Quest in Ulysses – Detailed Analysis

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Quest in Ulysses
Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson

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,

A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

The questions “Who is this and what is here?” that the fearful, dull-witted knights, burghers, lords, and ladies are left pondering are those questions which gaze back at the readers of “The Lady of Shalott” long after its fluent lines have drifted away from the closing of the poem. They place the almost unsuspecting audience among the citizens of Camelot, looking at the inscribed name and wondering what to do with it: Who is the Lady of Shalott, and what is the meaning of her presence in Camelot? These questions and the accompanying unease of possibly being identified among the citizens tempt the reader to separate himself from the curious and unknowing crowd, leave the wharf, and step into the Lady of Shalott’s boat—as if to take her part. In this shift, he moves to an understanding, a reading, the impulses of which are similar to those that press the Lady through the poem from the tower, to the river, to Camelot. These impulses reflect the movement from the doubly enclosed, piecemeal images visible from the tower to the more continuous and definite vision of the last section of the poem. There is a desire within the reader to move from a fragmented and metonymic space to a metaphoric landscape in which the Lady becomes continuous with her surroundings. But the metaphoric vision eventually destroys itself and dies with the Lady. In the end, this destruction places the reader closer to Tennyson’s dilemma, his difficulty in leaving the world and passing into a “Nameless,” shadow-less realm.

To understand the reader’s desire to insert himself into a metaphoric relationship with the poem and to comprehend his ultimate undoing, we need to consider the Lady of Shalott’s unfolding, for in many ways the two movements are analogous. In the beginning of “The Lady of Shalott,” images come and disappear as pieces and shadows of the world proceed through the Lady’s mirror. Between these abbreviated images are spaces which syncopate the continuous weaving motion—the winding of the river and the road, the coming and going of the people—that tries to hold the lines of the poem together. These intervals frustrate the almost mechanical advance of the procession, and throughout the early parts of the poem, come to be more visible and compelling than the images, especially when Tennyson marks them in time and in synecdochic forms. For instance, it is only “Sometimes” or at particular times of the day (“when the moon was overhead” that the market girls, the village churls, a shepherd boy, a longhaired page, a knight or two, a funeral, and “two young lovers lately wed” enter and exit from the domain of the mirror. And, when they do, it is the pieces of these images which have separated themselves out that impress the eye and engage the gaze of the Lady. In her passive way, she sees only parts: the red cloaks of the market girls, the curly hair of the shepherd lad, the long hair of the page, and the plumes and lights of the funeral procession. These glide singly and separately through her mirror like the individual pulses of the shuttle sliding through the warp.

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Poetic Style of Ulysses

Surrounding the tower, pieces neither reaching nor touching one another accent the spaces between images. The tower overlooks “a space of flowers.” The reader, though, does not have to wait until the second stanza to experience these spaces, for immediately in the opening lines, Tennyson plunges him into a gap which divides the fields and allows him to see that “On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye,” and involves him in the Lady’s initial view of a world dominated by separateness and without promise of continuity and wholeness. There is little sense of a mutual dependency, a dialectic of opposites, between the whole and the part. One does not take life from the other. Rather the pieces dislocate the continuity and create a landscape in which there are openings and discontinuities. The fields which are “Long” and “meet the sky” would extend without a break if the river and the road travelling through and dividing them did not interfere. The water itself would flow “for ever” if “Little breezes” did not cut into the waves and create patches of movement. These synecdochic images must necessarily admit beginnings and endings, so a “margin, willow-veiled” borders and cuts off the river from all that surrounds it; water must separate the Lady, the tower, and the island from the fields. In this land of pieces a shallop skims by and disappears, and the Lady’s voice, isolated from her, leaves the tower and comes surrounded by space and silence to the reapers below. The sounds render her presence by echoing her just as the mirror reflects.

