Tennyson’s Ulysses as a Dramatic Monologue

Ulysses Tennyson

Ulysses Tennyson Dramatic Monologue

The observation that Ulysses is a monologue, but it cannot be properly called a dramatic monologue will have to be taken with a grain of salt. It may be that the poem lacks this or that quality of a dramatic monologue, still it possesses main features of this poetic species. Before we discuss whether Ulysses is a monologue or a dramatic monologue, we should see the main features of the dramatic monologue.

The dramatic monologue is the detached speech in which the monologuist takes some individual at a highly critical moment of his life, and instead of dissecting him from the outside, as an ordinary novelist would do, he penetrates to the depth of his nature and through his speech makes him unfurl his mind his motive, good or bad, his personality, his outlook on life, etc. In short, the dramatic monologue is essentially a study of character, of mental states, of moral crises, made from within.

It is predominantly psychological, analytical and argumentative like the soliloquy. But while in a soliloquy the person concerned speaks to and argues with himself, in a dramatic monologue the speaker speaks and addresses his arguments to a person or persons who generally keep silent.

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Since the dramatic monologue deals with the most momentous event in the life of the speaker, it plunges headlong into the crisis at the very outset. As such it has an abrupt and very arresting beginning, suggesting that the present situation is a continuation of something that has gone before.

Though the ideal aim of a dramatic monologue is the faithful self-portrayal, without ulterior purpose, of the personality of the supposed speaker, in actual practice it is commonly used as the medium of the poet’s own philosophy

Judged by the above criterion Ulysses is a fine specimen of the dramatic monologue, Tennyson here catches Ulysses at a critical moment of his life, the moment when he has come back home after long perilous adventures on sea and has to decide whether he will pass the rest of his life enjoying the comforts of home life or in sea-faring as before, and lays bare his (Ulysses’s) mind his attitude to life, his temperament and mood. The poem is not only psychological, but argumentative also. Ulysses argues why he cannot rest from travel. He is determined to drink life to the lees. He has seen and known much, but he is not satisfied with the experience he has had, because

“…all experience is an arch wherethro

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move”

He thinks it unbecoming man to cease from work, and rust away his life through inactivity.

Knowledge is limitless while the life of a man is short. Knowledge is so vast that life piled on life is not sufficient for acquiring all the knowledge that there is in the world. In one life a man can learn only a small fraction of this vast knowledge, if he devotes every hour to activity. If he rests from the pursuit of knowledge in his old age, he will learn almost nothing. So Ulysses urges his mariners,

“To follow knowledge, like a sinking star

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

He is fired with the aspiration for the unattainable and infinite. The fire in his mind has not been extinguished by the frost of old age. He resolves

“To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

Ulysses has an abrupt and very arresting beginning. It opens with a reference to the suggestion of his mariners that Ulysses should spend his old age comfortably at home with his wife and govern his kingdom:

“It little profits that an idle king

By this still hearth, among…. “

Tennyson plunges headlong into the crisis at the very outset.

Ulysses lacks the dramatic detachment on the part of the poet. Tennyson has not been able to keep himself in the background. While describing Ulysses’s outlook on life he reveals his own considered philosophy of life. This intrusion of the poet’s personality leads some critics to take Ulysses to be a monologue, and not a dramatic monologue. This is a piece of shallow criticism. Let theory alone, the dramatic monologue like other forms of literature, has been commonly used (even by R. Browning in The Last Ride Together) as the vehicle of a poet’s philosophy. The drama which is said to thrive on detachment has been mostly used as the medium of the dramatist’s philosophy, Shakespeare not accepted.

To conclude, Ulysses is a dramatic monologue, and not a monologue.

3 thoughts on “Tennyson’s Ulysses as a Dramatic Monologue”

  1. Hi Somnath, an excellent effort to promote the English language and the richness of its literature. You should have a section on Indian writing in English.

    I would also recommend that you give a brief introduction about the poem and the author in the beginning to help those who are not familiar with the author or the passage.

    Good job and keep it up.

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