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“Ulysses” and “The Seafarer”: Erasing the Edge Between Life and Fiction

Both Lord Alfred Tennyson’s dramatic monologue, “Ulysses,” and Ezra Pound’s 1912 translation of the Old English dramatic monologue “The Seafarer” depict a man’s musings about seaward journeys. Tennyson wrote “Ulysses” in the wake of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallam’s death. “The Seafarer” has traditionally been recognised for its overtly elegiac overtones. One may assume that their similarity in setting and style would thus render thematic parallels. In fact, as this paper will attempt to demonstrate by analysing sound elements and syntactic components, the poems’ thematic interests are similar, but in intentional stance, incommensurable. The former poem looks optimistically—even idealistically— to the human capacity to embrace change and adventure, while the latter reflects mournfully on the transience and loss inherent to human existence.

Ulysses’ active voice, rich in direct syntax, can sustain long sentences while maintaining a powerful, regal tone befitting a king. Like “The Seafarer,” the speaker muses upon his surroundings rather than himself: “By this still hearth, among these barren crags, / matched with an aged wife,” (2-3) but reveals himself through this process: “I am a part of all that I have met,” (18). This is apparent in syntactic arrangement as well. Like “The Seafarer,” some of the basic transitive sentences of “Ulysses” invert the normal subject/verb/object word order. “Much have I seen and known,” (13) means I have seen and known much; but the poet emphasizes the priority of sight and visual images before knowledge. In “Ulysses,” it is arguable that the form of dramatic monologue is more direct than in “The Seafarer”. Besides including far fewer inverted sentences, the former poem produces the impression of one or more audiences who actively listen to the speech. Line 33’s direct object pronoun, “This is my son,” and other prepositions which initiate new sections of his speech, indicate specific contextual placement. These indications, as well as present tense speech and the natural flow of his blank verse situate Ulysses in a present, specific moment. These formal conventions would meet the standards of the dramatic monologue more fully than “The Seafarer”, if not for the former speaker’s explicit intention to interact with his memories.

Consider the Seafarer’s first lines: “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, / journey’s jargon,” (1-2). They offer layers of dense repetition in which to enter the reflective monologue. Between the subject, “I”, and the deferred predicate compliment “song’s truth” is a densely reflective subordinate clause. In it is another possessive arrangement –“my own”— which the reader may open, only to find another inside, like Russian dolls. “Reckon,” being a verb, is the most active and direct part of the sentence, denotes contemplation and reflection. Finally, “journey’s jargon” confirms more explicitly what the sentence structure had implied— and implies that the jargon in which he speaks is itself a journey. This repetitive syntax communicates both the speaker’s intention to reflect, but also conveys the effect of reflection in the line’s arrangement. The conspicuously folded form of the lines lends itself to displaying inner recesses of progressively more symbolic meaning.

Like “Ulyesses,” syntax within sentences is often rearranged in the latter poem. Predicate consistently, almost formally, appears before subject within phrases. On a larger scale, too, entire phrases are presented as noun phrases, connected passively by punctuation alone: “Coldly afflicted, / my feet were by frost benumbed. / Chill its chains are…” (8-10). In longer sentences, successions these images cause the reader to form his own connotative connections between them. Often only the pronoun “I” or “my” connects the images, letting the reader fill in a portrayal of the speaker himself. The effect is not only a speaker illustrated and depicted by his own listed images, but also resounding metaphors formed by the repetition of the motifs of these images.

In line 21, “sea fowls’ loudness was for me laughter,” the sound-image of raucous ocean birds appears before the metaphor is assigned. Two lines later, with “the mew’s singing all my mead-drink,” (23) a repetition of denotation in this same form progresses the personification to a deeper level of connotation. To the speaker, birds are not only good company but their companionship is his sustenance. A third time, during an icy storm when “the eagle screamed,” (12) a pattern has been established, and so the reader may follow the sound-image to his own connotation. At this point, however, the sound-image is so enmeshed with the sensory motif of ice, winter, hail and cold, through a listed repetition, that the eagle’s scream does not symbolize a jubilant cry of freedom. That is, patterns of motif established into symbolism limit the reader’s subjective interpretation.

