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Literary Devices of “Ulysses” by Lord Tennyson Essay

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2020

Some people think that the text can be read in the same manner as intended by the author no matter what techniques he/she uses to communicate the main idea. However, different literary means are used exactly to make the text more appropriate for reading silently or performing on the stage, or in the form of video cameras. In this respect, written language has its benefits as well as the oral speech when intonation and melody enable the performer to introduce the position with no ambiguity. Variety of meanings interpreted through the tone of the poem as well as though its irony, ambiguity, and undecidability make the author a genius of poetic style.

Though some authors tend to use simple literary language, they can fail to make their characters as vivid as they are supposed to be or as they are presented by Tennyson. No matter what an actor does, the image will never become alive on the stage if it is lifeless on the paper. For instance, it is easier to imagine how Ulysses calls his comrades “Come, my friends…” (Tennyson 56) to join him in the new adventure than to imagine how he would call them if this was an ordinary description of how the ruler propagates some news to his people.

Thus, every author tries to convey the meaning through descriptions, narration, explanations, monologues, and comments given to certain paragraphs to facilitate a reader’s understanding of the main idea. Nevertheless, some authors manage to communicate the main idea of their work using only literary means such as tone, irony, ambiguity, and undecidability as in the lines that interpret Ulysses’ desire to acquire knowledge: “And this gray spirit yearning in desire/ To follow knowledge like a sinking star,/ Beyond the utmost bound of human thought” (30-32).

The poem “Ulysses” written by Lord Alfred Tennyson can be considered one of the most complicated works of literature to read and comprehend because it contains many expressions that can be understood in different ways resulting in misconception. In other words, ambiguity is one of the most prominent features of the poem that makes this work interesting for people in different periods of time. Contemporary scientists and researchers try to analyse the poem in terms of direct and hidden meanings created with the help of literary means such as ambiguity, tone, undecidability, and irony.

The poem “Ulysses” and its tone are integral parts of a single piece of literature. If you can read the poem using a specific tone, this means that an author has done a great job while creating characters, a narrator, and appropriate setting for the story. As suggested by Furniss and Bath, tone in speech and tone in writing have a number of distinctive features and can be easily differentiated (241-242). This study also contains explanation of features typical of tone in oral speech such as voice used by the reader or performer, its melody, intonation, and other methods to use human voice; tone in writing can be characterised with the help of effective evaluation of the whole work, the attitude of a narrator, interrelations between characters, and an overall concept of the poem.

The example of tone usage can be found in the same lines when Ulysses calls his friends upon to join him in another adventure, “Tis not too late to seek a newer world. / Push off, and sitting well in order smite/ the sounding furrows…” (57-59). In other words, these lines presuppose a specific tone that would encourage the warriors and assure them of victory. When a narrator uses soothing tone, he/she is sure to express positive attitude towards the character. Scholars argue about Tennyson’s attitude towards Ulysses and cannot identify whether the author treated the main character with some irony or admired his strength and power to overcome hardships and challenges of life.

A narrator can produce irony within oral speech or in a written text as well as tone. Though there is a slight difference between written and spoken irony, it is necessary to define this concept so that it is easier to analyse it in “Ulysses”. For instance, irony can be found in the last line of the poem, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” which became prevailing in terms of the poem’s perception by the audience.

Furniss and Bath characterise situational or structural irony (referring to the one presented in the written text) as the one “produced when a character or speaker says or does something which we recognise as having an ironic significance of which he or she is unaware” (244). Introducing a narrator to the poem, the author manages to make the readers choose the right tone while reading it.

The concept of irony is the most appropriate for a poem because it enables the author to produce such meaning with the help of introducing a narrator. There are different opinions concerning the ironic meaning produced in the “Ulysses” because the same lines can be treated as an attempt to demonstrate a character’s attitude towards his wife and people whereas other scholars can identify those lines as irony when Ulysses abandons his wife (Storch 281).

