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I would like to begin today’s
presentation by asking those in the audience to consider a few questions. What
is the meaning to your life? Is it the goals and ideals that
you strive towards? How do you find fulfilment and live a life worth
remembering? As humans, the search for answers to these questions is a timeless
pursuit. As a society we also work towards bettering ourselves, constantly critiquing
the way things are to build a better future. For me, one of the most powerful
examples of the timelessness of these ideas lies within the 200-year-old lines
of the poem Ulysses. Written by Lord
Alfred Tennyson in the year 1833, Ulysses
describes a journey “bathed in the western stars”. It talks about the unyielding
spirit of life and adventure, and even exposes relevant political issues. Good
morning/afternoon ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jesse Xie and
today I will be introducing you to the poem, the protest and the story that is
Tennyson’s Ulysses.


In his epic poem Odyssey,
the ancient Greek poet Homer writes about the travels of a hero named Odysseus,
whose Latin name translates to Ulysses.
Odysseus travels the land, fighting countless battles to claim back his
kingdom More than a millennium later,
Tennyson uses the persona of Ulysses in his poem of the same title. In
Tennyson’s poem, however, he is an aged king who has grown weary of this
kingdom that he once fought so hard to regain. Tennyson
uses Ulysses’ monologue: his displeasure at his stagnant life, the disapproval
he holds for his son and his yearning for adventure in order to make various
social comments, namely the uncertainty around science versus religion in the
Victorian era as well as even challenging the class structure of the time. 

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One of the reasons that Tennyson wrote the poem was to mourn his close friend Arthur
Henry Hallam’s passing. Tennyson makes a promise to honour Hallam’s memory by
living out a fulfilling life of his own. But the reason why Tennyson’s
message to Hallam is so significant to the time is because of the prevalence of
social Darwinism in the 19th century. During this time, people were
beginning to accept the ideas published in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, creating a lot of
controversy and doubts about the teachings of the church. Did humans really evolve
from apes? Did this mean that God doesn’t exist, and there is no life after
death? People began to question what they knew about death, the meaning of
life, their very existences.


Tennyson’s message and promise can be
clearly seen in the lines of Ulysses. In
the opening stanza, the narrator describes himself as an ‘idle king…by a still
hearth, among… barren crags, match’d with an aged wife’. The words “barren”,
“aged” and “idle” all create a feeling of stagnation and frustration. The
societal attitudes of the time are exposed by Ulysses’ life as king: a metaphor
of the uncertainty caused by Darwinism in Victorian society.


However, this is not the full extent of
Tennyson’s commentary. As the poem progresses, the narrator begins to describe
his memories of past adventures and then looks with hope towards the future.
Earlier symbols of idleness are juxtaposed with symbols of freedom; and a more
resolute tone can be observed as the narrator describes ‘touching the Happy
Isles”, or “sailing beyond the sunset… and the baths of the Western Stars”. The
stars and the sunset: classic symbols of freedom and magnificence. The imagery
created by these symbols is one of blissful freedom and joy – this is the way
Ulysses and every one of us, want to live our lives. We get the feeling that
through the narrator, Tennyson is making not just a social comment about the
divide in beliefs of Victorian society, but a timeless rally for people to live
life to the fullest.


In spite of all this, we cannot forget
that in the Victorian era, many people did not have the same notions of life
and freedom as we do today. Another one of the biggest social changes that
characterised the Victorian era was the emergence of the middle class. Before
this, the social system was rigidly divided into the lower working class and
the nobility, who benefited immensely by exploiting the lower classes. However,
major social changes such as the industrial revolution empowered individuals to
finally rise out, meaning that the Victorian era was the first time that the
nobility could effectively be criticised or challenged.


Reading through the poem, one quickly notices that the
second stanza of Ulysses is very
different in style; and it is using this difference that Tennyson is able to
subtly convey his criticisms about the Victorian nobility. After lamenting his
stagnant role of king, the narrator goes on to passionately describe his ideals
towards life: “How dull it is to pause, to make an
end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe
were life!” He dreams of “following knowledge like a sinking
star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Ulysses’ travels and adventures are frequently brought up throughout the
course of the poem; in fact they are recurring motifs representing excitement
in life.


However, a lot of this energy and passion is dissipated when we move
onto the second stanza. Here, Ulysses speaks of his son Telemachus, who is to
take over his position one day. “Most
blameless is he, centred in the sphere 

Of common duties… he works his work, I mine.” He praises his son for his skill in administrative duties, but by
describing his son as blameless, his tone seems quite disinterested. The last
line hits particularly hard: “he works his work, I mine”: he segregates himself
from his son as he feels that Telemachus cannot understand his adventurous
spirit. This is a far cry from the energetic tones that we have previously


Moreover, we can see from the opening lines of the poem that the
narrator regards his people as a “savage race”. He admits that his laws are
“unequal”. Furthermore, the largest sections of the poem are dedicated to his descriptions
of adventure, leaving the smallest section by far to a seemingly unenthusiastic
description of his son, who evidently possesses the skills as a king that he
does not. Tennyson appears to characterise the narrator as a flawed,
narrow-minded king who cares not for the people and is interested solely on his
own self-fulfilment: a direct parallel to the  Victorian nobility. He presents a criticism
that is relevant to both Victorian society and our governments today. And
indeed in present day, where the actions of many governments seem to get more
and more questionable, we could certainly all use a reminder about the
importance of criticising these figures of authority for the good of our


Through the words of aged Greek hero, Tennyson
makes more than just a social comment about Victorian times; he rallies
humanity to live fulfilling lives and rise out of oppression. Ulysses is a
story about the human spirit. It is an exploration of the meaning of life. It
is the brave voice of protest against injustice. This has been Tennyson’s Ulysses, and as we all leave here today,
back to sailing through the rainy Hyades and the Happy Isles that are our
lives, I bid us all safe journey. 

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