Without apology or florid language Ulysses proclaims: “I cannot rest from travel,” (6). The sentence is plain and unadorned. But, like “The Seafarer,” the speaker expounds upon this thesis, with each repetition adding new meanings. Though images are sometimes given priority syntactically, most sentences are basic transitive ones. It is continual movement, he claims, that drives our knowledge. He declares that to remain in stasis is to rust what could have shined, (23). If we do not literally broaden our horizons through travel, the consequence is worse than restless boredom: it is oblivion, or “that eternal silence,” (27). The three lines which visualize this interrupt the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter by containing spondees to draw the reader’s attention. “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move,” (19-21). In these emphasized lines, experience is drawn spatially; it is bound geographically and thus may be explored physically and visually. The infinite may always be present precisely because it can never be within reach. Imagine parallel lines which regress to the horizon, at which point their parallel seems to end because they appear to meet. In order to prod the boundaries of that finitude, one must continually move towards the horizon point, banishing the horizon point, the end, ever further— “to sail beyond the sunset,” (60).

In “The Seafarer,” evolving repetition is prevalent in sound elements before it is made explicit thematically. Formally maintained alliteration such as “hew my heart round and hunger begot” (11) not only reinforces the poem’s internal rhythm, but also uses the periphrastic nature of Old English’s grammar to enhance this repetition. Like the effect of thunder and lightening—but reversed—this line’s heaving passion impinges on the reader before the phrase’s full meaning is established. Thus when the image does appear in its completion, this presentation is already a repetition. Developments of alliteration, such as the onomatopoeia of line 6’s “sea-surge” further bind imagery to the poem’s sound qualities, giving the speaker rhetorical momentum. The combined consonance and assonance of “narrow nightwatch nigh” (7) enrich visual and sound elements by showcasing their formal interplay.

In “Ulysses,” clauses of sentences consistently do not end with the end of a line. “The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / moans round with many voices,” (55-6). This enjambment works to convey Ulysses’ dissatisfaction with the finite bounds of human mortality. He wishes to break through these limits; go beyond the finitude of old age and death. Enjambment is conspicuous in sentences regarding this motif; those which mention death and dying suspiciously lack enjambment.

Both diction and syntax function to emphasize key thematic elements in “The Seafarer”. In several instances throughout the poem, kenning expresses a metaphorical name for a noun; such as “lone-flyer” for cuckoo, (62) “whale-path” for ocean, (63) and “sword-hate” for war (70). These phrases each present a vivid thematic portrayal through symbolism. Being a dramatic monologue, it is through these conventions that the speaker’s own solitude, need for seaward journey, and resignation from world of men is implicitly revealed.

This tension is then universalized. Pound interrupts his established visual pattern by isolating single lines: “hardship endured oft,” (3) “Deprived of my kinsmen,” (16) and “Daring ado,” (76) are the three prominent examples. The latter is a sad understatement depicting the meagre consequence of so many brave and virtuous deeds. Each of these epigrammatic lines conveys a direct thematic revelation, rather than the subtler, more indirect revealing of kenning. These statements are broader in scope, more objective and assignable to an attitude or philosophy about the nature of the world. Because of this fundamental suffering and loss in human life, the dramatic monologue is able to assume an elegiac mood even while the speaker lives. “Days little durable,” (81) ends a section, while the next begins on line 86’s “Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!” This essential mutability and transience of all worldly things is made explicit only near the end of Pound’s translation, but pervades the poem through the speaker’s personal experience of suffering. Though the icy cold, storms, loneliness and restlessness seem to be experienced differently, at the root of the speaker’s experience of each of these forms of suffering is a fundamental lack of permanence in the world.

When Odysseus looks at the fading margins of the horizon, he too seeks a basic transience. This mutability, however, is a buoyant salvation. The forever-changing nature of knowledge is Odysseus’ bastion against the oblivion of stasis. Odysseus embraces the impermanence of knowledge as a salvation, or at least rebellion, against mortality. Infinity is real precisely because it is never attainable, forever just beyond our horizon, real in the possibilities of adventure. The primordial transience of “The Seafarer,” however, is a great source of the speaker’s suffering. As the poem subtly reveals, it is the source of all suffering. It enables the speaker’s paradoxical affliction in land and at sea, with solitude and in society. Only loss, pain and isolation can be made real in a world where all things lack permanence. Pound cuts his translation short before the poem may end as a prayer: “Lord without end, to all eternity,”.

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