Of all Tennyson's early poems, "Ulysses" seems to come closest to breaking this ironic tension, Though there is more to the poem than the "need of going forward" (Memoir, I: 196) Tennyson offered as his motive in writing it, the central power to which we respond is that of romantic heroism. There are complex modulations in tone, certainly, but for most readers the poem moves toward an expression of serene confidence:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are (ll. 65-67]
But Ulysses is much more than another indomitable superman, beyond the reach of time and death. He, in fact, grants the power of circumstance, even of age and physical weakness. He does not stand above these forces but is caught by them, and he knows it. [41/42]
Yet he refuses to see himself as a victim and thus provides an answer to irony: the undefeated will; see Charles Mitchell, for a reading that emphasizes this point. The will accepts its own condition unflinchingly — "that which we are, we are" — but does not allow the force of external terror to negate it. In the face of death, the comic will asserts an irreducible ego; the acceptance of reality amounts to a triumph over it. The great modern hero is this old man, who has already had his heroic adventures and who now achieves his personality and defines the hope of ours simply by refusing not to be. The comic and heroic will is the poem's subject; its primary motive is the relaxation of ironic tension.
But the tension is relaxed only within, not outside, the poem; for Ulysses, but not for us. The view of heroism is made comprehensive as well as intense, and it is this completeness that causes the escape to be closed to us. The force of the will projected here is enormous, but it is also, we sense, highly specialized. The poem lacks entirely comedy's usual sense of inclusiveness. "Ulysses" deals just as powerfully and rigorously with what the hero cannot accept as with what he can; nearly half the poem is devoted to sloughing off the encumbrances that stand in the way of this narrow solution. Because the poem is so explicit about this pruning, we can see the magnitude and variety of the human spirit being sacrificed for its heroic but naked endurance. The result is the only heroism and the only solution to irony now possible, both compelling and impossibly restrictive. Despite the resounding, positive conclusion, the poem has worked to deny us the ability to participate in it uncritically. Though apparently an alternative to "The Lotos-Eaters," then, "Ulysses" operates in much the same way; it presents an answer that dissolves tension for the speaker and increases it for the reader.
The two poems also seem to have similar strategies for attacking the ironic dualism by heightening one-half of it: they both magnify the isolated, individual ego. Though the means of satisfying the ego are very different, perhaps even opposite, in the two poems, both solutions are equally exclusive and equally extreme. Some commentators, in fact, argue that these extremes meet, that Ulysses's desire for life is rooted in a desire for death," This reading, perhaps, [42/43] sacrifices too many important distinctions for this striking similarity, but it is true that both poems are very uneasy with social demands, especially the sense of social acceptance that is central to comedy. In place of this society they are forced to offer substitutes: the extraordinary fellowship of death in "The Lotos-Eaters" or, in "Ulysses," what appears to be some highly dexterous faking.
For "Ulysses" seems to insist absolutely on the final separation of the individual from communal values: the only hope for the existence of the self is in isolation. The rejection of community begins at once:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. [ll. 1 - 5]
The values associated with unity, order, and harmony, with love, family, and nation, are treated with lofty and imposing contempt. "Little profits" catches exactly the sneer of aristocratic understatement that is so disarming and so insusceptible of argument or reproof. What strikes us here is the control and the breathtaking rapidity with which all these civilized values are swept aside by the rush of the demands of the primitive self. The correctives we might apply are based on moral and social values that have been made irrelevant.
Ulysess proceeds in the next lines with an expansive, positive tone that provides us with a kind of rhetorical breather. His affirmations of a life-hunger act as a form of flattery, emphasizing the indiscriminate richness and value of simple experience. But the real work of this second section (ll. 6-32) is to reinforce the independent power and value of the ego: "I have enjoyed / Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those / That loved me, and alone" (ll. 7-9). Love and all other mere externals are flattened and reduced to insignificance. The affirmations are all on the surface; [43/44] underneath, the paring away continues as we approach nearer to the pure, undisguised self.
When he turns to Telemachus, there is little disguise left. The naked scorn of the opening lines has simply changed to a more confident, if bored, patronizing. Ulysses "accepts" Telemachus and his duties, certainly, but he accepts them as inferior, hardly deserving of his attention. This sense of casual superiority is carried largely by his diction, which is weary, cliché-filled, "official" language. The tinge of parody is most apparent in his compliments: Telemachus is "most blameless" (l. 39) — that is, most mediocre. Ulysses's evident relief at having dismissed this tiresome subject — "He works his work, I mine" (l. 43) — emphasizes the enormous elevation he has attained. The key is "I mine." Ulysses has by now accomplished his own goal: the rigorous and careful definition of the heroic self.
The final section completes the pattern, presumably, by incorporating the triumphant ego of Ulysses into the fellowship of his mariners. From another point of view, he must now turn to the reader and include him in his plans. It is all rhetoric, both in the best and worst senses: it is eloquent persuasion and also mere cajolery. In these lines we hear must clearly the echo of Dante's sinner, who, after a stirring call to his comrades — "Ye were not form'd to live the life of brutes,/ But virtue to pursue and knowledge high" — turns and with a different voice entirely proudly announces the issue of his persuasive powers:
With these few words I sharpen'd for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them
[See Ricks, p. 561. The most interesting examination of the influences on the poem is by B. J. Leggett. Leggett views the influence of Byron as extremely important and notes briefly a parallel that supports the reading of the poem advanced here: "It is evident that in both the Byronic Hero and Ulysses the identification of the self with the external world is qualified by the exclusion of the remainder of mankind" (p. 153).]
There is more than a touch of this self-assured rhetorician in Tennyson's figure. Master of all experience and, by this point in the poem, master of his own situation, Ulysses proceeds to overpower his men — and he nearly overpowers us. But we sense the great [44/45] control and assurance in his language, the uniform public rhythms so very different from the jagged, varied movement earlier. Lines like, "It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, / And see the great Achilles, whom we knew" (ll. 63-64), are striking partly for their quality of heroic understatement, but also for the self-consciousness of this understatement. We apprehend the exhilaration of the lonely and triumphant ego behind all this, and the very magnificence of the language alerts, our critical sense and heightens the tension between sympathy and judgment.
Ulysses finally offers not comic union but absorption into his own ego. Everything in the poem has demonstrated how resistant he is to being reduced to "one equal temper of heroic hearts" (l. 68). The heroic will can triumph only by cutting itself off from the very values it now seeks to affirm. He has defined himself by casting away all communal, ego-reducing ties, and he thus leaves us with no real solution. The final lines sadly reinforce both the greatness and the inaccessibility of the hero. With a finer irony even than the lotos-eaters' appeal to their "brother mariners" to join them in oblivion and death, Tennyson shows the existential hero able to create by his supreme will a unity he cannot join simply because his will is supreme. Ulysses leaves irony behind, but he pays a great price for his escape. And he makes it impossible for us to go with him.
Last modified 28 March 2001