In the early verses the vision is metonymic as well as synecdochic, for these single images are always succeeding one another. They do not flow into one another; rather they live for a moment until they are replaced by others—as soon as the shepherd-lad exits, the damsels arrive to occupy the space he had temporarily filled. The verses proceed as a procession. Without succession the cloth of the poem cannot hold. It is as if there were an attempt to weave a poem, though with broken lines and threads. If the Lady of Shalott does not constantly replace one image or thread with another, the tapestry and the poem must fly apart, as the tapestry does.

In the early parts of the poem, the Lady’s name seems indefinite, some arbitrary identifier imposed on her by the reapers. She is neither conscious of her name nor desirous to use it. She has “little care.” It is only when she leaves the tower that she cares. Then by taking on the name (baptising herself if you like) and inscribing it on the very vessel of her mediation into her surroundings, she goes to Camelot. (It is interesting to note that when Tennyson revised the 1832 version of the poem, he moved the name forward from the stern of the boat to the prow.) This inscribed name, the mediator, becomes a mirror through which she can see and present herself as being distinct from others and allow them to discover how they in their imagistic-dependent world are different from her. It also becomes a means by which she, as Tennyson did on occasion when he would repeat his name to reach a higher plane, can separate herself from a world ironically enslaved to naming objects.

However, because she does write her name, death and wounding are also inevitable. On the one hand she escapes the limits of metonymy, but on the other hand she faces the experience of loss, for naming is also a form of mourning, like the mournful carol she sings at the end. To name is to experience closure. It is as Claude Lévi-Strauss writes, “as far as one can go.” Naming involves death also because it aspires to the ultimate, to fix the margin. However, in attempting to fix the margin the name grows more conscious of the absence of the ultimate, that is of the difference between the fixed reference and the idea. As Walter Benjamin suggests, names are the incomplete and inadequate mirrors of meaning. They are the fact of knowledge; not knowledge itself. Names name the death of oneness and are dependent upon representation.

The Lady’s journey to a metaphoric landscape and her release from that burden is important in itself, but it also needs to be reconsidered briefly in terms of the reader’s movement through the poem. When the reader first encounters the poem he is separated from it, imprisoned in his own tower into which flash words, phrases, sounds, rhythms, and rhymes. These succeed each other as he moves from line to line—forgetting, losing, and replacing. He waits for some word, some rhythm, some figure of sound to catch and hold him and remind him, like the picture of eternal reverence on Lancelot’s shield, that there is something which unites the spaces between images and words. Eventually the reader inserts himself into these spaces and, like the Lady of Shalott, becomes more aware of both the differences and similarities working with and against each other. Once he has entered the metaphoric relationship with the poem, the reader’s impulse is to sustain that relationship and find salvation in its integrating act. But this impulse involves bearing the burden and treachery of metaphor.

“The Lady of Shalott” is a poem that acknowledges the poet’s and the reader’s dilemma. It is as if Tennyson were attempting to use the poem as a vessel to rescue himself and his reader from an enclosed and image-bound landscape and move into a recognition of the non-representational. But, as much as he repeats the Lady’s name, allows the sounds of the refrain to resound, and, in the manner of the ancient sage, lets the poem revolve in itself, he cannot push the poem into a “Nameless” state. The poem, like the Lady’s boat, remains to stare back and remind Tennyson and the reader of their bondage to “mortal limits”— rhyme and words. Like the swallow on the lake “That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there,” the most that the poem, Tennyson, and the reader can do is dip “into the abysm” beneath the rhyming shadow world

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Ulysses as a Representative Poem of Victorian Age

Ulysses is widely considered to be a poem of quest, a theme representative of the overarching Victorian spirit of enterprise. The goal of Ulysses’ quest is knowledge – Ulysses, having caught a glimpse of “an untraveled world” feels compelled to pursue it even if it were to elude him forever. While Ulysses believes that even senility and death are no obstacles, he is conscious of the deadline, so to speak, that death, ever-looming, imposes on him. Ulysses underlines the extraordinary character of the poem’s protagonist – who, even in the face of pain and death, is determined to come out a hero.

