Ulysses as a typical Victorian poem – 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.
One of the major features of the Victorian age was the rise of scientific spirit. Tennyson’s attitude towards scientific progress was sceptical. He always swung between the two extremes of science and religion. In such a situation he sought to preach a compromise. Being a true Victorian poet Tennyson played the role of a moral teacher. Generally speaking, the Victorians had a keen fascination for moralizing and preaching. Tennyson understood people’s expectations and thus he admirably played the role of a philosopher. According to Tennyson the poet’s function was not to delight only but to teach the masses, the statesman and even the intellectuals. In hours of confusion the statesmen turned to time for light and wisdom. He taught people to be moderate patient and tolerant. His message of action is truly represented in his poem “Ulysses” when he writes; “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.
The Victorian people were intensely patriotic. They took pride in their Queen and national glories. Tennyson shared these feelings of his countrymen. In his poetry the sense of national pride and glory is well sounded. He represents English life and manners with utmost sincerity. Tennyson’s praise for his own country is the expression of a Victorian patriot who considered his country superior to all other countries of the world. He says;
“There is no land like England
Where’er the light of day be”
Tennyson treats Nature as an accompaniment of human emotions and sentiments. He never thinks of Nature without man. Man is always there in his Nature-paintings. Nature in Tennyson reflects joys and sorrows of his men and women. Nature to Tennyson is always a background for reflecting some human emotions. In his poem “The Lotus Eaters” this aspect of his approach towards nature can be seen;
“There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass
Or night dews on still waters between walls.
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass.”
We can consider “Ulysses” as a Victorian poem because the poem reflects the Victorian spirit and echoes the political exposition. The poem gives insight into Victorian writing of multiple essence of life , Victorian compromise , impact of Reform Bills of 1832, spirit of inquiry and colonial spirit. These aspects of Victorian temperament is reflected in the poem “Ulysses”.
Also Read :Strong Desire in the Mind of Ulysses
Ulysses finds the meaninglessness of life which he has been enjoying in his hilly kingdom in the company of old wife and ruling over the savage people who do not know him. He wants to “drink life to the less” as a typical Victorian would have done. A life of indolence is no more than death. It is a life in death. A life of rest from all toils and moils is not desired. He has seen much and known much but is not satisfied with what he gained; for him as to the Victorians :
“All experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move”.
The adventurous spirit in Ulysses does not allow him “to pause, to make and end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use!” The unquenchable desire seized him :
“To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”.
Ulysses’ energy is an inexhaustible. Man’s life is short. To Ulysses a little life is left. But old age does not mean, for him the end of life so to Ulysses ceaseless activity and motion and not, “to strive, to seek to find and not to yield” are ought to be ever remembered as even in old age. Some work of noble note may yet be done. Till one’s death every hour should be spent in actively. It may prove a bringer of new things. This guiding principle for life is typically Tennysonian and basically Victorian in tone.
The high spirit, energy and resolution of Victorian Age are fully celebrated in “Ulysses”. Ulysses like a typical Victorian is fired with energy to grasp the unattainable and the infinite. With his old mariners he is extremely eager to go out a new voyage in search of undiscovered shore and fresh adventure :
“To sail beyond the sunset and the baths
Of all the Western stars until I die”.
It is true that though the mariners are not in full strength of young’s, though they are “made week by time and fate” but they have the will and the determination to touch the untouchable.
Tennyson’s writing heavily influenced the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood with the representation of multiple views of life. It bridges the Romantic essence of subjectivity and Victorian realism and creates a sense of balance within. The poem shrouds the subjective essence of Tennyson’s mournful emotions towards the death of his deceased friend Arthur Hallam. Ulysses cannot remain idle and wanted to progress “cannot rest from travel” which gives the Victorian realism of progress and at the same time gives insight into poet’s emotional response to stop his grief and move forward with his creative forces.
Furthermore, the colonial spirit was at its escalated peak. Ulysses dynamism clearly shows the Victorian spirit of colonization. He had explored and odyssey many journey and knee many men, councils , governments and climate and even acquired a name for “roaming with a hungry heart”. The “hungry heart” gives a political expression of colonial spirit to colonize and discover lands. The famous quote “To strive, to seek , to find and not to yield” can be interpreted as to strive for new lands , to find new discoveries and to seek for new knowledge and never to give up in life. This quote evokes the Victorian colonial spirit and the maxim of poet’s own emotional response towards the societal movements giving an implications of art for life’s sake.
Being written in an age of “conflict between doubt and faith”, Ulysses can be taken as a representation of escapism that is inherent in such a dynamic life. Particularly read in an age dominated by the Development Paradigm, Ulysses in his character appears to be oblivious of the duties of kingship and domesticity. He finds his wife “aged”, his subjects are incommunicable and his household Gods (representing domestic values). While on the surface, he is eager for new experiences, he is reluctant to use this experience on the “barren crags” of Ithaca, his real home. Thus, while Tennyson the poet laureate advocates the Victorian urge to go forward, Tennyson the private and secular poet can not doubt the positivity of such a stance.
