“Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as a Farewell Speech
The legend of Ulysses is one which has been told and retold many times. In fact the truth of Ulysses is largely unknown in that there are too many accounts to distinguish what is fact and what is fiction. Homer’s The Odyssey is perhaps the most famous– and fantastical– account of the life of Ulysses. The Odyssey lays claim to much of the story of Ulysses and many of the events alluded to within the poem “Ulysses” find their origins in Homer’s The Odyssey. When read shallowly, the poem “Ulysses” serves to chronicle the past life of legend and Greek hero Ulysses, and to lament on the sorrows of getting older. However, upon deeper analysis one can conclude that among this story of conquest and old age lies a deeper truth. Through the use of figurative language Alfred, Lord Tennyson suggests that Ulysses knows his time of death is coming. Furthermore there is a certain acceptance and even excitement for this death, in that the poem alludes to even more travel and exploration through and after death.
The language most indicative of a farewell occurs in the second stanza. When we think of death and family we consider inheritance. The middle stanza is dedicated to Telemachus. Telemachus is Ulysses’ son and his only living heir. Ulysses addresses his son directly in this portion of the poem. “Telemachus, to whom I leave the sceptre and the isle…” (33-34). The language in this quote directly corresponds to a passing of power that occurs when one dies in Ancient Greece. Ulysses’ impending death is alluded to by the way he addresses his son and heir. He goes on to say “when I am gone… [Telemachus] works his work. I mine.”(43). This not only supports the idea that Ulysses is using this speech to pass power to his son, but it also introduces the idea that even in death Ulysses will have work to do. Furthermore this work is classified as ‘his,’ meaning work that involves traveling, exploring, learning etc. The concrete nature of Tennyson’s language is easy to interpret. In other places in the poem Tennyson uses figurative language which can offer multiple interpretations, but in this portion of the poem Tennyson abandons figurative language and speaks plainly about the duties Telemachus is to have after the death of his father. Ulysses’ knowledge of his own death is supported by his bequeathing of his “sceptre and isle” to Telemachus. Other, more figurative, language within the poem supports the claim that Ulysses knows he will die soon as well as the idea of his ‘job’ not being finished.
The first stanza, from lines one to thirty two, contains self congratulatory rhetoric which summarizes all which makes Ulysses the legend he claims to be. The line most telling of his self assurance occurs almost midway through the stanza. Ulysses claims he has “become a name; For always roaming with a hungry heart…”(11-12). The language here alludes to a sort of alienation from his own personhood, suggesting rather that he is a concept or thing. Before and after this line, where he reflects on his own conceptual being, he is remembering his role as a traveller and explorer. It is in the first half of this stanza, where ideas of his legacy and past excursions are established and substantiated. It is important for Tennyson to start with the legacy and myth of Ulysses, for if he had neglected to mention Ulysses’ fame, his death and his acceptance of death would be less significant.
In the latter half of the first stanza, Tennyson introduces ideas of aging and death. In the first stanza Tennyson is merely lamenting through Ulysses about the hardships that come with old age. Ulysses’ most prominent characteristic is his need for new experiences and lands. He doesn’t favor a life of leisure, he mentions “how dull it is to pause” or in other words how boring life is without the constant excitement of conquests and excursions. If it were not for Ulysses’ old age he would still be out in the world finding new lands to explore. The last few lines in the first stanza offer many images of aging and death. He first suggests that “little [time] remains” this implies that he doesn’t have much time left until “eternal silence” or death arrives (26-27). These images are very clear in that Ulysses believes he will die soon. He refers to himself as a “gray spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star” (30-31). This quotation plays on two central themes of this poem: Ulysses’ impending death, and his unwaning legacy. There are a lot of images to unpack in this part of the poem. The connotations of “gray spirit” suggest both an aging and death. “Sinking star” is particularly powerful, the metaphor enforces Ulysses’ fame and suggest his death in “sinking.” The language describing the emotions of Ulysses start to shift from a discontentment surrounding old age to a worry surrounding his death and thus an inevitable end to exploration and new knowledge. Ulysses’ fear is not in death itself, but rather in the idea of a barrier stopping him from continuing to explore, learn, and travel.
In the last part of Tennyson’s poem the tone changes. Ulysses speaks about aging and his death with an acceptance and excitement instead of frustration. He’s no longer lamenting over what was, rather he is lauding at what is to come. He calls out “Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world” (56-57). There is no world more unknown to living people than hell, or hades itself. Tennyson describes Ulysses’ journey to and through death.
“The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds/To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars, until I die./ It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:/It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,/And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.”
Ulysses knows that death is coming, and he is determined not to let anything stop him from being himself: an explorer and traveller. Here the “Happy Isles” refer to hades. We can be even more sure of Ulysses’ own self awareness by the fact that he mentions Achilles. Achilles is someone with whom Ulysses fought in the Trojan War, Achilles unfortunately died. The suggestion that Ulysses will be able to meet and see his friend Achilles, who is known to be dead, supports the claim that Ulysses will die and he’s not only aware of his fate, but he accepts it. The poem ends with the lines: “Made weak by time and fate, strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (69-70). Ulysses is now old and weak because of his adventures, but he will continue to be an explorer and adventurer through death and into the afterlife.
It is largely because of Ulysses’ legacy that he is okay with the idea of dying. Ulysses is a traveller before, through, and after death and for this reason he is not afraid to die. He is simply ready to “seek a newer world” (57). Furthermore because of his “[becoming] a name” he is can never really die. People can die, but names can not. Ulysses claims he is “ part of all that [he has] met” (18). In other words he lives on after death not only through exploring hades, but through the people he has met and influenced throughout his travels chronicled in The Odyssey. Ulysses has no fear of death because death is simply the next great adventure and legends never die. They get reimagined time and time again throughout history and literature. The legend, myth, and story of Ulysses has lived on centuries after it’s original conception and for that reason Ulysses does not fear the death he knows is coming.
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