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Ilie Andreea

Anul II, seria 2 ,grupa 7

C+S Alina Bottez

The Dramatic Monologue in Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson

This essay proposes the discussion of the general characteristics of the Victorian dramatic
monologue, but also its particularities regarding Alfred Tennysons poems, especially Ulysses.
Therefore, the main ideas that are going to be looked upon are the way the dramatic monologue
is built, the general features applied on Tennysons Poetry and the form and principles found in
the poem mentioned before.

Firstly, a definition offered by J.A. Cuddon in Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary
Theory describes the Dramatic Monologue as A poem in which there is one imaginary speaker
addressing an imaginary audience. In most dramatic monologues some attempt is made to imitate
natural speech. In a successful example of the genre, the persona (q.v) will not be confused with
the poet. That is to say a soliloquy or a unilateral dialogue. Isobel Armstrong sees the Dramatic
Monologue as literally two things at once: lyric and drama concurrently.(Isobel Armstrong,
123). She also adds that while the monologue contracts and intensifies the huge metaphysical
and philosophical concerns of the earlier poems, the dramatic decenters both speakers and
reader, questioning the authority of both (Isobel Armstrong, 283). This leads to the fact that
what remains palpable is the interpretation of the speakers behavior, manner of talking, thoughts
and feelings etc.

Another definition is the one given by Joseph Bristow who sees the dramatic monologue
as The notion of creating a vehicle for the performance of thoughts and adds that the poems
themselves are performative and seek some effect (John Bristow, 67). This effect, he notes, can
be understood as a process or and end that the poem seeks to highlight. For Bristow, what
really makes the dramatic monologue distinguish itself from other genres is its discursive, even
conversational, nature. This is also the reason the monologue becomes dramatic (John Bristow,

Ioana Zirra defines Victorian poetry as a form of fictionalised public letter-writing

(Ioana Zirra, 40). This can be explained by looking at the aspects she later notes on the

Ilie Andreea
Anul II, seria 2 ,grupa 7
C+S Alina Bottez

dramatized poetic voice which demonstrates that poetry becomes ventriloquy, being voiced
through a mask (Ioana Zirra, 41). Zirra understands the Dramatic Monologue as public because,
by using the allegory and by being voiced as a fairytale or as medieval legend, its purpose is to
serve the Victorian public morally and psychologically (Ioana Zirra, 41). Furthermore, the
lessons that Tennyson intends to transmit through his dramatic monologues are listed by the
same Ioana Zirra as follows: art versus conventional life, the opposition between the man of
aspiration and the man of convention and lastly, the conflict between the sentimental craving
of man versus his limited life doomed to defeat(Ioana Zirra, 42).

In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, Joseph Bristow too introduces the
concept of mask when he quotes Elisabeths A. Howe observations about the common
principle that all dramatic monologues share: their identification of the speaker as someone
other than the poet. And this mask could take the form of, as the two of them understood it, a
mythical, historical or fictional figure (Joseph Bristow, 70).

When it comes to the poem Ulysses, the mask that performs the soliloquy is the well-
known Homeric and eponymous hero. This is a characteristic that, according to Ioana Zirra,
applies to all Victorian poetry which is obsessed by the great ideas of a fictionalised past and
contains numerous references to myths and folkloric elements (Ioana Zirra, 40). The purpose of
this revitalization of classic literature is here, as mentioned before, to create a contrast between
the man that follows the rules imposed upon him by society and the man that aspires to exceed
his mediocre existence. Bristow notes on this subject, as well. The poem tries to accomplish for
its speaker what he veraciously seeks; and because Ulysses seeks escape from his island, the
end of the poem here is Ulysses's next voyage (Joseph Bristow, 72).

Additionally, this unilateral dialogue can be separated in three parts: first, Ulysses
laments over his unfulfilling position as a king while he yearns for new adventures; then he
introduces his son to whom he will leave the sceptre and the isle and last, he addresses his
mariners to instigate to a future, possible journey. Within these parts, hints concerning the
characterization of Ulysses can be found. For instance, the major theme of travelling is
associated with desire for knowledge which leads to the interpretation that not only travel is the

Ilie Andreea
Anul II, seria 2 ,grupa 7
C+S Alina Bottez

only way of pursuing that yearning, but his need of it is very extreme, giving the fact that his
responsibilities as a ruler, as a father and as a husband fade before it.

What is also important is the characters perspective upon human existence which is also
displayed by means of the monologue. It is mans duty to do more in his life than breathing; it is
his moral duty to learn and make progress, to exceed his destiny as a limited creature. And even
though man is aware of his inevitable death that transforms his efforts and struggles into sand in
the wind, he must nevertheless strive, seek, find for man is part of all he had met. Thus, he
continues to live within others just as other people, who influenced him throughout his life,
continue to live in him. For Ulysses this is the only way to defeat death and destiny, to overcome
his condition.

Joseph Bristow mentions that The power of the poemlies in his choice of a critical
historical moment, his suspension of a story at its penultimate point. This means that the
monologue is placed before the tragic events of his final journey and it draws attention to the
powerless and insignificant human in the face of time, which he cannot control (Joseph Bristow,

In conclusion, the following facts demonstrate that Ulysses is a Dramatic Monologue.

The poetic voice is a mask whose soliloquy gives away traits about his personality. Seeing
things only from his perspective which makes him subjective and his words unreliable
contributes as well. To these we add the fact that there is a lesson to be learned and, of course,
the fact that although there are people to whom Ulysses addresses, there is no dialogue.

Ilie Andreea
Anul II, seria 2 ,grupa 7
C+S Alina Bottez


Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poets and Politics. Routledge, 1996
Bristow, Joseph. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000
Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Penguin, 1992
Zirra, Ioana. Contributions of the British 19th Century- the Victorian Age-to the History of
Literature and ideas. Editura Universitii din Bucureti, 2003