A dramatic monologue is a type of lyric poem that features a single fictional or historical speaker expressing their thoughts and feelings to an imaginary silent audience. The distinctive features of a dramatic monologue are as follows:
The speaker is a single person who is not the poet and who delivers the entire poem in a specific situation at a critical moment. The speaker interacts with one or more other people, and the audience’s presence and reaction are inferred from clues in the speaker’s words. A dramatic monologue focuses on the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.
Robert Browning is famous for his dramatic monologues, such as “My Last Duchess,” “Andrea del Sarto,” and “Fra Lippo Lippi.”
Tennyson is another Victorian poet who excelled at composing dramatic monologues. His well-known poem “Ulysses” is an excellent example of this form, as he adopts the classical hero Ulysses (or Odysseus) as the main character.
In “Ulysses,” the speaker is Ulysses himself, expressing his thoughts and feelings to silent listeners. He stands before the royal palace of Ithaca, speaking to the mariners who were his fellow travelers during his long journey to Troy. The monologue begins with Ulysses’ cynical remarks about life:
“It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags, That hoard and steep and feed and know not me.”
Ulysses, a man of nimble wit, is dissatisfied with his life among his subjects, who are unaware of his heroic qualities. Even his aged wife, Penelope, cannot understand his heroic soul. But it is not until he says, “I cannot rest from travel, I will drink life to the lees,” that his intentions become clear.
By “travel,” he means the journey he made to rescue Helen from Paris and the perilous journey after the destruction of Troy. He refuses to take rest and is determined to live a life of adventure to the very end. He compares life to a cup of wine, which a man drinks until he reaches the sediment at the bottom.
Ulysses will taste all aspects of life without leaving anything behind, expressing his insatiable passion for knowledge. He is a man who can never rest from the pursuit of knowledge.
Even in his old age, Ulysses is driven by the knowledge and experience he has gained to sail in quest of more knowledge. He knows that a life spent in idleness is no life at all. Just as a sword loses its polish and gets rusty if kept out of use for too long, so will vigor and energy be dulled and blunted without exercise.
He is perfectly aware that knowledge is vast and unlimited, and our life on earth is too short to learn everything. Even a number of lives taken together would be too short to gain all knowledge. Therefore, he is determined to make the best of every moment of the remaining years of his life. To him, an hour spent in some profitable work means an hour saved from the silence of death.
The monologue reaches its climax when Ulysses inspires his sailors and makes an appeal to them to enter upon a life of exploration with great courage. He believes that old men can still earn great glory and achieve great deeds. The paths of knowledge may be full of dangers, but Ulysses is strongly determined. Finally, he makes a noble resolution to carry on his quest, undaunted by the passing of his youth and bodily strength. Even old age cannot rob great men of their courage, bravery, and other spiritual qualities.
He asks his sailors to show the same courage that they had in their youth. He reminds them that every one of them is brave and strong-willed, and that every one of them knows how to labor, struggle hard, and pursue a great aim. Every one of them will tough out any bad situation and never bow their head before hardships or troubles.
Through Ulysses’ monologue, Tennyson portrays the character’s unrelenting passion for knowledge and his desire to make the most of his remaining years. Ulysses’ unwavering determination to continue his pursuit of knowledge and adventure even in old age is a source of inspiration and a reminder that age should not be a barrier to achieving great things.
Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is a testament to the power of dramatic monologue, which allows for the creation of a vivid and complex character through the speaker’s words and actions. The technique of the dramatic monologue has been used by many great poets, including Robert Browning, who is widely regarded as one of the foremost practitioners of the form.
In Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” for example, the speaker, a powerful duke, reveals his possessiveness and jealousy through his conversation with an envoy who has come to negotiate the duke’s next marriage. Similarly, in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the speaker’s stream-of-consciousness monologue reveals his feelings of inadequacy and isolation.
Dramatic monologues are an effective means of exploring the psychology of characters and revealing their innermost thoughts and emotions. Through the words of the speaker, the audience gains insight into the character’s motivations, fears, and desires.
In conclusion, the dramatic monologue is a powerful poetic form that allows for the creation of complex and multifaceted characters. Through the words of the speaker, the audience gains insight into the character’s inner world and is transported to a specific time and place. “Ulysses” by Tennyson is a prime example of the dramatic monologue form, and its enduring popularity is a testament to the power of this poetic technique.