Strong Desire in the Mind of Ulysses – Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson was an English poet. He was the Poet Laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign. In 1829, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, “Timbuktu”. He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830. “Claribel” and “Mariana”, which remain some of Tennyson’s most celebrated poems, were included in this volume. Although described by some critics as overly sentimental, his verse soon proved popular and brought Tennyson to the attention of well-known writers of the day, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Tennyson’s early poetry, with its medievalism and powerful visual imagery, was a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. “Ulysses” is a poem in blank verse by Alfred, Lord Tennyson , written in 1833 and published in 1842 in his well-received second volume of poetry while “The Lady of Shalott” is a lyrical ballad written by him.
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.
The issues in the poem become clear only with an understanding of the goal Ulysses seeks. Whereas in the first paragraph Ulysses implies that in the past he has explored the known world, in the last paragraph, which deals with the future, he goes to “seek a newer world.” He also describes that goal as an “untravelled world,” one which only gleams through the travelled world and one which can never be reached in the world of time since its “margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move.” That this world is a realm of pure spiritual being found on the other side of death is clear from the fact that Ulysses hopes to find the deceased Achilles there. The direction of the journey further clarifies that his goal is in death:
for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Here the westerly direction and the setting of the sun, the emblem of temporal life, make it clear that the goal is in death; and the con cluding clause associates this last voyage with Ulysses’ own death.” However, one needs to emphasize that Ulysses’ goal is not death, but is in death: that is, Ulysses seeks not death, but life in death. To argue, as does Robert Langbaum, that Ulysses’ goal is death, and hence oblivion of self, is to invert the intention of Ulysses and the sig nificance of the poem.”
The sea voyage is a traditional symbol of the spiritual journey, including the act of dying (recall “Crossing the Bar”). That the sea voyage is a means of figuring Ulysses’ own death is indicated by what has already been said and is established further by the details of the occasion: “The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs.” Ulysses’ voyage and his death are identified by the nightfall-the occasion when the sun sets and the moon rises, when the body dies and the soul endures: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.” The literal details of the occasion also suggest that Ulysses is preparing for death. For one thing, he is near death:
Life piled on life
Were all to little, and of one to me
In addition, the fact that he now relinquishes the rule of Ithaca to Telemachus with decided finality is appropriate to preparation for death and suggests that he intends a voyage from which he will not return:
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle–
When I am gone
Ulysses’ reference to himself as spirit and to his shipmates as souls further enforces the suggestion that he intends to seek a spiritual realm by dying:
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
The problem for the mind of the yet-living Ulysses is to determine that there is evidence for the existence of spiritual reality. His mind seems unsure about the future because it does not know whether death contains complete annihilation or offers spiritual fulfillment, the two alternatives which Ulysses considers:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles
Since Ulysses’ mind cannot posit the absolute truth its desired conclusion, it must maintain a logical scepticism even to the end. Ulysses’ will, however, has to contravert logic and assert the continuance of itself in death even before he has died. The immediate difficulty is that the connection between the vital past and the desired vital future is severed by the present, which is a barren existence devoid of spiritual vitality.
The forces which seem to disprove the existence of spirit are time, fate (1. 69) and the weakness of human nature. The goal of Ulysses’ future quest is infinite, but the goal of his past quest was finite: wife and country. Penelope has not remained an unchanging goal, but rather time has made her an “aged wife.” Perhaps Ulysses considers it fate that he who could not rest from travel must become static in administering laws to a people who are not improved by his efforts.
Ulysses’ evidence that spiritual reality may exist is himself. His unexpressed argument seems to be that if one can prove in life that man is spirit, one has a right to hope that man remains spirit in death. This underlying assumption of the poem is implied by the fact that Ulysses hopes to see Achilles in the Happy Isles. Ulysses emphasizes his difference from, and superiority to, his subjects because their natures would seem to indicate that man is spiritless. By recognizing him in the past, his “peers” have confirmed what Ulysses has learned about himself, that he possesses spirit:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world.
Closely connected are Ulysses’ spirit, the spiritual reality of the un travelled world, and his past experience. The untravelled world “gleams” and Ulysses “shine[s]”: the nature of that other world and the nature of Ulysses are linked through his active experience. He is all that he has met, for his experience has discovered to him his unstoppable will: “All times have I enjoyed / Greatly, have suffered greatly.” He and his men manifest their superiority of spiritual will by responding joyfully not only to happy, but also to trying, occasions:
ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads.
The past seems to mirror the future, but the present stands between the mirror and the reality. Opposed to Ulysses’ will and imagination (identified respectively with “Free hearts, free foreheads”) is the bestiality of his subjects, which does not permit him to exercise more than the rational side of his mind (“slow prudence”) in governing them.
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The symbolic sea voyage of dying seems contradicted by the literal sea voyage, which is to be completed “ere the end.” The repeated urgency to undergo a new voyage before death occurs (“Death closes all”) tends to distract us from realizing that the literal voyage is also a metaphor for the literal event of dying. The great energy with which Ulysses and his men rush toward their goal does not suggest that they are dying: “Push off and well in order smite the sounding furrows.” The strength, however, is not physical, but volitional: “We are not now that strength,” but “that which we are, we are-… strong in will.” The symbolic voyage, which is to take place just on the other side of death, is presented as a literal voyage, which is to take place on this side of death. The area where literal and symbolic voyages overlap marks the place where past and future merge: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The first two verbs mark the past and are balanced by the second two verbs, which mark the future; that is, the verbs are related as a:b::b:a. The two pairs are divided by death but are joined by the undying will, which never yields: not to opposition in the past, stasis in the present, or death in the future. The body dies, but the will remains constant through both life and death. The man who experiences greatly will find at last the great Achilles. Achilles and Ulysses have an “equal temper of heroic hearts”: as peer, Achilles is what Ulysses was and will be.
