Art speaks to its moment, and our own. We rummage through familiar plays and books, images and songs, apparently secure in our understanding. Then the times shift ever so slightly and new readings appear.
The prospect of Donald Trump as president of the United States sent literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt back to the texts of Shakespeare, thinking again about characters that seemed settled. Suddenly for Greenblatt the texts demanded a new urgency. What could we learn about power from Richard III or from other tyrants in Shakespeare’s cast? They teach of cruelty, of the cynicism of authority in dangerous hands. Revisiting the canon, Greenblatt found Shakespeare warning of chaos when leaders with no administrative capacity or constructive vision seize control. Even reasonably stable societies possess few resources ‘to ward off damage from someone sufficiently ruthless and unscrupulous’.1
Although Greenblatt avoids mention of Trump in Tyrant, we are invited to see contemporary resonance in an old narrative. The printed word has not changed—Coriolanus, Iago and Macbeth remain the same flawed men—but the sense of threat is new. Others have been less subtle drawing parallels—a 2017 production of Julius Caesar in Central Park featured a ‘lead actor who bore an unmistakeable likeness to the forty-fifth president of the United States’2 replete with a long red tie and curious colouring. Conservatives complained, corporate sponsors hastily withdrew from the project, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted his displeasure. Yet the point was made: older texts can speak to the present. Once more, it matters how a martinet gains and holds office, the mechanics of their regime, the meaning of their rise and fall.
Art changes nothing in our world, but it offers a lens on the immediate. There is no Trump equivalent in Shakespeare, just speculation about rhetoric and authority, intention and consequence. A president is not a monarch, nor is a play reliable history. Yet when we tell sad tales of the death of kings, we distil what we know about power. The titles and locations change, yet court politics, trials at home and abroad, and tests of legitimacy face every regime. The great wheel of fortune turns for all. We only glimpse President Trump inside the Oval Office yet know he faces dilemmas explored by Shakespeare, and he may yet share the fate of theatre’s most egregious characters.
To condemn a tyrant is easy. More challenging is to understand the combination of guile and ability, skill with language and speed at grasping opportunity that carries a rogue to high office and enables them, for a while, to stay aloft. Villains make the most compelling roles because they combine great personal failings with charm and good fortune. They beguile with cunning and daring, smile winningly as they show us how to woo the widow of a man they have just killed, or drive an honourable person to madness by playing on jealously. Proud of its power, conscious of its appeal, evil can hold the stage.
The conventions of drama demand such wickedness be punished. The devil may get all the best lines, but humiliation and banishment, defeat and even assassination await. Tyrants must suffer a downfall because otherwise there is no justice, no satisfactory close to the drama.
Life is not always so obliging.
Shakespeare offers an unparalleled bestiary of powerful characters to deplore, but other artists too provide portraits of imperfect women and men who also garner supporters, cajole and flatter, inspire and threaten. To grasp the attraction of a magnetic leader, we must understand ourselves—why are we susceptible to charisma, why do self-confidence and charming words so compel attention? A leader needs followers, so we must understand the temptation to put our fate in the hands of the dangerous other.
This is a meditation on one such small study of power, a portrait of a man who can entice others to throw their lives away for his gratification. It examines ‘Ulysses’, a short poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Nearly 200 years old, the text speaks eloquently to the lure of political rhetoric.
As a work of art, ‘Ulysses’ demonstrates how our perspective can change with the moment. Once ‘Ulysses’ seemed a heroic evocation to one last great adventure. It captured hearts and minds across empire. T.S. Eliot called the poem ‘perfect’,3 another critic suggested ‘a better expression of the best English spirit than breathes in “Ulysses” cannot be found’.4 The famous closing line—‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’—launched a thousand school mottos, encouraged prisoners of war to endure when captured. It was carved into a wall at the 2012 London Olympics to inspire athletes, recited at length in a James Bond film. So often has the poem been referenced in political speeches, quoted in film and television, it can remain unread yet eerily familiar.
Times have shifted, and now the poem appears in a different light. It becomes a caution about beautifully crafted words in the hands of an irresponsible leader, one who uses command of language for reckless personal ends. The context changes, not the text. The multitudes of meaning found by earlier generations in ‘Ulysses’ resonate still, while the age of Trump adds a new layer of meaning as we contemplate contemporary power and authority.
Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ is a dramatic monologue of just 70 lines in unrhymed blank verse. Flow and punctuation mimic the message—from sluggish self-pity to the fighting words of a charismatic leader who can project great certainty when required. The poem has three parts, telling of an idle king who grumbles about his boredom and restlessness, realises he can leave his kingdom in the safe if dull hands of his son and, finally, inspires his former colleagues to set sail with him once again, embracing glory but also death.
As the poem opens, the orator prepares his case in private. ‘It little profits that an idle king,’ begins Ulysses, making clear he has abandoned the ‘civic responsibility of kingship’.5 Ulysses speaks not of community or family, but recites his grievances. The tone is bitter, a ‘clipped impatience with life’.6 Ulysses feels ‘loss, emptiness, lack of use, and indifference to others’.7 He now lives in a house where nothing happens, on an island of barren crags. His once desirable wife—here not even given her name—is old like him. The work of governing has become dull, just meting and doling out laws for the savage race that inhabits Ithaca. To his people, the king is already just a name from the distant past.
What haunts Ulysses is the memory of an earlier life—endless travel, roaming with a hungry heart through strange and exciting worlds, glimpses of new knowledge. He was once famous, known in many cities and different climes, honoured as the warrior who helped defeat Troy. These were fulfilling years, alone and with his men, drinking life to the lees. Ulysses compares his present unfulfilling existence with a world where action is meaningful. The king feels himself an old unwanted weapon, a sword no longer used but left to rust. He is conscious of time passing quickly, the eternal silence that awaits. In these twilight years, Ulysses yearns, once again, to follow knowledge to the horizon like a sinking star.
The language of this first verse is often moving, yet the portrait disturbs. A monarch feels too grand for the mundane tasks of governing, too self-obsessed to fulfil his assigned role. He recasts the world around his needs—‘I am part of all that I have met’—a leader filled with self-pity, unwilling to accept the constraints and cycles that govern our lives. An idle king dreams of escape.
This first verse gives way to a short second stanza, just 11 lines, as Ulysses decides he must leave. First he assures himself Ithaca will be in the safe hands of his son Telemachus, and introduces him as the next king.
Still, self-regard remains close to the surface. Telemachus is a dutiful leader, who through slow prudence has made mild a rugged people. Ulysses concedes his son is blameless, prudent, decent and devout in attention to the gods. Telemachus will inherit the throne and the island, honour his memory and pay homage, but he can never be a leader like Ulysses—a man who confers with other kings is tough and worldly.
Here are two models of government, the cautious and the firm. Both can succeed and the choice reflects personal preference—‘he works his work, I mine’, acknowledges Ulysses. Yet the king’s quiet contempt for his hard-working son, and for those who respect process, is hard to miss. In Ulysses’ view, slow prudence is not fitting work for a man. Telemachus was raised by his mother, Penelope, while Ulysses was fighting before making his slow way home. The son seems too feminine in style, while the father prefers a muscular model of leadership.
To transfer power to his son, ‘handing him the sceptre that represents rule over the isle’, Ulysses requires an audience.8 The long opening verse sees Ulysses talking to himself. In this second verse the voice shifts. When Ulysses introduces his son, he addresses an unseen listener. First Ulysses persuades himself, then those around him. Now he must persuade others. It is time to address the mariners who wait in the third and final verse, those citizens of Ithaca whom Ulysses hopes will join him for a last, fatal voyage.
This final verse is public oratory, the rhetoric of enticement. To attract his intended crew, Ulysses deploys the language of comradeship, of heroes together. Yet his motive is self-interested—without sailors, he cannot depart. So the private reflection becomes a public speech, an exhortation to follow the aged king one last time. The long phrases become short and urgent as Ulysses fashions his pitch.
The speech starts with simple description, the boat waiting in the port, facing the dark, broad seas at dusk as the deep moans with many voices.9 It is not clear how Ulysses has assembled his audience, nor is the location certain—are they on the shore or already aboard the boat? Yet ‘the spell is woven so securely that we rarely observe the contradictions’.10 What matters is Ulysses addressing his former colleagues—‘my mariners, / Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me’. He flatters their valour whether in storm or sunshine, acknowledges they are now old together. With death waiting, Ulysses proposes a final adventure, some ‘work of noble note’ that will be ‘not unbecoming men that strove with Gods’.
