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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Contrast between Ulysses and My Last Duchess

“Ulysses” of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and “My Last Duchess” of Robert Browning are two good examples of Dramatic monologues written during the Victorian age. So, naturally there are some similarities from structural point of view between the two poems. However, I think that there are many differences between them and in this term paper I want to focus on the differences between these two poems.


The first thing that comes to our mind by reading the two poems is that “Ulysses” is a poem about seeking knowledge and physical journey, while “My Last Duchess” is mainly about power and pride. The duke is very powerful and he always reminds others of his power and authority. He expects others to be humble in front of him and obey his every command. The Duchess did not listen to him and he became very angry and killed her.


There is no doubt that Ulysses was a very powerful man of ancient Greece. If we read “Iliad” of Homer, then it is very clear that he was one of the top generals in Greek army and was very clever. More than everything, Ulysses was the king of Ithaca and he was the all in all in his own kingdom. Undoubtedly, he was the most powerful man of Ithaca. On the other hand, the Duke was the Duke of a small area and naturally, there was a king above him. Still, Ulysses acted with politeness to others. We understand this matter from his speech to the sailors:


…..My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me,--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,-- you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.


As for knowledge, Ulysses was always dedicated for gaining knowledge and experience. During his time, most people did not give value to this matter and that is why, Ulysses was not satisfied with his countrymen. He said in the openings stanza of the poem that people of his country only knew about eating and sleeping and did not understand him. The Duke showed off to others all the time that he was a man of high culture, but the reality was that he did not have any interest about knowledge.


In “My Last Duchess”, we find a lot of description about renaissance art. It was clear that the Duke was a fan of art and painting. But, I got the feeling by reading the poem that he was interested about painting only to show off to others that he came from an aristocratic family. He knew how to spend money smartly and collect quality paintings and statues, but he did not appreciate art for art’s sake. Art was a device for him to show his authority. He always felt that he was different from others and he had high taste. On the other hand, in “Ulysses”, we can not find any description of any painting or statues but it seems to me that Ulysses himself was an artist of life. He wanted to find true meaning of life and how to live happily. His art was to teach others about the value of knowledge and wisdom.


“My Last Duchess” is a poem about renaissance time and we know that humanity, individualism and freedom are the important features of renaissance age. The Duke is always eager to show that he is a renaissance man and he appreciates art and painting. However, in his heart, he did not have any respect towards humanity, individualism and freedom. In stead, he was power-hungry just like many people during the time of Ulysses. On the other hand, Ulysses had some kinds of renaissance spirit in him and that is why, he gave value to knowledge and experience, although he spent most of his time in fighting. He understood that knowledge is higher than authority. Thus, we find a paradox in these two poems.


The Duke is very possessive. He wanted that his wife only smiles at him and he can enjoy the beauty of his wife alone. However, in return, he was not ready to give any love or emotion to his wife. He only cared for his own pleasure and he was a very selfish husband and a very selfish man in his personal life. He is not ready to sacrifice anything for anyone, but he feels that because he was born in a 900-year-old family, others must obey him without any question. On the other hand, it is clear that Ulysses had sacrificed a lot for his soldiers. That is why, even in old age, they are ready to accompany him in his adventure. There is a strong possibility that all of them would die but still, they are ready to accompany Ulysses in his last voyage. Thus, Ulysses won the loyalty and respect of his fellow sailors by respecting them first.


The idea of civilization is very important in both of these two poems. Ulysses was unhappy with his people because he thought that his countrymen were savage. Even he was not so satisfied with his wife and son. He could easily decide to leave them even at old age. Ulysses believes that he is more civilized and higher than the people around him. However, this kind of feeling did not destroy his politeness. He knows that he has earned this higher status with his own personal efforts. On the other hand, the Duke had done nothing to have this feeling of civilization in himself. He was only born in a rich and powerful family. He could spend freely for art and entertainment. For him, civilization was nothing more than possessing a pretty wife, being the Duke of an area and managing some beautiful paintings.


Ulysses was a spiritual person and he had depth in his personality. On the other hand, the Duke was a surface person. He did not have any spirituality. He did not care to go deep any matter. He did not even try to think which way he could make his wife listen to his wanted. He just knew that his wife must listen to her or she would be punished. Thus, it is natural his wife suffered a lot in married life and death saved her from more torture.


The Duke was a very good example of materialism. He only cared for his own benefit and own consumption. He liked a painting and he must have it. He liked a beautiful woman (The Duchess) and he must have it. He can not think of any other way. He does not care for any good idea. From this matter, Ulysses was just the opposite. He spent all his life not just for his own glory, but also for his ideas. He is the symbol of idealism. Ulysses has some goals in life. He is not satisfied with just ruling his countrymen. He does not like to control other people that much but he wants to bring good things for everyone. He believed that knowledge is supreme and for this matter he is again going out on a sea voyage.


What I feel is that although the two main characters of these two poems are exactly opposite, the two poets had the same goals with their poems. They are both idealists in their message. Tennyson has showed the positive side of human characteristics. His hero Ulysses is full of good qualities. Ulysses is not an ordinary person. He is attractive to many readers and it is true that most of us can not become like Ulysses but still we like his ideas. We know that he is an extra-ordinary man and if possible, we should try to be like him. On the other hand, Browning has created the character of Duke in his poem and the Duke is narrating the whole story. However, Browning does not like the character of the Duke. Browning has used subtle ironies to show his displeasure about the Duke. Although he is the main character in “My Last Duchess”, the readers know very well that the Duke is not a person that we like to follow.


May be, many of us in our personal life are somehow similar to Duke but in the end, we are not proud of this matter. Browning has given us the feeling that the Duke is everything opposite to goodness and idealism. So, Browning has also made the readers aware about idealism and spirituality in life. I feel that Browning has been more successful in giving his message of idealism because he could create a lot of reactions in the mind of the readers. When we read “My Last Duchess”, we know that the Duke is showing off a lot and he is a very bad person. He is all the time saying bad words about the Duchess but the more he says the more readers realize that the Duchess was a noble lady. The readers also understand that the way of the Duke was very bad.


In conclusion, I like to say that with all the contrasting ideas presented in “Ulysses” and “My Last Duchess”, they have almost similar message.

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