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Lord Alfred Tennyson's Ulysses vs T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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Two Sides of a Coin

Every man has struggled and will struggle against time. As human beings learn and grow throughout life, we struggle with our identities and how our words and actions reflect who we are. We struggle with the decision between action and inaction. We struggle with acknowledging and recognizing negative events and letting it passed unnoticed. For some, “he who hesitates is lost” is their life’s mantra. However, for others, they would prefer to “act in haste, repent at leisure.” These opposite viewpoints are expressed clearly in Lord Alfred Tennyson and T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Tennyson’s Ulysses and Eliot’s Prufrock are both men who travel through life, although with sharply contrasting views on life and of themselves as individuals.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an internal monologue (Brooker). This poem concerns man’s struggle of identity, and according to Brooker, “[t]he theme is the divided self as it struggles to cope in a modern world without friends and without God.” “Ulysses” is a dramatic monologue, in which he is struggling with the common human experience and “is consumed with an insatiable desire…to go beyond the boundaries of human experience and knowledge in order to look into the uncharted territory of life after death,” (Bloom). However, these men have two very different voices and outlooks on life.

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Prufrock is “unable to fix his identity,” (Barnsley). His first question is, “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” (11). When he entreats the readers to not ask, however, his hesitant and unacknowledging voice is made clear. After this bold question, Prufrock retreats to his two-lined refrain, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” in which he treats to trivial conversations because he is too afraid to acknowledge his question (13-14). In contrast, Ulysses’ confident and self-assured character is revealed by the poem’s structure because there are six stanzas, of five lines, six lines, twenty-one lines, eleven lines, eighteen lines, and nine lines. These chunks of lines represent Ulysses as a healthy and well-muscled ancient Greek who took on the world and survived. He also believes “It little profits that an idle king,” which challenges Prufrock’s hesitancy and repeated breaks to retreat to the refrain (1). Ulysses also claims he will “drink / Life to the lees,” which is his equivalent of sucking the marrow out of life, of truly living and taking advantage of every opportunity (7). In contrast, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is simply one missed opportunity after another, as he remains silent because he is afraid of what others think of him, the fears and insecurities he places in brackets, such as “[They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!]” and “[grown slightly bald],” “ (41-82). Prufrock even goes as far as to acknowledge his hesitancy when he says, “And time yet for a hundred indecisions / And for a hundred visions and revisions,” (32-33). While Prufrock is frightened at the thought of being alone and rejected and mocked, Ulysses states “all times I have enjoyed / Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those / That loved me, and alone;” (8-10). Ulysses is not ashamed of being alone, or afraid of suffering. Prufrock, however, has “seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker,” (84). Ulysses’ self-assured and forceful tone is made clear when he says, “I am become a name; / For always roaming with a hungry heart / Much have I seen and known…Myself not least, but honors of them all;” (11-15). Ulysses is very proud and self-confident. He believes he is great, and he has also done great feats to match his attitude. He is not ashamed to flaunt and boast of what he has done. On the other hand, Prufrock is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am and attendant lord,” (111-112). Prufrock’s voice is timid, and he says that he is small, that he was not meant to me. In the second line, he omits the “I” and further devalues himself, in contrast to Ulysses’ strong “I” statement: “I am become a name,” (11). Prufrock also has a very dawdling attitude, exemplified when he says, “There will be time…There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; / There will be time to murder and create,” (24-28). However, Prufrock does pose a few interesting questions. He asks, “And indeed there will be a time / To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, “Do I dare?’…Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (37-46). Prufrock’s contemplation of disturbing the universe and doing something with his life connects to Ulysses’ achievements and adventures, where “Much ha[s he] seen and known; cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments,” (15). Ulysses’ strong voice is summarized at the close of the poem he concludes, “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” (70). Prufrock, on the other hand, Prufrock says “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me,” (124-125). Each man has a unique and individual voice: Ulysses is very self-confident and satisfied with his life, whereas Prufrock continually hesitates and is not really living.

Although Prufrock’s stalling intent and voice s very different from Ulysses’s head-on approach, these two men do share a few similarities. Ulysses laments that he must “mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me,” (3-5). He mourns his kingship and relationships with people who do not know who he truly is, and who do not share his dedication to life, but are instead only “hoard, and sleep, and feed,” (5). Prufrock feels this as well. He cannot bring himself to speak of important social events in fear of people not understanding, and simply responding, “‘That is not what I mean at all. / That is not it, at all,” (97-98). In both poems, the men are approaching old age. Ulysses is “Matched with an aged wife,” (3) and Prufrock states, “I grow old…I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” (120-121). However, although both men are approaching old age, their approaches are different. Ulysses views death as another adventure, and he laments his old age, saying, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!” (22-23). In contrast, Prufrock will “wear the bottoms of [his] trousers rolled,” as to not get himself dirty with life, preoccupying himself with trivial questions, such as “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” (122). Ulysses says, “you and I are old; / Old age hath yet his honor and his toil; / Death closes all;” (49-51). Ulysses is not afraid of death, but instead views it as another obstacle he can conquer. Although both men have very different voices, they do share touches of the same feelings.

Each of the poems has a unique and individual voice. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is a very confident, rugged, and strong ancient Greek who lives life to the fullest and views death as another adventure. In contrast, Eliot’s Prufrock in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shies away from the conflicts in life, and constantly hesitates and avoids confrontations. Both men are metaphors for the common human existence, as men from all walks of life and time periods and geographical locations have struggled with their identities and view on life. Indeed, Ulysses “acts in haste, and repents in leisure,” while Prufrock is “he who hesitates is lost.” Although there are men who are Ulysses, and men who are Prufrock, those of us who are still growing and learning can view and gauge the lives of both men in order to figure out and choose our own paths.

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