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1) Travelling is a significant symbol throughout the poem and it is clear that Ulysses has travelled for the ten years previous. This can be seen in lines 12-15, where Ulysses informs the reader of the different places he has been with different governments, people, and foods. When he returns home to Ithaca, he realises he needs to keep travelling in order to get the most out of life (Line 6). He compares life as an arch with which the ‘untravelled world’ gleams through it. He describes where he intends on travelling as ‘beyond the sunset’, further illustrating that he wishes to travel places he hasn’t been before.
Another symbol of this poem is consumption. Ulysses spends his time as king of Ithaca eating and sleeping. He sees his people around him content with eating and sleeping day in day out, referring to them as a ‘savage race’ and he loses his appetite for food. Ulysses says he will ‘drink / Life to the lees’ which shows us that he believes that drink will not lead him to getting the most out of life. In line 12, we see his real hunger is for travel and knowledge where he says he has a ‘hungry heart’.
The symbolism of animals also features in this poem, mainly in regard to the citizens of Ithaca, whom Ulysses refers to as a ‘savage race’, ‘rugged’, and in need to be ‘subdued’. He depicts his people to ‘feed’ instead of eat and to ‘hoard’ as if intending to hibernate. Ulysses, however, refuses to end up like them and regards himself as a type of predatory animal who hungers for larger prey, or better things in life, ‘roaming’ the seas with a ‘hungry heart’.
2) In Tennyson’s poem, aspects of the character of Ulysses and narrative from other sources are adopted. The character of Ulysses was first introduced into literary history by the ancient Greek poet Homer in his works ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ as the character of Odysseus, the Greek for Ulysses. The character was later used by poets such as Euripides, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, and Pope. The story of Tennyson’s poem particularly alludes to the eleventh book of Homer’s Odyssey, where the prophet Tiresias foretells that Ulysses will return to Ithaca after a difficult voyage, then begin a new, mysterious voyage, and later die a peaceful, ‘unwarlike’ death that come vaguely ‘from the sea’. Tennyson’s poem ends with Ulysses thinking of going on a new voyage.
However, the story of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ is far more similar to the character of Ulisse from Dante’s ‘Inferno’. In the 26th Canto, Ulisse speaks of how he set out with his men for one final journey of exploration to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules and into the Western Sea. Ulisse was of the opinion that men were not made to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge. Ulisse’s zeal for adventure, even at the expense of his family, is projected in Ulysses’ limitless desire for knowledge and travel: ‘And this gray spirit yearning in desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. (30’32)’.
Tennyson’s poem may also allude to Shakespeare’s ‘Halmet’, where the mention of a savage race ‘that hoard, and sleep, and fee, and know not me’ is echoed in Hamlet’s soliloquy that states man is no more than a beast if all he does is sleep and eat.
Given these literary contexts, it is Dante’s Ulisse that fits best with Tennyson’s Ulysses. This leads to the conclusion that Ulysses’ entire monologue is probably him remembering a part of his life while in Hell.
3) The poem alludes to only mythical historical events which are discussed in the previous section on the significance of literary texts in Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’.
4) “Ulysses” is a seventy-line blank verse dramatic monologue and therefore does not contain a rhyming scheme. In the poem, Ulysses reflects on his situation through a dramatic monologue. He begins by rejecting his unsatisfying life he faces on his return to Ithaca, and then he fondly recalls his heroic past, recognises his son, Telemachus, as a good governor of people, and finally contemplates on plans for another journey.
Tennyson uses a quite simple meter by keeping with the standard meter of English poetry of iambic pentameter for most of the poem. An example of which can be seen in line 70: ‘To strive, / to seek, / to find, / and not / to yield’. Tennyson also includes different beats to those of iambic pentameter, such as spondees. In line 36, each foot has two stressed syllables in a row: ‘This la-‘, ‘slow pru’, and ‘make mild’. Tennyson also uses trochees, as seen in in line 7, ‘Life to’, and in line 46 ‘Souls that’, where the beats contain a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. By not using constant iambic pentameter, Tennyson makes the poem more realistic as a dramatic monologue, as somebody actually speaking.
Tennyson utilises the assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, to help establish the mood of the poem, as seen in the lines: ‘Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.’ In these lines, the e sound, which is strongly stressed in the first two lines and becomes a pattern in the latter part of the third, perfectly puts across the speakers dissatisfaction with his life in Ithaca.
5) In taking into account the symbolism, the literary context, and the form of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ I have gained a greater insight into the meaning of the poem. In my opinion, the poem captures the thoughts of a well-travelled man who is contemplating on acting on his desire to explore further even though his best years are behind him. We get the sense that after a life of challenging himself through his voyages, he cannot settle into the sedentary life his accomplishments have earned him. His determination to keep exploring and try new things is inspiring. As is his ability to admit he is not suited to the role of ruler over Ithaca and that his son is better suited even though they do things differently. The ending of the poem leaves the reader with an uplifting note of triumph as Ulysses and his crew set off on their final voyage of discovery together.
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