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May 27, 2024

"Ulysses," Tennyson, and the Folly of Time

By Michael G. Cornelius

I was first introduced to Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses" in Mrs. David's twelfth-grade English class. Millicent David, enamored of British poetry, had us read the poem, analyze it, and break its meaning down into high-school senior-ese. The general consensus, as I recall, was that the poem was about the passing of time and the ravages of old age, and how humanity tends to become complacent and dull as time goes by. Ulysses deigns to fight this; he hungers for the adventures of his youth, and longs to "sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die" (60-61). I remember Mrs. David smiling at us when we proffered this response, her wide eyes beaming from behind her Sophia-Loren eyeglasses. "Very good, class," she'd say in her inimitably nasal New York accent. Then we moved on to Keats' "Ozymandias." But it wasn't all "very good" for me. "Ulysses" disturbed me, and for the life of me, I could not figure out why. My seventeen-year-old brain could not decipher exactly what it was about Tennyson's "Ulysses" that made my blood run cold; I only knew and could only say, in the frustrated manner of those unused to and untrained in literature, that "I didn't like it."

I had always liked the original story of Ulysses, Homer's Odyssey, a tale of monsters and mettle and myth. I remember aching for Odysseus as he tried -- desperately -- to get home to Ithaca. I had assumed that I would like other versions of the story as well. Yet I truly didn't like this poem. But I couldn't figure out why.

Years later I returned to Tennyson, to look at his Arthurian works, and I stumbled across "Ulysses." I remembered my initial revulsion to the piece, and I wondered if now, after a decade of training in English literature, I might be able to figure out why I disliked this poem so much. I read it again, and this time, key words and phrases stuck in my mind: "still;" "barren;" "aged;" "gray spirit;" "much have I seen and known;" "to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish'd;" "Old age hath yet his honor and his toil" (2, 3, 30, 13, 22-23). I read the piece again and again, and each time I found more words like these, more words denoting decay, complacency, death and decline. It seems apparent that Ulysses feels trapped and useless; an "idle king," as he calls himself (1). Just as we had discussed so many years ago in senior English, he hungers for the excitement of the sea.

Then it hit me -- he doesn't hunger for the excitement of the sea. Not Ulysses -- or rather, not Odysseus. In the story I was familiar with, the hero of the work only longs to return home. He does not crave the excitement; he abhors it. His wife was not "aged," but faithful and true, beautiful and dutiful, waiting for her husband's return. Their son, "mine own Telemachus," was never their son; forced to abandon him as a youth, Odysseus longed to see the boy he had only known as a babe (33). This was the piece that I had been missing. Ulysses should be longing for those things he decries most: family, marriage, home, consistency, complacency. He spent twenty long years battling for these things; why, as his life nears its completion, should he want to give them up now?

I kept asking myself questions. Doesn't Ulysses (and by rights, Tennyson,) remember the pain caused by his great absence? Doesn't he remember the struggle to escape the Cyclops, the journey to the underworld, and the fight to regain his kingdom? How could a man so beset upon by misfortune forget it all as his own time on this earth waned? Why, when his end is so near, should he yearn for that which he so long fought against?

I longed for answers to these questions. James R. Kincaid concludes that while on the surface Ulysses is a hero, he is not "another indomitable superman, beyond the reach of time and death. He, in fact, grants the power of circumstance, even of age and physical weakness. He does not stand above these forces, but is caught by them, and he knows it" (41). Kincaid goes on to add that Ulysses "refuses to see himself as a victim and thus provides an answer to irony: the undefeated will. [Thus] the great modern hero is this old man, who has already had his heroic adventures and who now achieves his personality and defines the hope of ours by refusing not to be" (42). Kincaid concludes that the poem is about the hero's inability to accept the life he now has; "nearly half of the poem is devoted to sloughing off of the encumbrances that stand in [his] way" (42).

And this is how Tennyson so aptly (if unconsciously) demonstrates the great folly of time. It is the passage of time that causes humanity forget that which was once so important, and also results in a growing fondness for that which we once so detested. Time, in this instance, in neither our friend nor our enemy, but a great and powerful lord, enjoying a hearty laugh at our expense. Time has caused Ulysses to forget that which he holds so dear; it causes him to devalue the very things he once struggled so hard to reach. His wife, dear Penelope, he rejects, considering her to be "aged;" his son, "mine own Telemachus," he patronizes; as Kincaid notes, "Ulysses accepts Telemachus and his duties, certainly, but he accepts them as inferior, hardly deserving of his attention" (42). Ulysses' once beloved son, a duty? His once beloved home, inferior? His once beloved wife, rejected? Yes -- and thus the reader sees how time makes fools of humanity. Time and its passage has caused Ulysses to idolize that which he once fought against, because the expansive passage of time since he has returned home has caused him to devalue that which he once held so dear. In other words, Ulysses faces a double-edged sword: for him, time has dulled the sharpest of his emotions, and a long span of contented living has caused him to rebel against home and hearth. Yet in the same vein, time has also caused Ulysses to recall fondly a less-than-pleasant experience from his earlier life. He looks back on his earlier adventures with fondness, not because he enjoyed them, but because they were fraught with danger. Never had Ulysses so lived (or so he now believes) than when he clung to his rough raft, bouncing precariously from one wave to the next.