It is evening, the time when voyages begin for mariners who navigate by the stars. The end of the day mirrors the pending end of life. Still, says Ulysses, it is ‘not too late to seek a newer world’. We should not go quietly into oblivion at home, but once more set sail. This is a rejection of family, pursued through active verbs, a swagger fit for fighting men.
Ulysses sketches the adventure before them—to sail towards the western stars until fate intervenes. Now the king’s lines are even and uniform, with ‘rhythms so very different from the jagged, varied movement earlier’.11 Ulysses the orator is in full command. Governing may be dull and unprofitable but exploring is ‘noble work’. We may come to grief in the gulf, or touch the Happy Isles and there see once more the great Achilles.12 And though we no longer enjoy the strength of our younger days, diminished by age, ‘much abides’. We are the same mariners who moved earth and heaven, a team, ‘one equal temper of heroic hearts’. We may be made weak by time and fate, but remain strong in will. Ulysses proposes a voyage until the end. He offers an invitation to glory and certain annihilation.13 We should die as equals and friends, as befits heroes, with a sense of common toil. Let us strive, and seek, and find, and never yield—until, inevitably, we sink beneath the waves.
Here are the quotable lines so beloved of politicians, encouragements to courage and endurance. As a political speech, Tennyson has crafted something extraordinary. The commas slow the delivery, so we get the full impact of the melancholic monosyllables in the final line. We see the mechanics and yet it moves us—as Ricks notes, ‘Tennyson’s “Ulysses” ends upon the brink of disaster; Ulysses’ future may be real but it is desperately brief … the ship of death is poised to set sail.’14
The orator creates a sense of shared community, then offers a grand project and a leader to deliver the vision. The language is striking and the timing ineffable: the poem begins slowly, reflecting the angry, frustrated mood of its speaker. As ambition provides focus, the tone quickens, the word choice becomes more direct and assured. Ulysses flatters his audience until finally, in words chosen to stir, he defines a mission and invites us to follow the king on a great, final voyage.
Yet even fans could sense something awry. Is great rhetoric admirable when the purpose is so selfish? Senator Edward Kennedy drew on the poem to close his concession speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, for these were ‘words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved’.15 Yet Kennedy edited the final lines to evoke some unnamed but shining higher goal.
Kennedy no doubt recognised the egoistic request wrapped in ringing verse. Unsure how to live when old and no longer relevant, Ulysses escapes an unwelcome reality by leading a group of subordinates to their certain demise. Strictly speaking, these are not even his former crew, those brave hearts of days past, since Ulysses managed to lose all his original shipmates on the return voyage from Troy. But any group of old mariners will do—for, as Ulysses makes clear, they are expendable. Whatever followers imagine, the great political leader is always acting for him or herself alone.
Hence the temptation of leadership—the power of language to entice followers to ruin. The politician who is courageous in the face of death only because the alternative of living a settled life seems worse. The leader who uses others for his ends. The subtle and manipulative charismatic at work, with winning words but no ethical underpinning. The poem calls us back to the purpose of leadership—and reasons to distrust the merely eloquent.
Alfred Tennyson was just 24 when he wrote ‘Ulysses’ as the meditation of a world-weary old man. From what impulse did this remarkable work arise, and what in turn does it reveal about how ideas of leadership are created and transmitted?
In the first week of October 1833, a letter arrived at the crowded Tennyson family home, Somersby Rectory. It contained distressing news—writer and poet Arthur Hallam, just 22, had died in Prague of a brain aneurysm after a short illness, during European travel with his father. Hallam’s body had been examined by doctors and then sealed in a coffin, to be sent home by sea from Trieste. As the letter arrived, the body was on the waves, heading for England.
At least two Tennysons had reason to grieve. Emilia Tennyson, known to her family as Emily, was betrothed to Arthur Hallam. He visited her in July before departing for Europe in August, and taught her Italian so they could exchange love letters in confidence.16 Emily fainted when her brother Alfred read her the letter. People feared for her survival, but she recovered and eventually married a sailor, albeit not always happily.
