'Ulysses' by Tennyson as a Dramatic Monologue

A dramatic monologue is a lyric poem in which a single imaginary speaker or a historical personage expresses his thoughts and feelings to an imaginary silent audience. The distinguished features of dramatic are as follows.

In this kind of poem a single person, who is apparently not the poet, utters the entire poem in a specific situation at a critical moment.

This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people, but we know of the presence of the audience and its reaction from the clues in the utterance of the speaker.

A dramatic monologue concentrates on the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

Robert Browning is well known for his dramatic monologues. His ‘My Last Duchess,” Andrea del Sarto,” ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Tittonus,” T.S Eliot’s ‘The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ are some of the best known dramatic monologues. Tennyson like another Victorian genius Robert Browing is good at composing dramatic monologues. His well known poem Ulysses is an excellent example of dramatic monologue in which he adopts a classical hero Ulysses or Odysseus as the main character for his work. Here he tries to focus on the adventurous as well as knowledge seeking spirit of Ulysses. But the philosophy of life given through the mouth of Ulysses is actually Tennyson’s own philosophy.

In the poem Ulysses, Ulysses is supposed to be speaking and expressing his thoughts and feelings to the silent listeners. He is standing before the royal palace of Ithaca and speaks before the mariners, who had been his fellow sojourners during his long journey to Troy. The monologue begins with his cynical remarks towards life. .

It little profits that an idle king
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
That hoard and steep and feed and know not me.

Ulysses, the man of nimble wit, is not satisfied with his life among his subjects, who are unaware of his heroic mould. His aged wife ( Penelope) also cannot understand his heroic soul. But his intention is not clear until he says.

I cannot rest from travel, I will drink
Life to the lees.

Here by the word ‘travel’ he means the journey which he made to rescue Helen from Paris and the perilous journey after the destruction of Troy. But he refuses to take rest and is determined to take a life of adventure to the very end. He compares life to a cup of wine. Just a man drinks till he has reached the sediment at the bottom, Ulysses also will taste all aspects of life without leaving anything behind. Through these words, Ulysses’ insatiable passion for knowledge is expressed. He is the man who can never take rest from the pursuit of knowledge.

Ulysses has become old but it is the knowledge and experience which he has gathered so long urges him on even in the old age to sail in quest of knowledge. He knows that a life spent in idleness is no life at all. Just a sword losses its polish and gets rusty when if is kept out of use for longtime, so also vigor and energy will be dulled and blunted if we do not exercise then always. He is perfectly aware that knowledge is vast and unlimited and our life on earth is too short to learn everything. Even a number of lives taken together would be too short for gaining all knowledge. So far he is concerned he has a single life to live. And of this single life too a greater part has already been spent. Only a few years of life are left to him. Hence he is determined to make the best of every moment of the remaining years of his life. To him an hour spent in some profitable work means an hour saved from the silence of death.

But the monologue of Ulysses reaches to the point of climax, when he inspires his sailors and makes on appeal to them to enter upon a life of exploration with great courage. He says…

Death closes all, but something ere the end
Some work of noble note, may yet be done.

Ulysses knows that he and his sailors, being old are nearer death, but he has not given up hope and believes that old men also can earn great glory and achieve great deeds. So, he inspires his sailors to achieve some great deeds even in their old age before thy die. The paths of knowledge may be full of dangers, but he is strongly determined. And finally he makes a noble resolution to carry on his quest. He is not upset by the passing away of his youth and bodily strength. He knows that even old age cannot rob great men of their courage, bravery and other spiritual qualities. Therefore, he asks his sailors to show the same courage that they had in youth. He reminds then that everyone of them is brave and strong willed, everyone of them knows how to labor, how to struggle hard and how to pursue a great aim. Everyone of them will tough out any bad situation and never bow his head before hardships or troubles.

Thus, by the monologue Tennyson portrays the character of Ulysses. His portrayal of the character Ulysses deserves huge appreciation for there is a consonantal movement of thought, pervading the character Ulysses from beginning to the end. Every word Uttered by Ulysses helps to constitute the idea that life is short and knowledge is unlimited, so we must not stop from pursuing knowledge.