["Ulysses" was first published in Poems. By Alfred Tennyson.London: Edward Moxon, Dover Street. 1842. 2 vols., pp. vii, 233; vii, 231.]

1. Dante introduces the "crafty" Ulysses as a "false counsellor" in Canto XXVI of The Inferno in The Divine Comedy; the poet and his guide, Virgil, meet the illustrious hero and deviser of the Trojan Horse in Circle VIII, Bowge viii, as a "double-flame" which he shares with his compatriot from the Trojan War, Diomedes. Dante's Virgil compels Ulysses to narrate the story of his last voyage:

Then of that age-old fire the loftier horn
Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame
Wrestles against the wind and is over-worn;
And, like a speaking tongue vibrant to frame
language, the tip of it flickering to and fro
Threw out a voice and answered . . . . [lines 88-93]

Penguin translator Dorothy L. Sayers' note indicates that the narrative of the last voyage derives from no known classical source, although an ambiguous prediction in the Odyssey implies that the hero will set out again: "from the sea shall thine own death come." Sayers describes the inset narrative as "Dante's own invention" (239), but sees in it the influences of the Celtic voyages of the Maelduin and St. Brendan. For the hubristic act of daring to challenge the divinely ordained limits of the world, the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), the hero, his ship, and crew are smashed by a great wave just as he catches sight of "the mountain of the Earthly Paradise, which, after Christ's Harrowing of Hell, becomes Mount Purgatory — the only land, according to Dante, in the Southern Hemisphere." (Sayers 239). According to Dante's Ulysses, the voyage of southern exploration ended disastrously when from "out of the unknown land there blew foul weather, / And a whirlwind struck the forepart of the ship" (lines 137-8). Perhaps the most significant lines for Tennyson were these:

No tenderness for my son, nor piety
To my old father, nor the wedded love
That should have comforted Penelope
Could conquer in me the restless itch to rove
And rummage through the world exploring it . . . .[lines 94-98]

Question 2: What is the relationship between Tennyson's characterization of Ulysses and the Homeric and Dantesque versions of the legendary hero? And how does one's decision about that relationship affect the subject and meaning of the poem?

3. In this poem Tennyson is elaborating upon a conviction he formed at Hallam's death "that life without faith leads to personal and social dislocation" (Chiasson 165). What aspects of the poem support this interpretation?

4. Chiasson believes that Tennyson's persona in "Ulysses" is not the admirable and resourceful hero of the Odyssey of Homer but a dramatic rendering "of a type of human being who held a set of ideas which . . . [are] destructive of the whole fabric of his society" (165-6). What evidence from within the poem can you cite to defend or attack Chaisson's assertion?

5. According to Chiasson, in "Ulysses" Tennyson expresses his realization "that Ulyssean determination and courage . . . are to be valued only if they contribute to the good life, personal and social" (172). Thus, if we are to regard Tennyson's persona in a positive light, we must see his final voyage as potentially productive, as a journey of exploration. With what contemporary figures, then, might Victorian readers have tended to identify Tennyson's persona in "Ulysses" and why?

6. Although this poem may be classed as a dramatic monologue, it involves a shift in the implied auditor(s) and in tone. Initially, the language of Tennyson's persona has "a hard and incisive quality, . . . a hardness which includes the startling an un-Tennysonian connubial insensitivity of the phrase 'match'd with an aged wife'" (Chiasson 167). What other examples of "a hard and incisive" language do you detect in the first part of the poem? At what point does the tonal quality begin to shift? What is the nature of this change?

7. Whereas Tennyson's persona in "Ulysses" may be said to represent "the life of infinite search," Tennyson's Telemachus acts as a foil to the persona by standing for "the life of conscientious absorption in duty" (Chiasson 169). Is Ulysses' attitude towards his son one of grudging admiration or thinly disguised contempt? Is Ulysses trustworthy when he praises his son's ability to compromise, his patience, prudence, and administrative capabilities, or is he merely rationalizing his own abandonment of the people of Ithaca? Ulysses, after all, was renowned for his guilefulness and deception, even in Dante's Inferno , which is the basis for Tennyson's "last voyage" motivating circumstance for the poem.

8. Apparently, the object of the last voyage is the legendary "Happy Isles" (line 63), which Buckley and Woods gloss as "the Islands of the Blest, identified with the Elysian Fields as the abode of just men after death" (44). What is ironic about the hero's determination to reach this destination by ship? What is the significance of the hero's using the term "touch" (line 63) in conjunction with this final voyage?

