Ulysses, a perennial favorite and one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s greatest poems, appeared in the 1842 volume of Poems that made Tennyson’s name. However, it was written at age 24, nine years earlier, after the death in 1833 of Arthur Henry Hallam, the most important single person in Tennyson’s life, and the subject of his great elegy In Memoriam A.H.H. Tennyson himself said of “Ulysses” in a note that it “was more written with the feeling of [Hallam’s] loss upon me than many poems in In Memoriam,” a formulation revised in a later note to read that it “gave my feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam.”
The main sources of the poem are book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus (Ulysses is the Latinized form of his name) goes to the underworld and has his future foretold by Tiresias the prophet (this is the scene also in which Ajax turns away from Odysseus, one of the touchstones in Longinus’s description of the sublime); and the 26th canto of Dante’s Inferno, where Dante is led by his guide Virgil to meet Ulysses and hear his story. There are also echoes of William Shakespeare’s Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) had not read the ancient Greek poet Homer but only accounts of the Homeric epics; his Ulysses came largely from the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid. Therefore, Tennyson is synthesizing two traditions and two sources, not simply adding a link in a chain.
In Homer, Tiresias tells Ulysses (as we will call him here for consistency) that he will return home to Ithaca, but that eventually he will make one more journey and die in a land so far from the world he knows that it will be entirely alien to him. Neither the Odyssey nor any other surviving work tell the story that was clearly known to Homer’s audience, but Dante invented it. He has Ulysses gather his men together, perhaps in Ithaca (as Tennyson obviously thought) to make one final journey. The reason for this, he says in the English translation by H. F. Cary that Tennyson would have read at the time, was that he and his men “were not form’d to live the life of brutes / But virtue to pursue and knowledge high” (Inferno 26, ll. 116–117). His virtue is not Christian, and so Dante puts him in the hell he has visited in the classical myths. But his words are powerful and striking, especially the famous exhortation not to waste the little time that remains to them in “the brief vigil of our senses:” “questa tanto picciola vigilia / d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente” (26, ll. 114– 115; Cary translates: “the short remaining watch, that yet / Our senses have to wake”).
Tennyson’s poem is a dramatic monologue, spoken by Ulysses as he decides to leave the Homeric Ithaca to which he has returned and undertake the journey predicted for him by Tiresias. The two great authorities, Homer and Dante—or, within their respective fictions, Tiresias and Ulysses himself—disagree about how the story will end. In Homer, Ulysses will die “far from the sea” (Odyssey, 11, l. 154); in Dante, Ulysses and his men are sucked down, perhaps straight to hell itself, in an Atlantic whirlpool (see line 62 of Tennyson’s poem). Because it is a dramatic monologue, Tennyson’s Ulysses need not know what will happen. But he knows what he is giving up: the kingdom he has reestablished, which he leaves to his son Telemachus to manage and rule. The arts of peace are more necessary than those of war, and Telemachus matters more to the rest of humanity than Ulysses now can. He is the last, or at least the latest, of the introspective romantic explorers—the internalized questers, as Harold Bloom calls the romantic poets embarked upon the seas of subjective experience. Telemachus will save the world; Ulysses seeks to save his soul, and to do so more or less disbelieving in the world’s existence.
The crisis provoked by Hallam’s death was for Tennyson a crisis about the meaningfulness of anything in the world. (This is a crisis that would be confirmed for him by contemporaneous geological discoveries about the extreme age of the world, and the almost complete disappearance of its former accepted forms and vitalities.) What is the purpose of going on in a world that comes to an end for the self when the self comes to an end? Why care about what survives you—son or city—when nothing will survive for long? “Ulysses” is a crisis lyric (which is described in the entry for the Intimations Ode). What can you do in a world become empty and poor, from which all possibility of meaningful interaction with another, all hope, has been removed?
Ulysses recognizes that there is nothing in experience worth the desire to experience it. The joys he has known turn out to be fugitive ones, their promises unfulfilled. What he wants is life, but he wants it not for its own sake but for something hauntingly elusive—in a way the ghost-memory of Hallam, to be compared and contrasted to the great Achilles, whose absence is what characterizes the world now. Where is meaning if its only bearer is gone? What kind of faith can Tennyson keep with the nonexistent? For Ulysses disbelieves in any afterlife (this is part of Dante’s irony in making him speak in an afterlife), and this is a disbelief that Tennyson is close to feeling.
Does the poem resolve the crisis? It does not resolve it, but it copes with it, by offering poetry itself as the place where Hallam can be mourned and therefore throw his shadow. (This sense of poetry as a vocation for being haunted by poetry can also be seen in another Homeric poem of Tennyson’s, “The Lotos-Eaters.”) The death of Hallam put Tennyson in Ulysses’ position of hopelessness and indifference to human meaning. But the hopelessness and indifference themselves come from a sense of loss and are haunting rather than evacuated of all feeling. They haunt the way poetry haunts, and it is here, if anywhere, that Hallam is to be sought—not to be found, but at least to be an absence, if not a presence. For the meaninglessness of the world would mean that he would not even be an absence from the world. But he is, at least, an absence; he is a ghost or phantom in the poetic thinking and the poetic journey that Tennyson undertakes, and therefore to be found only in the poetry that mourns his loss.
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