Tennyson’s Ulysses As A Metafictional Romp

The Sirens, N. C. Wyeth

Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell

The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The subject of heroism is arguably the oldest trope in documented literary history. We are familiar with the discourse surrounding heroism, one that glorifies heroic characters and creates a retroactive hierarchy of “great men”. To the layman, heroic literature is one-dimensional, but a radical revision of our understanding of the heroic character is necessary, in order for us to be able to comprehend how modernity re-observed the Hero. This multi-faceted, metafictional approach deconstructs the exalted figure, so we can lay bare the underlying human anxieties.

In the quest for an anthropocentric macrocosm, the Victorian era managed to focus on the man-made instead of the human. The Hero was no longer a necessary character in a world where machines were more efficient. The agency of the human species had become increasingly restricted and the fragmentation of individuality into intermediary inventions has haunted us since the nineteenth century. Heroism is, as Ernest Becker noted, a “causa-sui project” that generates the illusion of immortality, even in the event of the hero’s death. It is interesting to note that a newfound anxiety affected the body of the Victorian hero. This anxiety was caused by the realization that the architecture of the mortal body of the hero was subject to an entropic impermanence while the mechanical colossi of the Industrial Revolution were built to last. Robert Browning’s protagonist Sordello shares the same anxieties in the eponymous 1840 poem:

The Body, the Machine for Acting Will
Had been at the commencement proved unfit;
That for Reflecting, Demonstrating it,
Mankind — no fitter: was the Will Itself
In fault?

It is clear that the introspective dilemmas of heroism and mortality was an established and dominant discourse of the Victorian era. Poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Charles Algernon Swinburne investigated these ideological issues in their respective works. But Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” occupies a unique space in the corpus of Victorian Heroic Literature and Heroic tradition as a whole. In the form of a dramatic monologue, Tennyson’s protagonist, Odysseus, talks about his inclination towards being a warrior and adventurer rather than a sedentary ruler. The concluding lines of the poem are known and revered throughout the English-speaking world:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Adding the prefix “heroic” somehow makes the mortal organ invincible and it mutates into an “immortality symbol”. The usually overpowering individuality of Odysseus is also one of the most important characteristics of this literary trope that critics promulgate as a testament to the iron spirit of humanity:

The body dies, but the will remains constant through both life and death. The man who experiences greatly will find at last the great Achilles. Achilles and Ulysses have, as Charles Mitchell mentioned, an “equal temper of heroic hearts”: as peer, Achilles is what Ulysses was and will be.

Odysseus is seen as the archetypal masculine hero who sets out to conquer the world, armed with the desire to be the legendary transgressor. According to Mitchell, Odysseus espouses the spirit of humanism and transcends the ultimate hindrance to our agency: our mortality. However, it is a facile conclusion because it does not explain the evident disillusionment of Odysseus who cannot bear ruling over “a savage race” but seems unable to resolve his disillusionment either.

Ironic interpretations of Tennyson’s poem have faced resistance from the school of biographical criticism in the voluminous discourse on “Ulysses”. Out of their sacrosanct reverence for conventional criticism, several readers and scholars such as Linda Hughes have indulged in biographical readings to assert that: “Tennyson was nonetheless determined to move on; if both time and fate had dealt him crushing blows, he still had two things left that could bring the past into the present and so vitiate his loss: his poetry, and the will ‘not to yield’ to the crushing weight of external circumstance.” The heroic overtones of the dramatic monologue may have overwhelmed previous readers but elements of meta-discursivity and ironic acknowledgement of the literary construction of the Hero cannot be ignored.

Barthes notes that: “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text”. It is convenient to align the literary works with the biographical details of dead writers but in this self-congratulatory process, we forget the exigency of the question: does the text belong to the reader or the writer? For any text that does not belong to the reader’s time, it has to belong to the reader in order to be relevant. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is no different.  The Hero ceased to be a viable method of enforcing the greatness of humanity when humanity itself was being hemmed in by the constructs (be it literary or technological) it had created.  What’s left was an anthropological impotence seeping through the cracks of futile attempts at reviving the heroic battle cry in literature:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

The apparent heroic sentimentality in the countless recitations of the final lines of “Ulysses” often forget these preceding lines. In Tennyson’s poem, Odysseus cannot gain subjectivity unless and until he is placed in a precarious situation.

How can a Hero exist without an epic setting? Certain readings of the poem have interpreted Odysseus’ perpetual quest for adventure as an intentionally suicidal mission, as Robert Langbaum noted: “death is deliberately sought for”. Langbaum is right in his observation but it is not enough to stop there. It is necessary to address the obvious metafictional elements in Tennyson’s poem.

