Ulysses

Ulysses departingpublished in 1842

Study Questions to develop literary critical analysis of form, structure, language and context.  The guidelines are suitable for A Level and degree level essays.

Ulysses is about to leave his mountain kingdom of Ithaca on an adventure that might reunite him with the dead Achilles, his companion of the Trojan wars.  The form is one of dramatic monologue.  The poem is a creative meditation on the death of Tennyson’s friend, Hallam – it was completed within three weeks of his early death in 1833.  According to Tennyson the poem was written under ‘a sense of loss and all that had gone by’; this is balanced by his thought that ‘still life must be fought out to the end.’  Tennyson says the chief model was Dante’s Ulisse, a sinner, who sought knowledge and experience.  Ulysses claims to seek knowledge but the reader feels he may be seeking oblivion.

Identify:

  • How inaction and escape are counter balanced.
  • How useful noble work is set against travel and the exotic.
  • How the hero is cut off from his fellows.
  • Note the four sections: two declare nobility of aim and two which run counter.
  • 1-5: restless, bitter rejection of domesticity.  Metaphorically drinking life ‘to the lees’ suggests he is indiscriminate.  He demeans Penelope, who had rejected many suitors whilst waiting for him to return.
  • 6-32: the gloriously remembered and celebrated past.  Identify the rhetorical, lyrical, Homeric resonance and deeds of heroism.
  • 33-43: Flat rhythm, bored acceptance of need for civic virtues.
  • 47-70: Final peroration. Attempt to resolve tensions through grandeur of language and poetic decorum.

Also:

  • Note how blank verse (10 syllables to the unrhymed line) used to show the speaker’s different tones and feelings  Address the different feelings (briefly stated above) of each part of the poem and consider how the following are used to make them clearer:
    • Use of caesuras
    • Enjambment
    • repetition
    • use of a list
    • metaphor
    • alliteration
    • Assonance
    • Use of the iambic ˘ ˉ to convey sense of a person speaking
    • Variation from the predominating iambic form with the trochee ˉ ˘, at the beginning of some lines e.g. ‘Match’d with’.
    • Words/phrases suggesting
    • limitation
    • negative qualities
    • other Rhetorical devices such as appeals, imperatives
    • aphorisms

Ithaca represents limitation of human action. There is sterility and stagnation in ‘idle’, ‘still’, ‘barren’, ‘savage’ which is antithetically placed against the elevated and stirring language which describes the yearning for a final heroic voyage before death.

  • Find and analyse examples of elevated and stirring language

The poem can be read as one about the will and self-determination.

  • Where does Ulysses reject the values of community, security and domesticity in favour of masculine camaraderie and adventure which is both exhilarating and saddening?

—oOo—

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