9. Charles Tennyson in his biography of the poet Alfred Tennyson (1949) contends that in "Ulysses" Tennyson "expressed his realization of the need for going forward and braving the battle of life, in spite of the crushing blow of Arthur's [A. Henry Hallam's] death." (Chiasson 165)

What goals does Ulysses specifically mention that might symbolize "the battle of life"? Who in the poem do you feel parallels Arthur Henry Hallam, and why?

10. Make the case that Tennyson's Ulysses is a Byronic egotist who places his own desires and feelings above the common good.

11. If Ulysses may be taken as "the sheer incarnation of 'Renaissance' superbia" (Chiasson 168), where is this overweening pride most clearly expressed, and what seems to be Tennyson's attitude towards it?

12. In Tennyson: His Art and Relation to Modern Life (1895), Stopford A Brooke describes the scene in "Ulysses" as being

on the shore of Ithaca, at the port. The time is evening. The moon is rising and the sea is gloomed by the shadows of the coming night. There is no description of the landscape, but enough is given to make us feel the time and the place. [124]

Why has Tennyson chosen this time and this place for the poem's setting? What aspects of the setting are described? How does the setting contribute to the poem's dominant tone and mood?

13. Stopford Brooke speaks of Tennyson's striking

the note of that profound melancholy which lay underneath the intense and hopeless curiosity of the Renaissance, the same kind of curiosity which Ulysses feels in this poem. [124-25]

Precisely how does Tennyson strike this note? How does the poem sum up "the temper of the higher spirits of the Renaissance in Italy" (125)?

14. Alastair Thomson tersely remarks of "Ulysses" that such a single-voiced poem is in fact "recognizably the product of internal debate" (58). What is the question being debated, and what two sides of the issue does the persona articulate?

15. Thomson asserts that "the most revealing phrase in Ulysses is its last four words . . . . It has been said that the resoluteness is undercut by irony" (66) since the line echoes Satan's determination in Milton's Paradise Lost "never to submit or yield":

>More important than the literary allusion is the fact that 'not to yield' seems less a condition of striving, seeking, and finding than a separate statement. [Thomson 66]

Give a close reading of the conclusion of the poem that addresses the issue of Tennyson's ironic quoting Milton's Satan.

16. Thomson states that

Most of the last paragraph, except for the lines about the waning day and the moaning deep, is not only fine poetry, but fine rhetoric, by a leader of men who was traditionally a master of persuasion. (69)

What is Ulysses attempting to persuade his former crewmates to do? What specific examples of "fine rhetoric" do you detect? How do the images of 'the waning day and the moaning deep' ironically undercut Ulysses' case?

17. Jerome H. Buckley asserts that the poem does not in fact convey

a will to go forward . . . but a determined retreat, a yearning, behind allegedly tired rhythms, to join the great Achilles (or possibly Arthur Hallam) in an Elysian retreat from life's vexations. [64]

Which details in the poem support the notion that Ulysses' wish is for oblivion rather than further adventure? Which interpretation do you find more plausible and why?

18. James D. Kissane emphasizes "Tennyson's fundamental sympathy with his hero" (134) because the poet recognized in himself that same

desire to escape the wearisome present . . . ; but it is after all the counter-melody to the main theme, a negative emotion which an affirmative must transcend. Thus the mood of 'Ulysses' is resolute though rooted in a sense of weakness as well as strength. [134]

Explain what Kisane refers to as 'the main theme," and how the hero's resolution is "rooted in a sense of weakness."

19. Since (a) the poem takes place at twilight, (b) and since Tennyson emphasized its connection with Hallam's death, and since all of Ulysses' sailors are dead — remember, he returned alone to Ithaka — another possible interpretation appears: Ulysses, the speaker, is on his deathbed, and he is making the last voyage . . . towards death. Why would a grieving Tennyson find this kind of last voyage heroic? relevant? How does this deathbed speech compare to those in Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed's" and in Dickens's novels?

Related Materials


Brooke, Stopford A. Tennyson: His Art and Relation to Modern Life. London: Isbister, 1895.

Buckley, Jerome H. "Tennyson: The Lyric in the Distance." Tennyson: Seven Essays, ed. Philip Collins. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan and St. Martin's press, 1992. Pp. 61-75.

Chiasson, E. J. "Tennyson: A Re-Interpretation." (1954). Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, ed. John Killham. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960. Pp. 164-173.

The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine, Cantica I: Hell (L'Inferno), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950. Rpt. 1964.

Kissane, James D. Alfred Tennyson. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Poetry of the Victorian Period, ed. Jerome H. Buckley and George B. Woods. Boston: Riverside, 1965.

Thomson, Alastair. The Poetry of Tennyson. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Victorian Web Alfred Lord Tennyson Leading Questions

Last modified 5 January 2005