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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sarah Smith

One critical perspective of the poem ‘Ulysses’ is that it is a deathbed poem, where Ulysses sees death as a new adventure into the unknown. How far do you agree with this point of view?

Sarah Smith

‘Ulysses’ is a poem about the Greek ‘Odysseus’, ruler of Ithaca, after he has returned home from Troy. On his return journey he encountered many dangers and exciting events, so is now seemingly fed up with the restrictions of his ordinary life. He complains of being “matched with an agèd wife”, which hints that age is one of the factors he despises. The only way to end the process of ageing is to die.

The speaker says, “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world…” This quote could be taken to be about death, as it is ‘untravelled’ because no one can report what it is like. The world ‘gleams’ has positive connotations, as if he is thinking of death in a favourable way. The world ‘untravelled’ seems to imply that he sees it as an adventure, as he is talking about it in the sense of exploration.
He talks about his “mariners”, “souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought” with him. It appears that the mariners are his friends and crew that died on the journey. He says, “Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world”, which implies that he wants to be with them in death, and to ‘seek’ adventure with them again.

However, the speaker, Ulysses, also says, “How dull is it to pause, to make an end” which can be interpreted to mean that death would be boring, as all adventures would stop. In this case, this quote causes a problem with the view that death is seen as an adventure. Although the quote could also mean that he is at the moment ‘paused’, waiting for his next adventure.
Another problem is caused by the quote “death closes all”, as it implies that the speaker does not believe in the after life, and that death is just the closure of all events and adventures.

At the start of the poem, the speaker seems much more fed up with his life than at the end, so it is very much looking like a deathbed poem. He says he “cannot rest from travel” and seems very unenthusiastic to carry on as King. Although towards the end of the poem, Ulysses’ viewpoint develops. The last line, “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” suggests that the even though the speaker has problems that make him weak, such as getting older, he is strong enough in his will to carry on with his life. This weakens the idea that it is a deathbed poem, as his last thought seems to be that he can carry on with his life as normal.

However, the last line may be the result of the speaker trying to convince himself that he is happy with being King and leading an unadventurous life. This is supported by the rest of the poem, which is about Ulysses wanting adventure. He claims he wants to “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die.” Which hints that this is how he would much rather be spending the last of his life than just being King. The last line is strikingly different from the rest of the poem, so perhaps Ulysses changed his mind at the last moment, opting for the safer option of doing what is expected of him.

Tennyson wrote this poem shortly after his best friend had died. This fact could be used to argue that ‘Ulysses’ is a deathbed poem, as Tennyson may have used his own experience as inspiration for ‘Ulysses’. This is strengthened by the speaker of the poem addressing his own dead friends, as there is similarity between what is happening in the poem to what happened to Tennyson in real life. I do agree that ‘Ulysses’ is a deathbed poem where Ulysses sees death as a last adventure, as the majority of the poem talks about adventures he has been on or could be having with his friends, as a pose to saying how glad he is to be home after 20 years. He talks about death in a favourable way, and even describes how he would like to die, which is while “sailing into the sunset” on his last adventure.

8:18 AM  

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