Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Poems Based on Greek Myths
"The Lotos Eaters" (p. 1887-1890)
Lotos is like a drug. People who ate it became hooked and didn’t want to
work or do anything. They forgot their homes and lost their ambition
to return home.
Similar to opium.
Hard work = good fortune. Must do your duty.
The Duty/Work Ethic was strong in the Victorian era. Ulysses call
to "Courage" (1) is properly Victorian. Theirs is to sail/strive.
Can’t sit around on island and get high.
46 "Choric Song" The chorus in classic drama is a group that plays
a part in the drama & interacts as a group with the individual characters.
Here Ulysses is the individual and his mariners who eat the lotus form
They don't want to work any more. What is the point to all this struggling?
They want to become hippies.
115 What do we have to return to? After 10 years at Troy, our
wives have probably remarried & our children forgotten us.
The mariners' sentiment belongs to a tradition called "lentus
in umbra" - at ease in the shade. As long as they
stay here, they have it made in the shade.
Tennyson does not answer their argument here, but he does in "Ulysses."
"Tithonus" (p. 1893)
Tennyson wrote "Tithonus" and "Ulysses" at the same time - October 20,
1933 - shortly after he had received the news of the death of one of his
best friends, Arthur H. Hallam
Tithonus was a mortal who fell in love with a goddess, rosy-ankled
Dawn. Tithonus asked the goddess that he be permitted to live
forever so that he would not have to leave her. He forgot, however,
to ask for eternal youth, so he was forced to live forever as he got progressively
older and more feeble.
22 he is "immortal age beside immortal youth." Dawn herself doesn't
age. She's still young.
30 wants to die now. He finds immortality "cruel" (5)
49 She can't take back her "gift," so he's stuck.
70ff prays for death again.
"Ulysses" (p. 1891)
"Ulysses" is based on the exerpt from Dante's Inferno that you read.
In Dante's day during the Middle Ages, ambition was bad. A person
should be happy in his or her place.
According to Dante, Ulysses did not return home. He kept exploring
with his crew after they left Circe. In Homer, Odysseus/Ulysses went to
Hades after leaving Circe. Here he almost reaches Purgatory, then
ends up in Hell.
He eventually crossed the barrier set up by Hercules as the limit of human
Tardy with age
Were I and my companions, when we came
To the strait pass, where Hercules ordain'd
The bound'ries not to be o'erstepp'd by man. (xxvi. 118-121)
Ulysses and his men have launched into the Atlantic Ocean. They sail
until they see a giant mountain. This mountain was Purgatory, where
people could have their sins "purged" until they were good enough to enter
For the crime of exceeding human boundaries and trying to reach Purgatory
by their own power rather than by God's grace, Ulysses & his companions
are washed down in the ocean.
Tennyson may deal with the same events in almost the same words, but he
has a very different outlook on Ulysses' ambition. The Victorian
was a time when ambition and striving were good.
Arthur Hallum, Tennyson’s friend, had just died at sea. Tennyson must continue
in his duty anyway. He also needed to find comfort in Hallum's death--he
died as an active man engaged in meaningful activity.
The genre of the poem is dramatic
monologue. It is an ancient genre that had recently been
popularized again by Robert Browning.
Characteristics of a dramatic monologue:
somebody is speaking
the whole poem is the character's speech
the character is in a dramatic setting; there is a particular audience,
time, and place.
the reader must determine from hints in the poem:
the identity of the speaker
the identity of the audience & the relationship between them
the setting & time
the speaker's purpose.
The theme of the poem is the purpose of striving. Unlike the Lotos
Eaters, Ulysses can't be satisfied to be lentus in umbra.
He needs to do something, or he will lose his self-respect.
the speaker is Ulysses.
There are three paragraphs in the poem. Ulysses is the speaker in
all three sections, but the audience, purpose, and setting change each
time, so his purpose changes as well.
In the first paragraph, he is alone. The "hearth" is the fireplace.
It is "still," meaning that the fire is out. Since the fire was used
to cook as well as for heat, the only time is was out was night.
He can't be talking to Penelope, for he calls her his "aged wife."
He wouldn't call her the old lady to her face. He's not talking to
a subject - he calls them a "savage race." He is talking to himself.
His purpose is to determine what to do with the rest of his life.
The second paragraph is Ulysses' abdication speech. The audience
is composed by the citizens of his kingdom. His purpose is to pass
the scepter on to his son. Note the elevated style of his speech,
fitting for a formal state occasion. His subjects are now "a rugged
people" rather than a "savage race."
The third paragraph is Ulysses' speech to his sailors as they prepare to
set sail. His purpose is to inspire them to great achievements.
The purpose of this paragraph is to show Ulysses' motives. WHY would
a king leave his kingdom, a husband his wife, a father his son, and strike
out on his own? What would make a man like John Glenn retire from
the Senate to re-enter space?
(1-5) The poem takes place at the end of Ulysses’ life. He has become sedentary
– not accomplishing anything. Tired of the drudgery of governing.
He is talking to himself. Has decided to leave. King is lonely – no one
knows him. The subjects are like animals - they "feed" rather than
(2) "Still hearth." It’s nighttime.
(12) "I am become a name" – Has 2 meanings -
(18) "I am a part of all that I have met." He keeps some of those
he met with him & leaves some of himself with them.
(20) "Margin" of the world is the horizon and it moves away from him.
The "arch" is the place where is is at the moment. The important
thing to him is where he is going, not where he is.
(23) "rust unburnished" - His armor is probably decorating the wall
above the fireplace. Sword is on wall and rusting – like he is.
(29) "three suns" sometimes = three days, but = three years here.
He could live for three more years if he really took care of himself, but
is that really living? He doesn't want to doze under the lotos tree
or molder in his bed like Tithonus.
he has become a legend
he’s only a legend.
This is the abdication speech. His tone & vocabulary change markedly.
He came back because his son was not yet ready to assume command.
Now he is, and his temperament is such that he can enjoy ruling.
(41) They each have their different tasks. Telemachus' is ruling,
Odysseus' is exploring.
(43) Tennyson changes the story somewhat. According to Homer,
Odysseus was the only survivor of his crew. But here we have his
mariners still surviving. Why? Tennyson knew the story, so
he didn't just slip up. The mariners were the ones who went through
battle and on the ship with him. They are the ones who know him,
so Tennyson changes the story so that some survived. Could Captain
Kirk fly off without Spock, McCoy, and Scotty?
(55) "newer world." Dante mentions the "new land," but he wrote before
Columbus. Tennyson, of course, knew about the "New World."
The United States was a rising power by his time.
(58-59) The direction (toward the western stars) & the time of day
when they leave (sunset) both symbolize the fact that "you and I are old."
Ulysses and his crew are going on their last voyage.
Tennyson uses the 2 possibile outcomes Dante mentioned.
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.
For Ulysses, the outcome is irrelevant. What is important is that
he end his life as he lived it, heroically. He may die, but he'll
do it with his boots on.
They may reach the Happy Isles - the pagan equivalent to heaven, or in
this case Purgatory.
They may be washed down into the sea.