speaks to those who will be journeying with him on the ship, attempting to fire their enthusiasm for the adventure at hand. Interestingly, Ulysses speaks to this new crew as if they were his former crew, all of whom died between Troy and Calypso’s island. He refers to them as “My mariners,/ Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me,” apparently forgetting that these men did not fight on the plains of Troy and did not face Scylla and Carybdis with him. But in this man’s world, the crew is simply a necessary tool. Old sailors or new sailors do not matter. They are interchangeable. Ultimately, their fates and their pasts are secondary to his. If this were the old crew, they might recall the unnecessary danger Ulysses led them into. They might recall hubris of a man who felt compelled, having fooled Polyphemus with his No-Man name, to taunt the giant with his name as he sailed away, something that did nothing to dispel the anger of Poseidon later in the voyage.
Tennyson’s Ulysses is a seductive character. We read his arguments, especially in the first and third sections, and find ourselves pulled along. Yet this is the reputation of Ulysses, the man of twists and turns, a man as mighty with words as he is with weapons. In the end, though, he is an unsatisfying and unsavory character, an adventurer who shirks his duller but more essential duties. Certainly Tennyson does not cast him with as much scorn as did Dante, but in this poem, Ulysses is, at best, an ambivalent character.