Form: 70 lines in four blank verse paragraphs.
First published in Poems (1842), the poem was written in the first few weeks after Tennyson learned of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam's death.
Victorians tended to read this poem pretty straightforwardly, as an avowal of faith in the necessity of striving ever onward. They were supported by Tennyson's own statement that this poem "gave my feeling about Hallam's death perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam," his great elegaic lament. But modern critics have found "Ulysses" anything but simple. Perhaps more than any other single poem, how you read it depends upon your theoretical assumptions about the nature of poetry. Here follow a few of the critical appraisals. Make up your own questions.
1. Even though Tennyson said "Ulysses" gave his feeling about Hallam's death and "the need for going forward, and braving the struggle of life," this account of the poem's meaning is inconsistent with the desolate melancholy music of the words themselves.
2. Tennyson is espousing a jovial agnosticism totally opposed to the faith endorsed in In Memoriam. Thus the poem is a dramatic representation of a man who has faith neither in the gods nor in the necessity of preserving order in his kingdom and his own life.
3. The whole thing is a monologue interieur, and there is no quest. It is merely the utterance of a super-annuated hero indulging himself in the fantasy that his beloved mariners are still alive. It is a kind of dream, a means of escape momentarily from the uncongenial environment of Ithaca.
4. The whole thing is a monologue interieur that takes place on Ulysses's death-bed. Thus he can greet his dead sailors, and thus he can look forward to exoloring the last great mysetry, death.
(These last three possibilities do not necessarily contradict the previous suggestions.)
5. The idea that here Tennyson unlocked his heart depends upon stock responses. If we simply read it as a dramatic poem, one comes to see its speaker as a highly complex individual.
6. Ulysses is heroic but bewildered, and the structural inconsistencies in the poem are evidence of the author's (or character's) muddled thinking.
7. Ulysses is an Ancient Mariner who has never learned his lesson.
- Text of Poem
- Kincaid's extended discussion of poem
- A Reading of "Ulysses"
- The Critical History of Tennyson's "Ulysses" (and what it has to tell us about the daramatic monologue)
- Discussion Questions — Various Interpretations
Last modified 5 January 2005