A short response assignment for English 212, Major British Authors: Romantic to Modern, a sophomore British literature survey course taught by Dr. Annette M. Van, written on 15 November 2007 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
A Close Reading of Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses”
by Matt Wallace
In the second stanza (lines 33-43) of his poem, Alfred Tennyson has Ulysses, in an aside, describe his son, Telemachus, in rather mundane and bland terms. This stanza is made more jarring as it is set between two longer, much more exuberant stanzas in which Ulysses portrays himself as the larger than life character he is. In the first stanza (lines 1-32), the brave and clever Ulysses is an aging king grown dissatisfied with his life and longing for the adventures of his prime which he recounts. In the third stanza (lines 44-70), Ulysses exhorts his old crew to join him as he abandons Ithaca and enthusiastically sets off to be Odysseus once more. Placed between these two stanzas, the second stanza appears to be insulting as Telemachus is portrayed as being less worthy than his father, but is it truly so? I assert that Ulysses is actually praising Telemachus and presenting him to the Ithacans as the better king in what is both said and unsaid.
In the second stanza, Ulysses seems to be condemning Telemachus with faint praise. As he abdicates, he acknowledges “my son, mine own Telemachus” and catalogues his abilities as king in seemingly passive terms: “slow prudence,” “soft degrees,” “blameless,” “common duties,” “decent,” “offices of tenderness.” He even seems to suggest that his son isn’t, and never will be, the man his father is: “He works his work, I mine.” Not only is Ulysses proclaiming Telemachus as his true and rightful heir but he also is arguing that his son has all the skills required of a good king. Even the apparent attack on Telemachus’s manhood, is actually praise which pushes the son out from under the father’s shadow. Ulysses thus asserts both his son’s unique manhood and admits that he lacks his son’s kingly skills and is thus less worthy to rule. Ulysses recognizes that his greatness lies in his achievements as a warrior and an adventurer, as the hero Odysseus. He also recognizes that his son’s greatness lies in his ability to govern, a role for which the wise Mentor has thoroughly prepared him in his father’s long absence. Furthermore, he realizes that his people need a great king, not a great hero, and he makes that happen.
Tennyson’s Ulysses also seems to give short shrift to Telemachus by omitting the son’s accomplishments as a man. Ulysses doesn’t have to tell the Ithacans these things as they know them all too well. They knew the loyal son who asserted his presumably dead father’s kingship and defended it against all usurpers — his mother’s suitors and himself included. They knew the dutiful son who journeyed to learn the truth of his father’s fate. They knew the faithful son who brought his father home and helped him kill all of the would-be usurpers. By leaving these facts unstated, Ulysses avoids overselling his son, thus undermining his position as king. For the ancient Greeks, true modesty was that one claimed much, and that one deserved much. It’s one thing for Ulysses to brag on himself and quite another for him to brag on his son. Telemachus and his accomplishments can speak for themselves. Accordingly, the tone and brevity of the comments are an expression of respect and admiration from a father to his son.
Given both what is said and what is unsaid, the second stanza serves as Ulysses’s escape from the burdens of kingship. His people can let him go because his departure will allow the ascension of a better king. Thus, the second stanza is the expression of a father’s love, respect, and pride for his son.