Published in 1842, written in 1833 by the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson as the age stood on the brink of a diachronic paradigm shift from Romanticism to embracing Modernity, Ulysses was conceived after Arthur Hallam’s death, who is best known as the subject of a major work, In Memoriam A.H.H., by his best friend and fellow poet, Alfred Tennyson. Hallam has been described as the jeune homme fatal (French for “fatal young man”) of his generation. It was seen as an Tennyson’s outcry for moving forward in life and braving the destitute of life more simply than anything.
To understand further the underlying theme of travel as an escapade in the poem, we must carefully open the epistemic fractures of the Victorian Period as an age of transition from the old, outworn fabric of the dogmatic past to a dynamic, free wheeling world.
John Stuart Mill described this period that saw a cross-current of ideas as an “intellectual anarchy” where “Human beings are no longer born to their place in life” and the rise of the middle class saw the light of the day with the epiphany of the age being a march towards scientific temperament with man being just an accident of nature, and not the centre point.
Darwin’s Descent of Man further probed the nature of divine creation and divorced science from morality by putting to question the unshakable power of the despotic Church.
Tennyson, was the third son of a rural parson, so his natural nostalgia for the conservative aristocracy arose out of the accident of birth, but matters complicated when his grandfather disowned his unstable father, thus depriving them of social status.
This is where Tennyson’s liaison with middle class Progressivism began. He later joined the Cambridge Apostles, a group of literary intelligentsia concerned with the regeneration of the Victorian Society through poetry.
Tennyson, through his poetry is seen lamenting the loss of conservationist ideas and construct a certain flavour for myth, borrowing from ancient Legends, and at the same time dons the hat of the artist as moulding the character of the Age, as put by Carlyle.
The poem opens with a soliloquyising tone from the protagonist, Ulysses and towards the end, culminates into a dramatic monologue, which was a relatively new form of poetry. Tennyson reworks the figure of Ulysses by drawing on the ancient hero of Homer’s Odyssey (“Ulysses” is the Roman form of the Greek “Odysseus”) and the medieval hero of Dante’s Inferno. Homer’s Ulysses, as described in Scroll XI of the Odyssey, learns from a prophecy that he will take a final sea voyage after killing the suitors of his wife Penelope. The details of this sea voyage are described by Dante in Canto XXVI of the Inferno: Ulysses finds himself restless in Ithaca and driven by “the longing I had to gain experience of the world.” Dante’s Ulysses is a tragic figure who dies while sailing too far in an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
Tennyson combines these two accounts by having Ulysses make his speech shortly after returning to Ithaca and resuming his administrative responsibilities, and shortly before embarking on his final voyage.
Ulysses, in a melancholic tone states that there is little in staying “by this still hearth, among these barren crags” with his old wife, struggling with the menial complications of monotonous lives.
Still speaking to himself he proclaims that he “cannot rest from travel” but feels a magnetic pull to live to the fullest and swallow every last drop of life. He has indulged in all his experiences as a sailor who travels the seas, and he considers himself a symbol for everyone who wanders and roams the earth.
I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known- cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments
Travel here acts as his synagogue, his ardent religion that allows him to expedite various psyches of people and their intertwining yet diverse ways of living. They have also exposed him to the “delight of battle” while fighting the Trojan War with his men.
Ulysses declares that his travels and encounters have shaped who he is: “I am a part of all that I have met,” he asserts. And it is only when he is traveling that the “margin” of the globe that he has not yet traversed shrink and fade, and cease to goad him.
In Lines 19-21, Ulysses compares life to an arch – a metaphor – and explains that the “untravelled world” (death; places he hasn’t experienced) gleams through it. The “untravelled world” is likened to some kind of planet or luminous world, which means this is also a metaphor.
This points out his ideology of not staying stationed at one place for long as he holds the opinion that it is dull to pause to a rustic end when it is your prerogative to choose between rot and shine. To stay fixed at one place is to have his limbs amputated and live life like a sophomore, while travel exposes him to his inner thirst for knowledge and adventure. Ulysses comes across as a semi-hero, with philosophising positive potencies but one fatal flaw which comes to light in the second part of the poem where his politically afloat motives of conquer offer a stark paradox to his earlier use of travel as catharsis. Now, travel for him becomes a means to achieve his ends, which talk of conquer. He lives in a self enclosed diorama and abandons his responsibilities towards his family for fulfilling his need for adventure.
Ulysses now speaks to an unidentified audience concerning his son Telemachus, who will act as his successor while the great hero resumes his travels: he says, “This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the scepter and the isle.” He speaks highly but also patronizingly of his son’s capabilities as a ruler, praising his prudence, dedication, and devotion to the gods. Telemachus will do his work of governing the island while Ulysses will do his work of traveling the seas: “He works his work, I mine.” which shows an apparent lack of empathy for his own kin.
In the final stanza, Ulysses addresses the mariners with whom he has worked, traveled, and weathered life’s storms over many years. This is evocative of Edward Burke’s idea of nature as a sublime force that offers a mix of terror and awe. The powerful imagery of storm creates the reverberation of fear in the reader.
He declares that although he and they are old and withered with life’s struggles, they still have the potential to do something noble and honorable before “the long day wanes.”
He encourages them to make use of their old age because “ ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.” He declares that his goal is to sail onward “beyond the sunset” until his death. Perhaps, he suggests, they may even reach the “Happy Isles,” or the paradise of perpetual summer described in Greek mythology where great heroes like the warrior Achilles were believed to have been taken after their deaths. Although Ulysses and his mariners are not as strong as they were in youth, they are “strong in will” and are sustained by their resolve to push onward relentlessly:
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Even as his old age is advancing towards impending death, Ulysses is firm with the idea of rewriting a heroic past full of strength and grandeur which exposes his conflicting mood – on one hand he looks at travel with the lens of a necessary parole for riding himself from the lower concerns of life and conversely, his ambitions of sailing beyond the known horizons of the human brain bring forth his masked aims of a farcical despot.
Travel is an important theme in Tennyson’s poetry that suggests a process of mental development, as well as a life of commitment. He borrows the idea from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where travel is evocative of the implications of imperialism where the strident coloniser looks for newer territories to conquer.