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The myth of Ulysses

Ulysses’ search for knowledge.

The figure of Ulysses was particularly dear to European
poets in the 19th century. In the Iliad and Odyssey already
Ulysses is a hero whose intelligence is equal to his strength
and courage.
Nineteenth-century versions of the Ulysses’ story,
however,rather than follow the Homeric myth describe the
hero as an indomitable warrios who, after coming back to
Ithaca, still thirsts for new adventures and knowledge, and is
ready to sail away once more
Dante’s Ulysses

• The model for this reading of the Ulysses’ myth was found in Dante’s
Inferno XXVI, where the Greek hero is portrayed as an evil councellor –
Dante blamed him for having caused the fall of Troy with the wooden horse.
• Dante’s Ulysses is a restless soul: not content with past adventures he
goes again on a last voyage; he wants to “divenir del mondo esperto/e de li
vizi e del valore”. With his ship he comes to the Pillars of Hercules, the
mythical boundaries of the ancient world, beyond which no one had ever
dared to go. Ulysses exhorts his men not to be afraid and to pass on the
forbidden and the unknown, in some of Dante’s most famous lines
“fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza”
Ulysses’ ship is sunk into a stormy sea when they are in sight of the Mount
of Purgatory.
D’Annunzio and Pascoli

• Late Romantic poems oscillate between a heroic and a melancholy

rendering of the figure of Ulysses
• Gabriele D’annunzio’s portrait belongs to the first group (Laus vitae 1903);
here he stressed the elements of will-power and activism
• Giovanni Pascoli’s long narrative poem L’ultimo viaggio (published in the
collection Poemi conviviali, 1904) stresses instead the melancholy aspect of
Ulysses, as a man who is always trying to overcome the mystery of life and
is always kept back by it. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he is restless in Ithaca
and he too feels compelled to wander.
….I will drink life to the lees …

Tennyson’s Ulysses
…To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

• Tennyson’s Ulysses is a complex figure: he is the fierce Homeric warrior

who has fought at Troy; he is a restless spirit always open to new
knowledge and experience who finds the meaning of life in continuous
movement and changing horizons and he is also Dante’s more ambiguous
but fascinating Ulysses whose endless searching becomes a dangerous
desire for forbidden experience.
• With his Ulysses Tennyson creates one of the great late Romantic figures,
filled with enthousiasm and doubt at the same time
• Ulysses is the poet’s alter ego: he gives expression to his doubts about
man, destiny, death, nature, God
• Ulysses, like Victorian scientists, is looking for knowledge of the physical
world in order to enlarge the bounds of human knowledge, and if possible to
contribute to the well-being of his contemporaries
On Tennyson’s Ulysses

• It is a dramatic monologue written by Alfred Tennyson in 1833 when he was

deeply depressed because of his dear friend’s death (Arthur Hallam, a
poet). He describes man’s obstinate attempt of giving meaning and
purpose to life even just when he is approaching death.
• He shows a bored, dissatisfied and old Ulysses in Ithaca. His life has been
built on experience (line 18: I am part of all that I have met) and he longs
for his past adventures (lines 22-24).
• He describes his son who he trusts because he knows he is serious and will
try to bring his people to a gradual civilization but he also knows they are
different; Ulysses stands for adventurous life, Telemachus stands for a life
devoted to responsibilities and duty (therefore being the typical Victorian
• Ulysses is aware that Death is arriving but he is proud and, together with his
men, they want to challenge death showing an unstrained desire for a life of
action and courage (line 70).

• Ulysses gives a full account of his own nomadic nature and contrasts it with
his sosn’s commitment to building up a stable, civilized society in Ithaca.
Though he may not scorn Telemachus’ social efforts yet it is clear that he
has more in common with his old mariners, the faithful companions of
countless adventures.
• The labour Telemachus can accomplish is “to make mild a rugged people”
(see line 4 “savage race”) and make them understand that submitting to the
law may be useful and good for a people.
• Telemachus represents a more “civilized” complex social organization of the
state; he also represents a life devoted to responsibility and social duties
(an example of the typical Victorian man)
• Ulysses stands for a more individualistic, heroic civilization and for an
adventurous life
Adventures uninteresting hero social emphasis desire similar expresses
continuous sailors laws interesting forbidden different (2 extra words)

• Ulysses is a complex figure: he is not so much the ………… of Homeric

poems who fought at Troy, but is more ………… Dante’s restless spirit
always in search of new …………….. and experiences, who finds the
meaning of life in ……………….movement and changing horizons.
Tennyson’s Ulysses is also characterized by a dangerous desire for
………… knowledge, that could lead him and his ………………to sail
towards the unknown and possibly death. But death itself seems to Ulysses
better than Telemachus’ ………………….. and boring life, completely
determined by everyday duties and by the …………………. of civilization.
The poem can be read as Tennyson’s opposition to the ……….. laws of the
Victorian Age, with all its …………… on duty and respectability and as an
expression of his …………….. for adventure and spontaneity.
Homer’s Ulysses

• Ulysses was, in Homer’s famous presentation of him, the man who had
known many men and cities. The beginning of the Odyssey, in Ippolito
Pindemonte’s classic Italian translation reads:
• “Musa, quell’uom di multiforme ingegno
Dimmi, che molto errò, poich’ebbe terra
Gittate d’Ilion le sacre torri;
Che città vide molte, e delle genti
L’indol conobbe…”