In “In Memoriam,” he insists that we must keep our faith despite the latest discoveries of science: he writes,
“Strong Son of God, immortal Love
Whom we, that have not seen they face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace
Believing where we cannot prove.”
Tennyson also spoke to his Victorian contemporaries about issues of urgent social and political concern. During the Victorian period women were thought inferior to men.
In the field of sex, the Victorians sought a compromise between unbridled licentiousness of previous ages and the complete negation of the functions and purposes of nature. The Victorians permitted indulgence in sex but restricted its sphere to conjugal felicity and happy married life. Tennyson reflects this spirit of the age in his love poems by pointing out that true love can be found only in married life. In Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot” we are introduced to ‘two young lovers’ walking together in the moonlight, but we are at once reassured by the statement that these two lovers were ‘lately wed’.
Throughout the Lady of Shalott, Tennyson reappropriates medieval history for Victorian audiences by bringing forth the duality of experience vs. innocence and a theme of the repercussions of sexual desire. In this poem, the Lady of Shalott represents innocence while Lancelot represents experience and her tempter. A Victorian ideal of sexual suppression is portrayed here through the desires of a cursed young woman and the loss of her innocence through the temptations of Sir Lancelot.
The poem echoes the Victorian temperament which is filled with busy streets and developments. Due to the rise and growth in industrialization, the development of commercialization and capitalism has increased rapidly and the poem subtly depicts the atmosphere. The description of “Camelot” delineates the Victorian setting and the landscape of the society where “the road runs by” through the field of “Camelot”. The place seems to be busy where people seems to go “up and down” the roads and streets. These lines suggests the Victorian lifestyle and temperament of busy streets.
Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott was embodied the ideal woman at the time, one who is unattainable, virginal, spiritual and mysterious, embowered, and dedicated to her womanly tasks. The downfall of the Lady of Shalott comes when she is tempted by the voice of Sir Lancelot, “She look’d down to Camelot. Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror cracked from side to side; ‘The curse is upon me,’ cried The Lady of Shalott.” her loss of innocence is symbolized by the breaking of the mirror, inevitable doom is upon her (Tennyson 1184). Sir Lancelot is presented as an object of desire throughout this poem. While he has previously been a main character in other works, he is merely an onlooker throughout this poem as he is unaware of the Lady of Shalott’s infatuation with him. This was also a popular technique throughout Victorian literature; placing a hero out of the center of attention moving the story around to a different perspective. In this way the heartbreak and internal feelings of the woman, The Lady of Shalott, are exposed to the audience.
Furthermore, Tennyson presents the interior melancholia of lady’s sentiment where she sees the “shadows of the world” only through her “mirror”. The “mirror” suggests a reflection of the external Victorian society. The lady’s grief and frustration is brought forth where she is “half sick of shadows”. She perceives “a troop of damsels” and “a curly shepherd- lad” into the mirror or sometimes sees “The knights come riding two and two” but she has no loyal knight for herself. It also reflects on the Victorian moral code where a woman needs to be chastise to find a true soulmate and love.
The poem also focuses on the classical legend. The implication is to bridge the parallel comparison between past and present scenario. Tennyson transcend his feelings of contemporary age into the mythical narrative. In the poem, the classical legend of King Arthur is presented in the society. His physical appearance in the poem is completely medieval and Tennyson brings a subtle message that the man in the Victorian era have more upper grand status than a woman who is completely confined in her own room isolated from the external world. King Arthur could represent the bridge of class consciousness in the society where King Arthur belongs to the noble rank and is honored for his bravery and chivalry but the lady is nowhere to be seen in the external world as she forced to be inside her own room as the “curse is upon her”. The “curse” suggests a Victorian social construct set for a woman.
Tennyson makes the Lady of Shallot a passive figure, focusing mostly on her surroundings and how she is subdued by her task, the lady only speaks twice throughout her poem. It is only through her conscious decision of looking out the window that she realizes what she has done. Emphasis on the domestic interior duties of women is evident as only male knights are described riding alongside the Island of Shalott. A female’s role in society is also being brought forth as the principles of Victorian society advocate for women to stay at home and maintain the household, enjoying their interior duties. It is only when the Lady of Shalott begins to push these female boundaries that her curse comes upon her and leads to her demise.
What made Tennyson so Victorian was his ready acceptance of the mores of his day, his willingness to conform to popular taste, to write a poetry that was easily understood and enjoyed (something that Robert Browning never could, or would, do, although he often said he wanted to). If we expect poets to be rebellious, like Shelley, Byron, Swinburne, or Dylan Thomas, Tennyson must disappoint us in this regard; but it is important to remember that his behavior involves no hypocrisy. This was a position which he readily accepted: no Poet Laureate before him had so regularly written so much occasional verse. Partly as a result of his position as a public and nationalist figure, Tennyson was by far the most popular poet of the Victorian era. No poet was ever so completely a national poet: Henry James said in 1875 that his verse had become “part of the civilization of his day.” This probably explains why literary opinion turned so sharply against him in the earlier part of the twentieth century, as we reacted against all things Victorian.