Thereby, irony can be traced in a poem even if contemporary scholars try to prove that there is no ironic meaning at all by using biographic approach to analyse the poem, motivation of the author, and some symbolic meanings. The more one questions the idea of irony in the “Ulysses”, the more obvious this idea becomes. Thus, the irony is a questionable issue that can be found in every poem where a narrator provides readers with some information unknown to characters.

The meaning of the poem may seem clear till the moment when you ask yourself some questions and analyse their relevance to the piece of literature under consideration. In this respect, every question provokes some discussion that reveals additional information or requires another approach to assess a poem. For example, the following line “Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old” (49) can be interpreted in the form of antonymous meaning such as not free and constrained.

When the poem has ambiguous meaning, some lines can be treated differently with regard to different actions of a character. Thus, while addressing the character independently, the ironic meaning prevails in the “Ulysses” whereas it differs from the one when a biographic approach is used. Tucker suggests another idea to explain the ambiguous meaning of this poem:

As Tennyson’s characters are seldom responsible, so they are seldom guilty. Though we may understandably convict… Ulysses of serious crimes against themselves and against virtually anybody else who may impinge on their consciousness, we should also observe that… Ulysses [does] not experience guilt directly or practice the conscious arts of self-justification (10).

According to Tucker’s perspective, the poem can be considered with a clear meaning and containing no irony.

The meaning of the poem and character’s and narrator’s messages can be treated in different ways in terms of their interrelations. For instance, “In case, if an ambiguity concerns the speaker, it also dramatises the problematic relationship between any utterance and its origin” (Rimmon-Kenan 115). So, the attitude of a speaker, a character, and a reader with regard to initial motivation of the author contributes greatly to the meaning of the poem and its ambiguity regardless of the initial meaning intended by the author. However, it can be easier to build connections between the author, characters, and readers if one knows about the real motivation of an author and critical acclaims such as comparison of the poem “Ulysses” with Shakespeare’s and Dante’s literary works.

Undecidability is another means of literary language that finds its reflection in the poem “Ulysses” by Tennyson. The concept of undecidability can be found in many works with regard to the political powers, politics, opposition, and other concepts related to this field, whereas they have little relevance to the poetry as means of reacting to the present situation using poetic style. However, “Johnson argues that both politics and poetry exist because there is undecidability in our world” (Furniss and Bath 554).

Contemporary society as well as the one a hundred years ago can be treated similarly to the society where the main character of the “Ulysses” finds himself which supports the idea of applicability of concepts discussed in the poem to any society in any historic period. Though poetry can be considered a rather complicated form of communicating ideas, it is not much more complicated than politics that uses certain definitions and determinations to analyse the problem referring to it as the undecidability (Furniss and Bath 553).

The more complicated the problem seems to be the more appropriate it seems to be for its discussion in poetry. As ambiguous meanings and irony are widely used in poetry, an author can use the concept of undecidability to expand the most burning issues of contemporary society with regard to their relevance to the problems of the past and future.

To sum up, tone, irony, ambiguity, and undecidability can be used in poetry and are obviously traced in the “Ulysses” written by Lord Alfred Tennyson. So, a combination of different literary means and devices requires practice and talent to implement the right means in the right situations.

It is possible to assume that irony and ambiguity as well as tone and undecidability can be traced in the poem “Ulysses” while each of these concepts contributes greatly to the overall understanding and interpretation of the piece of literature. An author can introduce a narrator to use irony whereas ambiguity can be produced with the help of biographic approach used in the process of analysis of a literary work; the use of tone can be traced when reading the poem in roles while the undecidability can be interpreted when certain concepts used in the poem are applicable to different situations. Thereby, each method is appropriate to convey the meaning, especially when it is closely related to some events that took place in the life of an author.

Works Cited

Furniss, Tom and Michael Bath. Reading Poetry: An Introduction. Harlow: Pearson, Longman, 1996.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London: Taylor & Francis, 2002.

Storch, Richard F. “The Fugitive from the Ancestral Hearth: Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 13.2 (1971): 281–297.

Tucker, Herbert F. “Tennyson and the Measure of Doom.” PMLA 98.1 (1983): 8-20.

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