Thus, I had found the crux of the poem. Ulysses longs to return to the sea and his earlier adventures because -- to use the vernacular -- he is bored. "Idle," he says, the very first word he uses to describe himself; he is an "idle king." Ennui is his enemy, that great harbinger of passing time that has caused him to long for that which he once only wished would end. It seemed underwhelming to me; the great Ulysses, uninterested and jaded. Did this explain my revulsion to the piece? Yes, it did. I, too, suffered an often idle childhood; growing up in a small, rural town, boredom was often my constant companion. I, too, had longed for adventures. Like many rural children, I only thought about getting out, about going somewhere, to college, to camp, anywhere except my deadly dull hometown.

Yet my malaise hardly resulted in my craving the dangers that Ulysses had faced. Does boredom create a need for danger? This seemed a bit too simplistic to explain Ulysses' scorn for his current condition and longing to return to the sea. There must, I reasoned, be something else.

I returned again to Homer's text. In his original adventures, Odysseus is protected by the gods. Yes, he is buffeted by them as well, especially the vengeful Poseidon, but he is protected by the wise goddess Athena. There is an overwhelming sense that not only will Odysseus eventually succeed, but also that he will not die as a result of his adventures; indeed, he is himself told this very thing. This adds an interesting element to his odyssey; if Ulysses was never in danger of dying, and knew that success would eventually be his, then not only would his adventures become a bit more palatable, despite his longing to return home, they may also not be as real to him. Ulysses' adventures thus amounted to little more than the Hellenistic equivalent of virtual reality; everything may seem real, and in fact be real, but safety was guaranteed. Without that reality base in his odyssey, one can somewhat excuse Ulysses' need to return to the sea. For him, it is not only a place of adventure and excitement, but also a place of safety. It suggests within the text of the poem that Ulysses understands this newest journey may result in his demise; "It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles," he says, referring to the underworld (63). However, Ulysses has been to the underworld before, and perhaps he feels this may be a return visit, and not death itself. Ulysses realizes that he is aged, but declares that he will never yield, never surrender. This is hardly the talk of a man prepared to die. Rather, it is the talk of man trying to regain his past, to find his youth again, trying to move backwards, not forwards, trying to relive the safeguarded glory that he once knew for twenty long years.

Ulysses is a man who once defeated time. For twenty years, buffeted by wind and wave and monster and god and mankind, he never wavered, never lost his purpose or his singular desire: to go home. But time has remembered this defeat, and ultimately, it has made a fool of him. It has caused Ulysses to decry that which he once sought so desperately; it has caused him to remember fondly a horrific ordeal; it has caused him to feel invincible at the most vulnerable period in his life. Time has made Ulysses its jester; a man who once had purpose is now purposeless, whose need to seemingly outdo time again, and prove that he is not old, will probably be his undoing.

I once saw a very bad movie that managed to say a very interesting thing about time. At the end of the film, the hero states, "Someone once told me that time is a predator that stalks us all our lives. But maybe time is also a companion ... who goes with us on our journey and reminds us to cherish the moments of our lives -- because they will never come again" (110). In some ways, both of these statements are true. Essentially, though, time is neither of these things. It is not a tiger who pursues us; nor is it a gentle spirit who holds our hands. But it is a very viable entity, and time, like age, can cause us to forget that which we once held so dear, to lose our dignity, and to make fools of ourselves. Ulysses' desperate race against time, in a vain effort to prove something only to himself, will most likely end in what will be to him his own surprising demise. And when that moment comes, he will call out to his wife, to Penelope, and to his son, "mine own Telemachus," but like before, they will not be there for him. But this time, it is not the Trojan War or the will of the gods that separated them; it is Ulysses' own pride, his own foolish desire to escape time yet again. If there is a lesson to be learned from "Ulysses," it is that no one can ever really escape time, and eventually, time will probably make fools of us all. So, in the end, we cannot run away from time; likewise, we really cannot use it as guide or signpost. It is unwavering, unchanging, unyielding; it remains the only constant in modern life. Thusly, perhaps it is best to simply ignore time. It may be an impossible thing to do, but only by not paying time any mind can we live our lives for what is truly important -- life, family, friends, love, home -- those things Homer's Odysseus strove for, but the very things Tennyson's Ulysses foolishly leaves behind.

Works Cited

Kincaid, James R. Tennyson's Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.
Tennyson, Alfred. The Poetical Works of Tennyson. Ed. G. Robert Strange. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
Vornholt, John. Star Trek: Generations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Michael G. Cornelius

Article © Michael G. Cornelius. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-07-09
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