Poetic Style of Ulysses – Detailed Explanation

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Poetic style and devices of the poem Ulysses
Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Poetic Style of the poem “Ulysses” – The Victorian age is also known as the age of Alfred Lord Tennyson, hence characteristics that support the Victorian age are there in his poetry. One of the best reasons which built the personality of Tennyson as a poet was his dramatic monologues. In the Victorian era, there was much development in every field of life; mainly in music, art and literature. Poetry that was written in that era rejected the idea of romanticism. It became highly philosophical; therefore, most of the poetry represents philosophical ideas. In his poetry, Lord Tennyson talks about the past, especially about the Greeks; therefore, there is rebirth of Greek myths in his poems. He writes intellectual poems with modern philosophy along with a blend of philosophical ideas.

Characteristics of Alfred Lord Tennyson Poetry are :

  • Realism
  • Naturalism
  • Glory of Past
  • Philosophical Ideas
  • Intellectualism
  • Modernism

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is mainly known as the most illustrative poet of the 19th century Victorian age. Tennyson was also a national poet. His poetry mirrors the several significant trends of his time that made him popular in his own life. Even though his poetry is representative of the day, it ceases to be universal in its appeal.

Thus, if the poetry of Tennyson had been universal, it would have made Tennyson more popular both during his time and after his death. He was sufficiently compensated with poet-artist extraordinary and enduring values that caused a setback to his popularity. In the modern world, he is primarily admired as a poet of his values and order. He carefully observed the external beauties of nature and painted them in his words. His poetry is well-known for his preciseness and accuracy while describing little details, his profound sense of significant phrases and words, and his lyrical and musical qualities of his words. All these qualities make him a poet-artist in the rightest sagacity. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s qualities as a poet are skillfully summed up by Prof. Web by saying that his poetry has “clearness of expression” and decent “simplicity of expression.” Moreover, it has become an important part of English literature and of all the world with its judgment of beauty and “its power of shaping it” with blended “strength and harmony.” He expressed purity and loftiness of thought in a perfect form and has charming power, which will remain forever.

Ulysses is an oft-quoted poem written in blank verse by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1833 and was published with his Poems in 1842. He takes up the hero from Homer’s Odyssey and the medieval hero of Dante’s Inferno and reworks on it to create a hero with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Ulysses makes this speech shortly after returning to Ithaca where he finds his wife aged and a rocky island which he is supposed to rule. The poem also describes Tennyson’s personal journey after the death of his dearest friend. He talks about the inevitable hour in everyone’s life and takes a strong resolution to move on though his friend is no more alive. The poem also did have contemporary relevance. It talks about the desire to reach beyond the limits of human thought.

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Ulysses as a Typical Victorian Poem

Tennyson was one of the most accomplished poetic artists, who combined the observations of a scientist with the sensibility of an artist. He tried to reconcile the conflicting claims of science and religion. As a poet, his mastery of metre and language shows that he continued the tradition of Spenser and Keats in English poetry. Tennyson’s blank verse is inexpressibly finer in quality than any attempted by the poets of the Romantic Revival.

In the poem Ulysses, Ulysses is supposed to be speaking and expressing his thoughts and feelings to the silent listeners. He is standing before the royal palace of Ithaca and speaks before the mariners, who had been his fellow sojourners during his long journey to Troy. The monologue begins with his cynical remarks towards life…

“It little profits that an idle king
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,…
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That hoard and steep and feed and know not me.”

Ulysses, the man of nimble wit, is not satisfied with his life among his subjects, who are unaware of his heroic mould. His aged wife ( Penelope) also cannot understand his heroic soul. But his intention is not clear until he says- “I cannot rest from travel, I will drink /Life to the lees.”

Here by the word ‘travel’ he means the journey which he made to rescue Helen from Paris and the perilous journey after the destruction of Troy. But he refuses to take rest and is determined to take a life of adventure to the very end. He compares life to a cup of wine. Just a man drinks till he has reached the sediment at the bottom, Ulysses also will taste all aspects of life without leaving anything behind. Through these words, Ulysses’ insatiable passion for knowledge is expressed. He is the man who can never take rest from the pursuit of knowledge.

Ulysses has become old but it is the knowledge and experience which he has gathered so long urges him on even in the old age to sail in quest of knowledge. He knows that a life spent in idleness is no life at all. Just a sword losses its polish and gets rusty when if is kept out of use for longtime, so also vigor and energy will be dulled and blunted if we do not exercise then always. He is perfectly aware that knowledge is vast and unlimited and our life on earth is too short to learn everything. Even a number of lives taken together would be too short for gaining all knowledge. So far he is concerned he has a single life to live. And of this single life too a greater part has already been spent. Only a few years of life are left to him. Hence he is determined to make the best of every moment of the remaining years of his life. To him an hour spent in some profitable work means an hour saved from the silence of death.

But the monologue of Ulysses reaches to the point of climax, when he inspires his sailors and makes on appeal to them to enter upon a life of exploration with great courage. He says…

“Death closes all, but something ere the end
Some work of noble note, may yet be done”.

Ulysses knows that he and his sailors, being old are nearer death, but he has not given up hope and believes that old men also can earn great glory and achieve great deeds. So, he inspires his sailors to achieve some great deeds even in their old age before thy die. The paths of knowledge may be full of dangers, but he is strongly determined. And finally he makes a noble resolution to carry on his quest. He is not upset by the passing away of his youth and bodily strength. He knows that even old age cannot rob great men of their courage, bravery and other spiritual qualities. Therefore, he asks his sailors to show the same courage that they had in youth. He reminds then that everyone of them is brave and strong willed, everyone of them knows how to labor, how to struggle hard and how to pursue a great aim. Everyone of them will tough out any bad situation and never bow his head before hardships or troubles.

