Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Y13: Notes on different interpretations of Tennyson's "Ulysses".
AO4: Different interpretations of Tennyson's "Ulysses"
Tennyson's ‘Ulysses’ can be said to have four possible — that is more or less self-consistent — interpretations.

1. Interpretation one- the stiff upper lip
· By far the most popular reading of the poem matches the popular Victorian one, builds to the famous final line: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." According to this reading, "Ulysses" embodies the Victorian stiff-upper lip, the need to endure when things get difficult and unpleasant.
· Going outside the poem, we recall that Tennyson stated he wrote it shortly after learning of Arthur Henry Hallam's death*, and said that the poem ‘gave my feeling about Hallam's death perhaps more simply than anything in ‘In Memoriam,"’ so "Ulysses" turns out to be in some sense a reaction to the traumatic death of his closest friend.
· According to the usual reading of "Ulysses," then, the poem's final line fits perfectly with the poet's situation as a mourner. Victorians tended to read this poem pretty straightforwardly, as an avowal of faith in the necessity of striving ever onward.

2. Interpretation two- faith in neither gods nor men
· In 1954 E. J. Chiasson called this accepted reading of the poem into question when he pointed out the speaker's marital and social irresponsibility and pursuit of adventure- what have being patronising to your loyal wife, thinking your people are worthless and hankering after excitement got to do with bravely struggling on?
· According to Chiasson, then, the poem, which so many take to be an uplifting call to courageous perseverance, is in fact a form of satire, which "can be read as the dramatic presentation of a man who has faith neither in the gods nor consequently in the necessity of preserving order in his kingdom or in his own life" (172), and thus dramatizes an intellectual position that the poet wishes to explore but not accept.
· Chiasson's reading depends upon two points: first, the speaker's apparently scornful treatment of his wife, son, and people — so unlike the protagonist of The Odyssey. Second, Chaisson assumes that Tennyson speaker is the Ulysses of Dante's Inferno, which condemns him to hell for overreaching pride, rather than the main character of the Homeric epic. The justification for making this assumption was the statement by the poet's son that his father referred to Dante's, not Homer's, Ulysses.

3. Interpretation three- death as the last adventure
· "Ulysses" can be seen as a deathbed poem, which treats death as the last great adventure into the unknown — a reading that fits perfectly with Tennyson's statements about the occasion on which he wrote the poem.
· According to this interpretation, Tennyson's speaker is the character who appears in Homer rather than Dante. In this reading of the poem, the mariners Ulysses addresses are the ghosts of his crew from The Odyssey, all of whom perish.

4. Interpretation four- it’s a dramatic monologue, but who is listening?

· Robert Langbaum takes yet another tack, arguing that in the dramatic monologue the removal of context makes it extremely difficult not only to know how to judge but to be sure if one should judge at all.
· To see that Ulysses's comments on Telemachus are contemptuous is one thing; to argue that this contempt acts to condemn Ulysses is something else. Essentially, how can we condemn Ulysses when his comments are taken out of context: we don’t know if he’s being ironic, or trying to butter someone up and therefore not saying what he really thinks, or having a drunken chat he doesn’t really mean, or what..
· We as readers asked to respond simultaneously on two contradictory levels: that of distant critical judgment and that of absorbed, direct experience. We must and we cannot do both; and we realize, therefore, the tension between the now disjoined meaning and experience.
* In 1833 Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly at the age of twenty-two, while on a trip to Vienna. Although a promising poet and essayist, Hallam is chiefly remembered as the one eulogized in Tennyson's In Memoriam. The two first met at Cambridge, where they became members of the legendary intellectual club, the "Apostles," and best friends. For sixteen years after Hallam's death Tennyson wrote his series of poems; though connected as stages in an evolving grief, the whole was not foreseen, nor was publication planned. When gathered together and anonymously printed on June 1st, 1850, In Memoriam was immediately popular-60,000 copies sold in six months.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Prince of Wales Educational Summer School: Sue Horner, QCA and 'Literary Study'.

Welcome delegates of the 2006 Sumer School- glad you found my blog! I use this with students so please do not leave any contact details on your comments: they might be misused. However, my email is the kids I teach have this anyway so I don't mind publishing it here.
I'm sure you'll remember why this blog came up in Sue Horner's talk on Saturday: she wanted some suggestions for the design of the 'Literary Study' component of the new English GCSE orders, and we only had a few minutes to respond. As the ESS website does not yet exist, I suggested using this blog to collate your thoughts.
It's very easy- just click on 'comments' below, check the 'anonymous' box and type away, or cut and paste from Word. You'll also need to copy the squiggly letters into the box marked 'word verification'- this prevents the blog being spammed (I can't believe I just wrote that!). Please leave your name and school in the text of your submission. I'm also happy to pass any questions or comments you have on to the ESS Steering Group or the Cambridge academics if you do not have their contact details yourself.
The immediate challenge for us all now is to hold on the the best of ourselves when we're back in the cinderblocks and cynicism of everyday school life. Good luck with that, and I hope you'll all stay involved in some capacity or other.
Best regards,