Another interpretation of Ulysses could be that it is a poem about conquest – giving voice to the thirst for power in the age of unfettered imperialism. The protagonist, in some ways, appears to embody the spirit of the Victoria age with his yearning for knowledge and his desire to explore the ends of the earth. Considering how the age of European imperialism transpired, the last line of the poem – about striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding – might as well have been the rallying battle cry of imperialists.

In the ‘autobiographical’ first part of the poem, Tennyson insists on the richness and fulness of the hero’s past, and on the heroic measure of his experience, through the emphatic use of ‘all’: ‘all times I have enjoy’d greatly…’; ‘but honour*d pf them all’; ‘I am a part of all that I have met…’. Besides the ample use of antitheses, the stately phrasing equally sustains this effect, notably in lines like: ‘when / Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades / Vext the dim sea…’ and ‘Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.’ It would appear that Ulysses in his scorn of his people — ‘that hoard, and sleep, and feed…’ — is an arrogant Byronic alien in his own land, very different from Homer’s nostalgic hero. Yet what he seeks is not Romantic solitude, and not the favourite companionship of Childe Harold: mountains, ocean, desert, forest and cavern.12 His interests in the past were social and human, and far from being an outcast, he has enjoyed company and honour.

In the second part of the poem, where Ulysses turns to speak of his son, we get a marked change in mood and situation. Stanford maintains that this passage is spoken in a Byronic mood, i.e. that Ulysses expresses an ‘ironical contempt for the home-loving Telemachus* whom he finds ‘intolerably complacent and priggish’.14 It is difficult to accept this reading, for though it may be in character (cf. the initial words about ‘an aged wife’ and ‘a savage race’), it would appear that the hero’s attitude has changed somewhat from the scorn and rejection in which the poem begins. Now that he is taking leave, he is free to recognise the usefulness of his son’s task, while he marks his own different vocation: ‘He works his work, I mine’. The intention of the passage is exactly this — to dramatise Ulysses’ dedication through a contrast with the ‘sphere of common duties’, and this contrast is fully achieved without irony.

In the last part of the poem Ulysses turns to his companions of the sea, in an appeal that again recalls Dante’s hero. Here too the imagery groups itself in antitheses, and the heroic measure of the future task is emphasised, as well as its paradox : ‘Old age hath yet his honour and his toil’. The terms of achievement are not the classical ones of marital glory, but of work. It is indeed remarkable that Ulysses, despite his Homeric ancestry, makes only one brief reference to battle, while the bulk of the first part is concerned with experience and knowledge, and the final part with work and toil. In the closing lines of the poem, the tone becomes more personal than before, and at the same time more objectively inclusive. Here the sense of loss, the weakness inflicted by time and fate, is poignantly expressed, yet it is assimilated to the mythical tradition (Dante) and expands into a universal feeling in the collective ‘we’ — ‘One equal temper of heroic hearts.’ Tennyson, exploiting the medium of rhetorical exhortation, transcends the egocentric T of the first part and thus achieves a more powerful cathartic effect in the conclusion. The heroic character which thus emerges from the poem is remarkable both for its unity and complexity, and for the manner in which it integrates personal impulses and literary traditions. With the stoical bravery of Antiquity is linked the Romantic (and Dantesque) zeal for experience, and both are subordinated to the yearning for knowledge and selfknowledge which is both Socratic and Victorian.

The Tennysonian quest is almost always a mystical adventure and implies an exploration into the hidden meanings of existence, into the world of spiritual essence, and beyond death. In the light of this evidence, it is reasonable to suggest that the sea-quest in ‘Ulysses’ contains a distinct though unobtrusive aspect of spiritual and transcendent meaning. It is probable, moreover, that Tennyson in this poem (and in the contemporary ‘St. Agnes’ Eve’) for the first time perceived the symbolic uses to which these sea- and quest-images might be put, at any rate: his subsequent handling of them is fairly consistent though in many cases far more obvious.

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