Sunday 24 August 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: U is for 'Ulysses' and You

Alfred, Lord  Tennyson probably wasn’t thinking of the ageing head of a British intelligence service giving evidence at a government inquiry when he wrote the closing lines of the 1833 poem ‘Ulysses’, any more than Homer was when he wrote the epic which featured this same title character.

Yet there’s something about Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ which gives it a universal resonance – a resonance which Sam Mendes taps into in the 23rd Bond film Skyfall - despite the foreignness of the names and places the speaker mentions (‘the rainy Hyades’, ‘windy Troy’, ‘Telemachos’, ‘the great Achilles’) and the exceptional nature of Ulysses’s experiences.

This identification between speaker and reader is as a result of several factors. The dramatic monologue form which the poem exemplifies is all about eliciting sympathy for the speaker from the reader. As our sympathy increases here, so Tennyson’s language becomes less specific, allowing us not just to feel with, but to feel ourselves aligned to, the speaker. In the closing section, which Judi Dench’s M quotes from, individualised classical place names are replaced by a desire to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and ‘seek a newer world’, while Ulysses’s final words are addressed to the suitably vague, yet emotive, ‘my friends’.

The other reason of course that so many see themselves in ‘Ulysses’, is that the poem is ultimately about the contemplation of mortality – something unmistakeably universal. The claim ‘that which we are, we are’ is as firm and absolute an assertion, as it is a generic one, while the famous ambiguity of the final line, suggesting defeat by ending on the word ‘yield’ even as it declares the opposite, combines two of societies fantasies about death and how the old meet it – either with acceptance or defiance.

Yet what makes ‘Ulysses’ an even more appropriate choice of poem for M, than for you or me, is the poem’s commentary on (specifically British) empire. Tennyson’s poem has often been read with an eye to colonialism, as Ulysses longs to conquer new worlds, despite reduced strength, and fuelled by desire to live up to former glory. In a changing world, M argues that individual valour, ambition and camaraderie are still relevant. And these are the qualities which Western literature’s first great individual hero – and James Bond! – exemplify.

What should be ‘V’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist! And you can check out A-T here!

1 comment:

  1. I love Odysseus and the whole of Greek Literature. Odysseus is an idol of mine. When I came to Tennyson's Ulysses in the rightful order - after the Greeks - I cried. Cried because I think Odysseus did never embrace his end. Yet how could he? His lifelong goal was heroism. It reminds me of the error one makes in choosing happiness as one's life goal: an unattainable pursuit.