The myth of Odysseus has an extensive lineage in literary tradition. From the moment of his conception in Homer’s epic, the character of Odysseus has been buried under the cliché of the genre, carrying the monumental expectations of the Hero. However, fleeting moments of metafictional awareness have surfaced in these hallmark literary feats. Some critics like Ronald Richardson have noticed metafictional elements in Homer’s work in the bardic figures who ”sing their works, a metafictional presentation of how the work was presented within itself”. Is it really Telemachus who says:

why deny
our devoted bard the chance to entertain us
any way the spirit stirs him on?
Bards are not to blame —

Or is Homer making a political and metafictional statement about his position in Greek society? Odysseus, himself, possesses this metafictional role of a bard, with Gregory Dobrov observing that: “a role that is paradoxically a model (as literature) and imitation (as myth)”. The death of Cretheus in Virgil’s Aeneid is a biological as well as a symbolic death. He is killed in battle which creates the possibility of multiple allusions. The cruel irony of a bard (someone who chiefly sung of heroic combat) dying in a battle is addressed by Virgil:

Cretheus, always dear to his heart the song and lyre,
tuning a verse to the taut string, always singing
of cavalry, weapons, wars and the men who fight them.

While these metafictional elements were already a part of Odysseus’ legacy from the get-go; in Tennyson’s poem they become the raison d’être of Odysseus’s voice. Odysseus’s statement: “I am become a name” is often read as his acknowledgement of his fame. Only in the process of deconstructing the text, it becomes clear that it is an ironic awareness of his fictionality, the ephemeral construct of heroism. He is not an individual with agency but only gains subjectivity when associated with his name. The subjectivity that is lent to him is also a construct of this literary microcosm in which he survives. Academic discourse has (nearly obsessively) observed a similar self-reflexive phenomenon in the context of meta-fictionality in Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Joyce’s universe is complex because he juxtaposes his own creations on the already existing framework of the myth of Odysseus. This creates an interface between the familiarity of Odysseus’ legacy and the unfamiliarity of Joyce’s genius. As Ezra Pound wrote: “These correspondences are part of Joyce’s medievalism and are chiefly his own affair, a scaffold, a means of construction, justified by the result, and justifiable by it only”.

A similar conflict is found in Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. Odysseus is disillusioned with where he finds himself, an old king displaced from the battlefield of a warrior. It is interesting that Tennyson chose to portray the moment before the journey and not the journey itself, because, as Michael Shapiro put it: “to pluck Ulysses out of this narrative of the sacrifices the self must endure to achieve coherence in an order is to detextualize and thus depoliticize one’s understanding of selves and orders”. It is almost as if Odysseus is rebelling against the intentions of Tennyson. It is a war unlike any he has ever been a part of. It is a meta-fictional war and it is one he can never win. An ironic undertone punctures each and every heroic resolution Odysseus makes. This self-awareness extends to existential and philosophical problems that Odysseus addresses in his monologue:

for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

The acknowledgement of the purpose of a heroic character by the character himself to sail to new lands and perform heroic deeds or to be reunited with other great “Names” in order to prevent the destabilization of the heroic construct is a vehement protest against the ontological conditions that Tennyson grants Odysseus. In John Barth’s short story titled “Lost in the Funhouse”, Barth mocks the conventions of fiction while writing, “The climax of the story must be its protagonist’s discovery of a way to get through the funhouse. But he has found none, may have ceased to search”. The “funhouse” becomes a metaphor for the text that suffocates the character and makes him impotent, unable to escape the construct. Tennyson’s Odysseus suffers the same fate. He does not get anywhere but ends his momentary existence with a hollow promise to make it out of those adamantine restraints. Tennyson relegates Odysseus to an eternal state of limbo that Odysseus complains about:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life!

The concept of heroism is built around the idea that the individual is invincible but for the hero to deny death is to, in Ernest Becker’s words, “to banish from his awareness the actual fact of his natural impotence. Not only his impotence to avoid death, but his impotence to stand alone, firmly rooted on his own powers”. If Odysseus did, indeed, accept his impotence and set out voluntarily to his final destination: death, it is not just the death of the Hero, it is the death of the expectations of masculine heroism, of what is expected of a literary character to be a ‘character’.

The awareness of the mortality of exalted individuals is shaped by time, and the various heroic settings the protagonist is subjected to by the writer—or even the voyeuristic expectations of the reader; as already stated by Adorno and Horkheimer: “the element which shapes and organizes individuality internally, time, is still so weak that the unity of the adventures remains an outward one, their sequence being formed by the spatial changes of scene, the succession of sites of local divinities on which the hero is flung by the storm”. Odysseus, like any other man, cannot escape the inevitability of death, but he never denies his mortality. Perhaps that is how his constructed heroism metamorphoses into some semblance of hope for many readers. Odysseus does not just pass out of this world into the next, he also passes out of the fictional construct of the page into the metafictional sphere of self-awareness.