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"TO STRIVE, TO SEEK, TO FIND, AND NOT TO YIELD": ULYSSES AS SIREN IN TENNYSON'S POEM JOHN G. PETERS The Pennsylvania State University Since its publication, Tennyson's "Ulysses" has excited a variety of reactions. There have been interpretations, re-interpretations, and reconciliations of interpretations of the poem. Some see Ulysses as heroic; some see him as derelict, while others place him somewhere between these two poles.1 These conflicting views primarily focus on Ulysses' proposed journey. In short, Ulysses desires, though old, to go out in search of greater knowledge and experience, but in so doing he leaves his wife, son, people, homeland, and reign.2 In addition, we know both from Dante's account and from Ulysses' own statements in Tennyson's poem that his journey will end in death. And so Ulysses' journey is problematic. However, ultimately, the answer to whether Ulysses is heroic or derelict is not either/or but rather both. Ulysses' speech is indeed a positive, motivational exhortation, and yet it is also a seductive and dangerous deception. As a result, Ulysses fulfills a dual role, that of leader and that of deceiver. And in a sense the roles of leader and deceiver are the same in the poem, because Ulysses leads his mariners by seducing them as Sirens had tried to seduce Ulysses in The Odyssey. But Ulysses does not just seduce his mariners; his voice also reaches out in seductive fashion from the poem to those past and present who hear Ulysses' voice. Few would deny the eloquence and persuasive power of the poem, especially Ulysses' closing speech. There is perhaps no more vigorous and motivating passage in could follow these?"3 T.S Eliot speaks of the poem's "verbal beauty."4 And John Pettigrew calls it "a splendid piece of oratory."5 However, the very eloquence and rhetorical persuasion in the poem is problematic. IfUlysses' proposal is admirable in and ofitself, then the necessity of such rhetorical persuasion is questionable. The mariners do not carefully consider their reason for leaving; Ulysses' Victorian Review 20.2 (Winter 1994) JOHN G. PETERS135 rhetoric appeals to their emotions, reminding them of past glory and adventure, and they are quickly aboard for the voyage. Ulysses says, "There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail"; shortly afterwards, he says, "Push off, and sitting well in order smite/The sounding furrows." First, he merely shows them the ship, but soon they are aboard and ready to set sail — ominously at night. An implicit meaning then appears quite different from the explicit display of inexorable will and the necessity to go forth and brave life. Ulysses becomes not just a leader in the sense of Homer's hero, but also one who leads men from safety to death. In persuading his mariners from life to death, Ulysses functions as a Siren in the poem. His persuasive power resembles that of Homer's Sirens. The promises he makes of greater knowledge and the persuasive eloquence with which he makes these promises are similar to the promises and persuasion of Homer's Siren. In The Odyssey, both Circe and Odysseus speak of the Sirens; first, Circe tells Odysseus: "Whoever in ignorance nears them and hears the voice Of the Sirens — for that man, his wife and infant children Do not stand by or rejoice at his homeward return, But the Sirens enchant him with their clear-toned song, Seated in a meadow. About is a large heap of bones, Of men rotting, and the skin is shrinking around them." (12:30-46)6 Shortly thereafter, Odysseus confirms Circe's warning when he records the Sirens' enticing song: "Come near, much-praised Odysseus, the Achaians' great glory Bring your ship in, so you may listen to our voice. No one ever yet sped past this place in a black ship Before he listened to the honey-toned voice from our mouths, And then he went off delighted and knowing more things, for we know all the many things that in broad Troy The Argives and the Trojans suffered at the will of the gods. We know all that come to be on the much-nourished earth." (12:183...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 134-141
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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