Odyssean Inferno

by D.J.M.

Grasping the pen in need of something, anything to pull you up and make sense out of life’s struggles, some reason to go on and some place to go on to. Tennyson turned to poetry at an early age, due to an unhappy home life. His writing skills enable him to cope well with the dark moments of life. Tennyson’s choosing the mythic hero Ulysses as the speaker of his poem “Ulysses” is key to its interpretation and help in carrying him through the pain and loss of his close friend.

Andrew McCulloch points out that, “From early childhood, poetry was intensely important to Tennyson as a refuge from his extremely unhappy home life” (McCulloch). This refuge in poetry was sought as Tennyson drafted “Ulysses” while “waiting for an Italian ship with its dark freight to bring Hallam’s body home to England. Images of dark seas, doomed vessels and death pervade the text (Martin 185-186). The same year that Arthur died, 1833, Tennyson’s brother Edward was admitted to a mental asylum. “In 1839, Alfred and Emily were officially engaged. By 1840, they were officially unengaged. Emily’s father had put a stop to the match, supposedly because Alfred was too poor to marry” (MacLeod).

The real reason for the separation is more likely that Tennyson’s opium addict brother Charles drove Emily’s sister to her eventual collapse, strongly affecting feelings toward Alfred Tennyson (MacLeod). Tennyson opposed opium use to the point of commenting on it in his poem “Lotos-Eaters,” but his “gypsy look, long hair, watery wide eyes–along with his artistic temperament, habitual pipe smoking, and trance-like imagery, all lent themselves to his unwelcome characterization as a possible drug user” (Platizky) After their separation, Tennyson threw himself into traveling and studying, becoming proficient in several languages (MacLeod).

The earliest surviving complete stanza that exists from Tennyson’s youth was written when he was around the age of eight,

Whateer I see, whereer I move
These whispers rise & fall away;
Something of pain, of loss, of love,
But what, twere hard to say (Martin 22),

This piece already indicates that at a very young age, a profound connection with his emotions has already been established, already acquainted with pain and loss and love. “The emotional crisis of Hallam’s death along with other unfortunate life circumstances encouraged and allowed Tennyson to find a public place and voice for what had, until then, been an essentially personal art” (McCulloch).

Writing about ones emotions, illness and traumas has a beneficial effect on ones health (Positive Psychology Center). Writer and therapist Kate Evans MA, BSc reports, “the rhythms of poetry stimulate the part of the brain which governs emotion. Being forced to put these emotions down on paper brings about a kind of order and control” (Evans). To illustrate an example from “Ulysses,”

Tennyson loved to create sonorous, high-sounding verse, particularly by setting different vowel sounds closely against each other. The style is often intensely slow moving and languorous, and parts of the poem need to be read in a slow or chanting voice: “The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices” (University of Buckingham).

Another poetic device Tennyson uses is the taking on of someone of a different time and who is older in years. He could be “assuming the voice of old men to stress a weary sadness” (qtd. in Davis). Taking on the voice of this ancient hero could act as a bridge to Ulysses’ wisdom, strength and experience. Tennyson may be setting up a relation ship or situation in the poem that is analogous to one that he is experiencing and that he wants to see from a different point of view, identifying his events with the events that are going on in Ulysses’ life. Perhaps this exercise can give him distance, strength and insight into his life situation.
Evans speaks of the benefit of the publishing step of writing, while supporting the previous point,

To move from therapeutic to truly publishable writing, however, can be a big step. The art of adapting for a market, editing and re-working is a difficult one to learn especially when it feels like the words have been squeezed from your soul. It can be a valuable experience. Taking another person’s point of view, for instance, can be a way of getting another perspective on what is going on in your life (Evans).

A poet of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s stature, who has won high titles by his writing, Poet Laureate and baron, is surely well skilled in the publishing step of writing and aware of any benefits that the publishing stage has to offer. The publication of a poem that gives honor and respect to a Homeric hero is in keeping with the traditions of the aristocratic warrior society that Ulysses was a part of and that Tennyson perhaps feels a part of with his circle of friends, A. H. Hallam having been one of them.

Dante’s Inferno Canto 26 was a source that Tennyson used for Ulysses as well as Homers Iliad and Odyssey. Dante, being Roman offers a less than flattering image of Ulysses, but Tennyson takes much from Dante’s account and gives Ulysses a more positive spin. Ulysses is in Dante’s inferno for a number of reasons, his insatiable desire for knowledge and seeking for new and unknown things and places are a few. The Romans had a less than flattering view of Ulysses the “dreadful” as he was the trickster who thought up the device which led to their defeat at Troy (Rosenberg).

In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses represents strength, experience, leadership (lines 13-15), coming to terms with old age and his abilities, self-awareness (49-53), recognition of his skills and role in society (1-6, 33-43). He has synthesized experience into wisdom and knowledge and thirsts for more (18, 31-32), he desires to go on with life without pause and to be useful (1-5, 22-23,30-32), and he represents the epic quest of life to the point of chasing his own death (57-70). The above all are traits that can be drawn from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

Anne Hudson Jones notes that, “most people choose the archetypal myths of battle, journey, and death and rebirth in writing their pathographies” (Jones). A pathography is an accounting of ones illness, a somewhat new genre that is catching on and becoming very popular. The University of Buckingham observes that Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,”

has been a favourite of explorers and mountaineers, and other people who have pushed themselves to extremes. Ulysses has fought his way through the ten years’ Trojan war, and experienced huge adventures on the way to his island home of Ithaca (University of Buckingham)

One element of the poem that seems to have been overlooked in its possible translations is when Ulysses addresses his mariners. Which mariners is he addressing? It seems from the poem, that he is addressing the companions who battled with him at Troy and accompanied him on his journey home. According to Homer, these mariners all died on their way home. Why would he be speaking to dead mariners? Does Ulysses represent Arthur already dead, on his last voyage west, beyond the Pillars of Hercules (44-70)?
“The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (55-57).
Whose voices do the deep moan round with? Are the drowned mariners calling out to Ulysses? Might Arthur be calling his friends to seek a newer world? There are eerie images of night sea journeys into the unknown, “Beyond the utmost bound of human thought,” suggested through out this poem (Rowlson).

What did Tennyson say the poem is about? Asking the author would be the simplest way to gain insight into a poem,

“It was partly his attempt to come to grips with grief, to speak about the need to keep going with the struggle of life. As he said himself: ‘The poem was written soon after Arthur Hallam’s death, and it gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life.” (University of Buckingham)

The number of interpretations that this short poem has illustrates the great thing about poetry. “A poem may simply be running through ideas or emotions, expressing multiple viewpoints at once, never coming to any particular conclusions. Poetry doesn’t have to mean anything, it can be an exercise in creativity, a coping tool or something that someone just does” (Davis).

Tennyson’s was not an easy life and he likely worked through a lot of his troubles through writing. His choosing of Ulysses was key and relevant to his coping at time in his life. His life circumstances at the time of composing the poem are key to the understanding of why he wrote it.


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