The Lady of Shalott is a great poem that when understood in its original context has a deeply impactful meaning. There are many interpretations but I want to get at the core theme of the poem by examining the tragic mistake the Lady of Shalott makes that ultimately leads to her death. Why does the Lady die? She pursues Lancelot down the river and ends up dying on her journey. Why does she does she pursue Lancelot? She says at the end of part two “I am half-sick of shadows”. This line has tremendous meaning. It suggests that she has had unfulfilled desires before Lancelot arrived. It also suggests that she is self aware, not the avatar of a supernatural ideal but rather a real person who is conscious of the decisions she is making. Her tone is also dismissive and maybe filled with a certain amount of frustration as well (understandable given her situation). I think the dismissiveness however is indicative of a certain amount of hubris. She dismisses and expresses some contempt for the “shadows”. What do these shadows represent? They are her understanding of the world because of the curse she has which prevents her from gazing upon the world directly. She calls her image of the world a ”shadow” and that she is “half-sick” of it. However these “shadows” are a necessary condition given the curse that she is beholden to. This is why her statement contains some hubris, she believes she is not beholden to the curse or that her desire is enough to overcome it.
What follows is an attempt on The Lady of Shalott from the perspective of discourse analysis as a topological psychoanalysis of symptoms of literal phe-nomenology which simultaneously means a deconstruction of the poetical sublimation of the script. This sublimation reveals itself in the two movements of the Lady which act to each other in a right-angled, geometrical and discour-sive manner, that is, in the sense of the RSI-topology of the Borromæic knot. One movement appears in the descent from the tower out of the nameless real dream world of indefinite, metonymic perforated visions. The other movement is guided by the definite symbolic order of the continuous metaphoric landscape along the river. What kind of desire presses the lady through the poem’s lines? Are the final fearful questions „Who is this ? and what is here?“ (iv.47) of „knight and burgher, lord and dame“ (iv.45) actually the answer, although they read her name a line before? Does the proper name (Eigen-name) and its reading manifest the awareness of the ontological difference between the real speaking of speech and the discourse of the imaginary sym-bolic order as a fracture of the real beyond the first outcry in the dessert of undecidedness?
Before we follow the Lady’s journey it is inspiring to hold a sketch of the Borromæic knot of the real, symbolic and imaginary in our hand. This formalism is a knowledge historically derived from Saussure’s synchronic language theory of the sign and elaborated in new independent categories by Lacan, up to the smallest unit of the symbolic order which is the letter of our concrete speech. The human dasein (Heidegger) is consequently separated from a structural subject which is a topological precondition for every human being and its reality. A meta-plateau does not exist but a construct of three world constituting areas respectively three topologic rings.
The symbolic order, the realm of signifiers, is the area of human reality which provides that something can be said, written or poetized and is called the symbolic. The sign as a combination of symbolic signifier and imagined signified enables an access to a real existing beyond the totality of letters and mental image. An important quality of the imaginary is that nothing can be said about it because if someone utters the imaginary he is immediately within the symbolic order. Exactly this happens to Tennyson’s Lady when she stops her real metonymic weaving of getting phenomenologically abbreviated visions from the imaginary while she didn’t need to say a single word about it. But afterwards within the metaphoric landscape of the symbolic she falls deadly into it by asserting her dasein through a word, her own name.
The magic web of the tower was like the real itself without any fracture which for humans indicates the impossible experience of the being (Sein) including its non-differentiateness where inside and outside fall in one, an analogue to the topology of a Moebius string. Paradoxically, the only „discontinuity within the real“ is the subject, is the Lady’s weaving itself, not consciously but as an absent mark which defers itself in a lasting discontinuous weaving dream . One disruption of that dreaming subject now speaks through the symptom of desire (Begehren) which the Lady surrenders through the gaze onto the world and „bold Sir Lancelot“ (ii.5). The separated real collapses and reveals itself in the trinity of the Borromæic knot. The Lady as a subject catches sight of her imaginary lack (Mangel) which is built by the subject’s act of symbolizing and needs to be added to the signifiers, to create a meaning, by any reading respectively looking not through the mirror but through a window.
Goblin Market has a similar theme of capitulation to desire. “We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?”. There is the precedent set, the temptation and the succumbing to temptation eventually when the protagonist enjoys the goblin mens fruit. There is more explicit sexual imagery in Goblin Market in my opinion. “Clearer than water flow’d that juice; She never tasted such before, How should it cloy with length of use? She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more Fruits which that unknown orchard bore; She suck’d until her lips were sore”. In The Lady of Shalott the sexual desire is more innocent but more explicit.
The Lady of Shalott is an archetypal western story. In the western tradition dating all the way back to Euripides and his play the Bacchae it has been understood that freedom is the absence of or triumph over desire and that slavery is the capitulation to desire. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is corrupted by the god Dionysus who lures him to his death by unleashing his carnal hunger. Pentheus loses control of himself and is consumed by perversion. In the end he is torn apart by his own mother, taking him for a lion in her own blind frenzy, who was also under the spell of Dionysus. The moral of the story and its traditional interpretation is that when you are consumed by desire you are held captive by a hedonism that transcends your being and ultimately leads to your destruction.