For Alfred Tennyson, this shudder would reverberate through his work and life. Hallam had been his closest friend at Cambridge, a fellow Apostle and an enthusiastic champion of Tennyson’s first published poems amid hostile critical reception. Hallam believed Tennyson to be England’s next great poet, the ‘heir of Wordsworth and Keats’.17 He would write to a friend that Tennyson is ‘promising fair to be the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century’—prophetic words about someone still an undergraduate at the time.18
Tennyson in turn considered Hallam ‘near perfection’. His death would leave Tennyson ‘broken and withdrawn’.19
The poet would not attend Hallam’s funeral but would dedicate years to writing In Memoriam A.H.H., a collection of poems about loss and grief, said to be the favourite reading of Queen Victoria after the early death of Prince Albert. Tennyson would name his eldest son in Hallam’s honour. As the body floated home, so formed the first images linking death and water in Tennyson’s poems. This association would continue through his career and eventually make ‘Crossing the Bar’, Tennyson’s contemplation of approaching death, an enduring statement of Victorian hope for an afterlife.
The publication of In Memoriam in 1850 made Tennyson famous. He was appointed Poet Laureate of Great Britain, succeeding William Wordsworth. After years of tenuous solvency—Tennyson left Cambridge on the death of his father because he could not afford to complete his degree—fame brought financial security. Tennyson could marry his fiancée of nearly 20 years, Emily Sellwood, and become the eminent Victorian Hallam had foretold.
All this was years into the future. For the moment there was only an overwhelming sense of loss. The young poet responded to the death of his closest friend by writing. In just 19 days he composed ‘Ulysses’, a ‘powerful private allegory of courage and dedication’.20 As biographer Philip Henderson notes, ‘the overwhelming shock of Hallam’s death released in Alfred a spring of poetry that now welled up from the depths of his being that he had not plumbed before’.21
Tennyson kept ‘Ulysses’ private for nearly a decade, not publishing it until 1842, and then with uncharacteristically few amendments. Here is a moment of devastation as verse, expressing ‘the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life’, as Tennyson is often quoted as saying. John Batchelor would describe the poem as technically and dramatically ‘an extraordinary achievement’, as a young poet ‘played the role of an old man preparing for death and summoning up the will to confront it courageously’.22
Yet why mark the tragic end of a young life by recalling someone who lived so long they could find no point in their existence?
The answer resides partially in Tennyson’s determination to find a way to continue in the light of devastation, a stoic defiance of extinction. Yet the subject has a specific origin in the preoccupations of the departed Hallam, and his student debates with another friend, William Gladstone. The future prime minister attended Eton with Arthur Hallam, and thought him ‘the most brilliant person he had ever met’.23 Even as schoolboys they talked of power, motive and ethics. Gladstone eventually went to Oxford, and Hallam went to Cambridge, where he became close to Tennyson. The later relationship between Gladstone and Tennyson could be tense and competitive, an ‘ancient rivalry’ over the memory of their dazzling mutual friend.24 It would start with a debate about the character of Ulysses.
Dante and Ulysses
There is more than one Ulysses. The character begins under his Greek name Odysseus—a trickster, but also Homer’s man of sorrows, who feels deeply the separation from his wife Penelope, and struggles for a decade against vengeful gods to reclaim his throne at Ithaca. This was not the reading offered by Virgil when he retold the Trojan war for the Aeneid. Virgil is keen we understand the man now translated into Latin as Ulysses is cruel and deceitful. His stratagem with a wooden horse leads to the destruction of Troy, sending Aeneas fleeing into the world. Roman distrust of Greeks is evident in contrasting sly Ulysses with the virtuous Aeneas, Trojan founder of Rome.
More than a millennium later, Dante Alighieri drew on Virgil when describing Ulysses in the inferno. Here, once again, is a cunning, villainous Ulysses—not a surprising picture, perhaps, as Dante had no access to the works of Homer. Yet the portrait has its own originality, sharpening the mendacity of Ulysses with that brilliant control of language and character that enlivens Dante’s verses.
Why would a grieving Tennyson choose this unsavoury character to recall his closest friend? The answer is likely an exchange between Arthur Hallam and William Gladstone when both were schoolboys at Eton. As Cornelia Pearsall recounts in her superb study of Tennyson’s monologues,25 a 1826 letter from Hallam compared Gladstone’s political ambitions to Ulysses. Hallam intended a compliment, referring to already evident eloquence in the future politician, but Gladstone was affronted. A correspondence followed about the nature of political character (or so we infer from later letters—Hallam’s father destroyed the original response from Gladstone).