Thus, by the monologue Tennyson portrays the character of Ulysses. His portrayal of the character Ulysses deserves huge appreciation for there is a consonantal movement of thought, pervading the character Ulysses from beginning to the end. Every word Uttered by Ulysses helps to constitute the idea that life is short and knowledge is unlimited, so we must not stop from pursuing knowledge.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot” contains an enigmatic tale which can be interpreted as very relevant to society, most specifically for women who have been subordinated to patriarchy. The poem conveys in an elusive way the imbalanced gender ideology of Victorian Britain, using a metaphor entailing social and cultural contexts. Furthermore, it highly emphasizes the representations of both genders as either belonging to public and private spheres, or who are domineering and submissive, respectively. Like the Lady of Shalott, women were victims of social marginalisation, no matter how vital their roles were in a community. In his poem, Tennyson delineates gender roles and conditions from previous periods in British history, such as the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and Victorian eras, in which women were considered less by society because of the limitation of their bodies. Likewise, it also presents their subjection as “redundancy”, in which a woman was bound only to marriage and to whatever her husband would provide.

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Strong Desire in the Mind of Ulysses

“The Lady of Shalott” is a ballad. There is no standard structure for a ballad, but the term refers to a poem or a song that tells the story of a person or people, usually with details that give them qualities that are larger than life. The poem is divided into four numbered sections, with each section, like a story, rising to a climax before it ends. This structure helps capture the reader’s interest, enticing the reader to find out what will happen next. Each section is broken down, not quite equally, into stanzas, which are sections in poetry similar to paragraphs in prose. There are four stanzas in Parts I and II, five stanzas in Part III, and six in Part IV. Keeping the early sections shorter allows the poet to hold the reader’s attention. The stanzas all contain the same basic structure: there are nine lines, with a rhyme scheme of aaaabcccb. This means that in each stanza the final sounds of the first four lines (coded as the a sound) are similar; lines 5 and 9 rhyme (the b sound); and lines 6, 7, and 8 rhyme with each other. Unlike some poets, who try to de-emphasize or conceal rhymes, Tennyson brings attention to rhymes by making most of the lines end-stopped—the flow of words is brought to a halt by punctuation. This strong emphasis on rhymes helps to give the poem the feeling of an ancient tale, since it resembles poems from the time before printing was developed, when news was carried from town to town by word of mouth and rhyming aided memorization.

Another magnificent aspect of the poem is that Tennyson, here, has played with the sounds of words. The flow of the poem, as has already been pointed out, is like the flow of the river which is the spine of the poem. Just like a river, the poem produces different sounds at its different course. The opening lines, written in iambic tetrameter, has the magic of creating quiet, lazy, open sound which is analogous to a river running slow and flat at its origin and producing clam, relaxed and soft sounds: On either side of the river lie, Long field of barley and of rye, (1-2) Suddenly, in the second stanza written in trochaic tetrameter, the sounds move to a different scale. Now the sounds are like the sounds of a river flowing through its mountain course. It starts to pick up speed and rushing down rapidly: Willows whiten, aspen quiver, Little breezes dusk and shiver (11-12) Thus, the whole poem flows like a river, sometimes speeding up, again rushing down and crashing, and then slowing down again. Most of the stanzas end with the short refrain “The Lady of Shalott,” is like the bubble.

The lines of this poem are written in iambic tetrameter. An “iamb” is a unit of poetry (referred to as a “poetic foot”) that has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—in the first line, for example, the syllables “eith” “side” “riv” and “lie” are accented more heavily than the syllables that come before them. Iambic poetry closely follows the up-and-down pattern of English speech, making the poem’s structure hardly noticeable. Tetrameter means that there are four feet to each line (“tetra” is the Greek word for “four”), for a total of eight syllables to each line.

Some of the unique characteristics of Tennyson’ poetry are, – he is essentially the artist. He studied the art of poetry with a singleness of purpose. Of course, Swinburne also wrote poems with melody and perfect finish. And like all the great writers of his age, he is a teacher and a leader. In the preceding age, as the result of the turmoil produced by the French Revolution, lawlessness was more or less common in literature. But, Tennyson’s theme is characteristic of his age, which is the reign of order, of law in the physical world, producing evolution, and of law in the spiritual world, working out the perfect man.

Tennyson’s command of language and sense of poetry have earned him a lasting place in the history of English poetry. As a poet, his mastery of metre and language shows that he continues the tradition of Spenser and Keats in English poetry. These qualities find perfection in his shorter lyrics, where he deals with human emotions. Tennyson is hailed by critics as a philosopher-seer, a supreme interpreter of his age and a great voice of Victorian England. He is the finest expositor of the Victorian age and began his poetic career while still at Cambridge. Unlike Robert Browning, who is generally appreciated by more mature minds, Tennyson is for enjoyment and for inspiration, rather than for instruction. William J. Long, in English Literature: Its History and Its Significance, said, “The secret of Tennyson’s poetry is to be eternally young, and like Adam in Paradise, to find every morning a new world, fresh, wonderful, inspiring, as if just from the hands of God.”

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