Ulysses’ Alter Egos
In the poem, “Ulysses,” Lord Alfred Tennyson presents a hero of split characteristics. He is torn between two conflicting egos—one a heroic leader who exhibits noble and righteous virtue and other a ruthless and cunning character who threatens to destroy him and those who follow. The poem consists of four verse paragraphs. The tone, syntax, diction, and structure alter from verse paragraph to the next as his moods swing. The second and fourth verses focus on Ulysses’ strength as a noble character, but the third and fourth focus on his selfish egoism. As he contemplates turning his back on his responsibility at home with his wife Penelope, he internally struggles with the temptation of sailing away to fulfill his dreams. Ulysses struggles with his moral obligations to his wife and his social obligations to others, two contradictory impulses that threaten to destroy him.
Initially, Ulysses is struck the barrenness of life in Ithaca in the opening lines of the poem. The diction exemplifies his haughty attitude toward his “idle,” “still,” “barren,” “aged,” and “unequal” setting. He feels alone and empty. He longs for his successful past of heroic domination. He wants to return to his days of glory, and turn his back on his responsibilities and follow his dreams. The syntax impatiently pushes down on the last word of the sentence, “me,” as he dismisses any thought of Penelope and his responsibilities. He disregards his wife, egocentrically yearning for the glory of his past. In addition, the tone of the first five lines is scornful. He denounces his followers, the men who fight beside him, as men who “hoard, and sleep, and feed” with “mete and dole” punishments. He dubs this a “savage” race, blaming them for his personal problems. His character in the initial lines of the poem portrays his callous egoism, which threatens to bring him down.
In the first half of the second verse, lines 6-18, Ulysses’ tone changes to a more...
Cited: Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “Ulysses.” The Norton Anthology 8th ed. The Victorian Age
Greenblatt, Stephen. New York: W W North & Company, 2006. 1123.
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