Hallam knew his Dante well; though young, he was already a talented scholar. As schoolboys will, Hallam was probably speaking tongue in cheek when praising Ulysses and therefore Gladstone for oratorical skill. Despite the playfulness of the exchange, Gladstone was unmoved—as Hallam eventually conceded, Dante’s Ulysses is a portrait of ‘craft … dissimulation, low cunning, cruelty’.26 Gladstone instead turned the tables, comparing Hallam’s political enthusiasms with Ulysses as they sparred about Gladstone’s beliefs in the years before the first Reform Bill of 1830. Gladstone was then a Tory, opposed to parliamentary reform. Hallam was the scion of a Whig family, and politics dominated the correspondence between the 17-year-old Gladstone and the precocious 15-year-old Arthur Hallam.
Hence the context in which Tennyson, in his grief, turned to Hallam’s favourite poet and to argument about the character of Ulysses. The inspiration was close at hand—Tennyson was given his friend’s inscribed copy of Dante as a keepsake.27 The poem ‘Ulysses’ returns the compliment, praising a character Hallam had admired for his skill as a political orator. When, decades later, Gladstone wrote a review essay on the poetry of Tennyson, he passed over Ulysses and other early poems with little comment; he too would have understood its origins in a school debate with a tragic ending.
In Canto 26 of Inferno, Dante describes figures from the ancient world now suffering eternal damnation. Ulysses is among their number, punished by fire as a liar for ruses during wartime including stealing the Palladium, a magic statue.28 To Dante and his guide Virgil, Ulysses recounts some of his history and motive. Ulysses acknowledges he should have been moved by tenderness for his son, duty to his aged father and love for his wife Penelope (in that order). Yet Ulysses could not resist the temptation to adventure. He allowed a burning desire to understand how the world works, and to see again its fill of human vices, worth and valour, to override the bonds of responsibility and family.
So in Dante’s account Ulysses sets out once more for the open sea, accompanied by the ‘little crew that had not yet abandoned me’. He sails west from Ithaca, past Sardinia, until he can see modern Morocco to his south and Spain his north. Here the boat approaches the entrance to the Mediterranean, where Hercules set a mark that men should never pass.
Faced with this barrier, Ulysses turns to his crew. He praises the bravery that carried them past a hundred thousand perils. So now, he asks, with little time remaining to old men, are we willing to risk new experience, to explore beyond where the sun sets? Remember who we are, he reminds them, men not made to be mindless brutes but to search for ‘virtue and true knowledge’.
The speech does its work. The crew are so inflamed by the rhetoric that Ulysses can hardly restrain them. On this ‘crazy flight’ they row through the Pillars of Hercules into the open sea. Here the stars are unfamiliar. For five days they sail without sign of land until they spy a dark mountain soaring from the ocean. As they approach, tragedy strikes. A powerful wind spins the ship around three times, and then swamps the boat. The ‘sea closed over us’, reports Ulysses, as he and crew drown.
Waiting in Dante’s text are the elements of Tennyson’s monologue—restless Ulysses aching for new adventure, a rousing speech to the mariners, then setting sail regardless of consequences. There are echoes of Dante’s language too, though Tennyson adds his own rhetoric to flesh out the brief speech provided by Dante. We are all products of our time, shaped by forces large and small we may not recognise. Thus Tennyson was heir to Dante but also to the grand ideas of his age, including the sensibilities of the Romantic movement and its embrace of wisdom acquired through travel. By stressing pursuit of knowledge as a lofty goal, Tennyson takes a sin—fleeing duty—and turns it into a virtue, chasing the untravell’d world, those spaces glimpsed as through an arch.
Dante does not flatter Ulysses. He concedes the man is a magnificent orator, but one without piety towards family or sense of responsibility for his public roles. He reminds us that Ulysses ends in hell, punished for his multiple lies. Dante’s Ulysses is arrogant, a man who flouts the limits Hercules has set on human exploration. He is reckless too, unmoved by the risk to his aged fellow mariners. Here is authority unconstrained—the leader with the winning words to drive his crew towards a pointless destination, only to encounter an unforgiving reality.
No wonder Gladstone shrunk at the playful comparison by Arthur Hallam. Dante gives us a striking example of power without responsibility, of the danger when a politician can inspire without an overriding public purpose. Hence Canto 26 takes place in one of the lowest circles of hell, where Ulysses is punished for his mendacity, for misleading others through tricks and deceit, all in pursuit of selfish ends. This is Dante’s assessment of the ruthless politician, and his warning about what happens to those who follow such leaders. It is not a model Gladstone sought to emulate.
Tennyson was not at Eton, nor part of the original exchange, but he likely heard about the controversy from Hallam when a Cambridge undergraduate. The debate showed how Ulysses could be used as a symbol, speaking for or against a political position. Hallam had read Dante’s Ulysses as ‘an inspiring leader of worthy causes of a vaguely progressive sort’, while Gladstone found him an untrustworthy leader.29 The argument likely inspired the choice of subject matter, with Tennyson taking Hallam’s side.
Did Tennyson intend to import this egotistical and heedless Dantean character into his poem? Or are we offered a more rounded Ulysses, softened at the edges and elevated in oratory to justify Hallam’s admiration? This issue has divided critics for generations. Early readers saw a portrait of courage, even when faced with death. Later interpretations prove less comfortable with the portrait.
The Dante and the Tennyson characters dismiss family and show little interest in the duties of office. There are subtle differences in aspiration. Dante’s Ulysses simply seeks adventure—a burning desire to know how the world works. Tennyson’s version is more introspective. His Ulysses outlines motivation, lingers on remembered moments of past glory as he, too, aspires once again to explore the exotic. The Tennyson character spends more time implying there is some overarching virtue to his project, which he calls ‘work of noble note’. The appeal to a vague goal cannot disguise the vacuous nature of the enterprise, which has no objective other than to provide a more exciting finality.30
In that miraculous transformation that is art, Tennyson would take a familiar story and turn it into an enduring study of character. He drew his model from pre-democratic times—both the subject matter and his own—to offer the story of an eloquent leader refusing to go quietly into the darkness, even as the context warns us to be wary of old men in a hurry.
It is not an entirely successful experiment. Too much of Dante lingers in the portrait, which cannot transcend its origins entirely. Dante has taken control of Tennyson’s poem, introducing an ambiguity that puzzles still—are we to praise Ulysses for his leadership, or pity him for an inability to find meaning in life? Though designed to praise Hallam, and committed to carrying forward their shared aspirations despite loss, this Ulysses disturbs as much as he inspires. This opens the door to new interpretation when the times change.
Poets and politics
Searching a poem or a Shakespearian play for insights on leadership may place too much weight on too slender a reed. Tennyson told his son Hallam that ‘poetry is like shot-silk with many glancing colours. Every reader must find his own interpretation according to his ability, and according to his sympathy with the poet.’31
Tennyson may have seen ‘Ulysses’ as no more than a poem of bitter experience, a ‘determined rededication to life’ following Arthur Hallam’s death. In attempting to take Hallam’s side in a long-forgotten argument, he provided a recapitulation of Dante, a chance for glorious rhetoric and empty sentiment. With his fine ear for language and a heightened emotional state, Tennyson crafted a brilliant political speech. Yet it remains the rhetoric of a man willing to sacrifice others for his own gratification.32 The poet reminds us that kings—and others besides—can grow bored with responsibility and look for adventure abroad.
Such leaders may be hailed as heroes in one generation, but later criticised as self-centred and shallow, willing to drive others on to disaster. Hence the reading of this poem as a personification of leadership has changed markedly over 200 years, and will again. For the moment, we see how Ulysses, with the habit of ancient authority, uses the language of discovery and knowledge to justify action with no motive beyond his own needs. Politicians may be tempted to a glorious, memorable end; after a life of importance, who can face the oblivion of irrelevance?
Yet politicians continue to draw on the text of ‘Ulysses’ to advance their case. Aristotle urged students to study rhetoric to harness its authority, but also as insulation against its influence. The poem becomes a warning about the dangerous attraction of an orator. Dante warned us, centuries earlier, how the venture will end. In the age of Trump, Tennyson describes a leader we know all too well—and hints at the consequences should we find ourselves rowing in the wrong boat.
‘Ulysses’ was the start of a glorious career. By its close Tennyson had become a peer of the realm of Great Britain and Ireland—an honour recommended by prime minister William Gladstone. By then the grief and circumstances that created ‘Ulysses’ were long in the past, and the poem had acquired its own resonances around heroes and death. That process continues. The soaring final line beloved by the Kennedys had become ‘not an unalloyed affirmation but, at best, a deeply qualified and melancholy one’.33 Its use in a James Bond vehicle, Skyfall, only underscored the gap between imperial Britain and the present nation—a Britain ‘made weak by time and fate’.
In retrospect it can surprise that ‘Ulysses’ spoke so eloquently to its time. The poem appears an observation on the sense of futility that can descend at the end of a life—all achievements, fame and reputation amount to nothing. The king is no different from his wretched subjects before death. Extinction is a personal foe.
Yet the Victorians admired the idea of never yielding, defiance through a final, personal voyage. The outcome may be inevitable, but at least it will be faced on Ulysses’ terms. To strive, seek and find became a noble response, an evocation to courage amid impossible odds from the poet laureate, an acknowledged champion of Queen, country and empire.
By the time ‘Ulysses’ had become a treasured anthem, old Tennyson was a lonely man. His many verses about friendship proved more enduring than the bonds they celebrated. The poet became extremely sensitive to criticism, and could not stand being contradicted or interrupted.34 At social gatherings he would read his poems aloud rather than converse with guests. Privately, his every conversation revolved around himself and his writing. Tennyson, says one biographer, proved ‘increasingly unaware of his impact on other people’, becoming a man who ‘venerated his own mind and his own methods’.35
As the poet aged, he closed in on himself, living in isolation at his rural estates. In some sense ‘Ulysses’ spoke to the poet’s own end, a monologue by a man alone. Tennyson’s death at 83, with an open volume of Shakespeare on his bed, closed an era. It was carefully presented to the public, with attending physician Sir Andrew Clark reporting that, ‘Lord Tennyson has had a gloriously beautiful death. In my experience I have never witnessed anything more glorious.’36 A death better than drowning in a broken boat amid crew members, it seems.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson would be buried among the poets in Westminster Abbey. Thousands attended, as the abbey organist set ‘Cross the Bar’ to music. Tennyson’s body was buried between John Dryden and Robert Browning. His moment soon passed. Empire declined, along with interest in its voices. Little of Tennyson’s work is read today, although a handful of his most famous poems remain in anthologies. Critical judgement turned against this embodiment of Victorian values. W.H. Auden said of Tennyson that he had ‘the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest; there was little about melancholia that he didn’t know; there was little else that he did’.37
Here we are in a worrying moment, reading Shakespeare to understand tyrants, quoting Tennyson on the nature of selfish leaders. Profound art continues to reveal. We puzzle at Tennyson’s motivation, we worry about his influence, we guess at his intention with this vivid portrait of a man alone by the shore, remembering his past, plotting his future. Yet the poet’s warning remains—beware of such politicians, and do not hitch your oar to their voyage.
This essay addresses some questions I posed but could not answer fully in a 1998 article on Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ in the Australian Journal of Political Science. Rediscovering the text, and the literature it has generated, was made possible by superb bibliographical work from Ruby Schwartz, and I thank her for such care and precision. •
- Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power, The Bodley Head, London, 2018, pp. 186–7.
- Described with skill by David McInnis, ‘Warnings’, Australian Book Review, March 2019, p. 47.
- ‘In its much-quoted final line, Ulysses sums up the very spirit of travel, of adventure … a century after its publication, T.S. Eliot called Tennyson’s work “a perfect poem”’: Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey, Penguin, New York, 2018, p. 193.
- Cornelia D. J. Pearsall, Tennyson’s Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 193.
- Claire Berardini, ‘The Tennysonian Paradox: Privacy and Sociality in “Ulysses” and “St. Simeon Stylites”’, Victorian Poetry, vol. 31, no. 4, 1993, pp. 363–84.
- Christopher Ricks, Tennyson, New York, Macmillan, 1972, p. 122.
- Lynne O’Brien, ‘Male Heroism: Tennyson’s Divided View’, Victorian Poetry, no. 32, vol. 2, 1994, p. 173. The solipsism is unmistakeable—Ulysses uses first-person pronouns eight times in just 12 lines.
- Pearsall, in Tennyson’s Rapture, speaks of Ulysses ‘enacting a ceremonial installation of his son into public life … With his words of introduction and evaluation, Ulysses has transformed the status of his son; he has created a ruler and a system of rule by the performance of his words,’ p. 190.
- Says Georg Roppen, ‘While this is a fine descriptive image, it also implies that projection into the sea of human conferences of grief or sadness, possibly also voices of the dead’, ‘“Ulysses” and Tennyson’s Sea-quest’, English Studies, vol. 40, 1959, p. 88.
- Paul F. Baum, Tennyson Sixty Years After, University of North Carolina Press, Durham, 1948, pp. 299–300.
- James Kincaid, Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns, Chapter Three: Poems (1842), 2001, Victorian Web, <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/tennyson/kincaid/ch3.html>.
- Carlyle famously said ‘these lines do not make me weep, but there is in me what would fill the whole Lachrymatories as I read’. Quoted in Michael Timko, Carlyle and Tennyson, Macmillan, London, 1988, p. 58. Matthew Arnold said these same three lines ‘by themselves take up nearly as much time as a whole book of The Iliad’. Quoted in Ricks, Tennyson, p. 125.
- Annihilation, but not necessarily extinction. Howard Fulweiler, in ‘Tennyson and the “Summons from the Sea”, Victorian Poetry, vol. 3, no. 1, 1965, pp. 25–44, sees this final version as Tennyson turning to his ‘ever-recurrent interest in life after death’. This reads the narrative as a ‘soul attempting to find religious meaning even “beyond the sunset” of death’, p. 35.
- icks, Tennyson, p. 127.
- Edward Kennedy, 1980 Democratic National Concession Address, 12 August 1980, New York.
- John Batchelor, Tennyson: To Strive, to Seek, to Find, Vintage, London, 2012, electronic access, chapter 3.
- Roppen, ‘“Ulysses” and Tennyson’s Sea-quest’, p. 79.
- Batchelor, Tennyson, chapter 2. Batchelor later speculates, in chapter 4, that ‘what Tennyson loved was not Arthur himself, but Arthur’s love of Tennyson: his own image and his own genius as reflected in Arthur’s loyal admiration’.
- Ricks, Tennyson, p. 115.
- Roppen, ‘“Ulysses” and Tennyson’s Sea-quest’, p. 77.
- Philip Henderson, Tennyson: Poet and Prophet, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978, p. 30.
- Batchelor, Tennyson, chapter 3.
- Batchelor, Tennyson, chapter 2.
- ‘In Memoriam, which stirred such personal feelings of ancient rivalry between the two men, was in Gladstone’s generous phrase “perhaps the richest oblation ever offered by the affection of friendship at the tomb of the departed”’: Batchelor, Tennyson, chapter 7.
- Pearsall, Tennyson’s Rapture.
- Pearsall, Tennyson’s Rapture, p. 175.
- Pearsall, Tennyson’s Rapture, p. 177.
- Here using the translation by Robin Kirkpatrick, Inferno, Penguin, 2006.
- Pearsall, Tennyson’s Rapture, pp. 176–7.
- There are differences in vantage point. As Carabez observes, Dante describes a man already dead, while the Tennyson poem is about persuasion, to enlist men who will end closed over by the sea: Charles Caruana Carabez, Ulysses in Dante and Tennyson, University of Malta Press, 1979, p. 36.
- Quoted in Batchelor, Tennyson, chapter 9.
- In the witty Italian pop song ‘Lucio Dalla’, Ulysses’ crew complain that the captain’s noble destiny will be achieved at their peril. The crew long to return to their wives, bread and wine on Ithaca, to come home from the sea. If they die, the king’s name will live on, and his house will have an heir. As poor sailors they are not so fortunate. Yet their king pays no attention.
- David Yezzi, ‘The Place of Poetry’, New Criterion, vol. 26, no. 5 (January 2018), electronic access.
- The friendship observation is drawn from Batchelor, Tennyson, chapter 10. Batchelor makes the point about thin-skinned Tennyson repeatedly, beginning in chapter 1.
- Batchelor, Tennyson, chapter 8, chapter 9.
- ‘Death of Lord Tennyson’, from archives of the Guardian, republished 7 October 2009.
- Cited in Arthur Carr, ‘Tennyson as a Modern Poet’, University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 1 (July 1950), p. 361.