Memory in Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and Kipling’s ‘Man who would be King’

In Tennyson’s Ulysses, Ulysses remembers his youthful adventurous days with much nostalgia. He has lived a full vivacious life and is now growing agitated from staying at home with his ‘old’ wife. In the poem, Ulysses remembers the Trojan wars in which he fought gallantly. The narrator is reminiscent of the days of glory in the battlefields, where he together with his army were able to triumph over their enemies and thus save his people from conquests and suffering. Despite his age, Ulysses wants to go back and re-live these experiences. Thus, memory is thematically used to portray Ulysses age-defying heroism. Ulysses speaks in the past tense because he is remembering the days when he was more robust and was able to accomplish heroic feats for his land. For any hero, memories are critical as they ascertain, at least on a personal level, the achievements that one has made in the past thereby boosting morale in times that require strength and courage.

Tennyson’s memories are of his drinking life to its last drop whether bitter or sweet. He remembers his days of great happiness and great suffering in one breath. He says; ‘All times I have enjoy’d. Greatly, have suffer’d greatly’ (Tennyson 21). He also recounts going through joy and sorrow, sometimes alone. His nostalgic memories conjure traits of heroism, for instance when he says; ‘And drunk delight of battle with my peers, far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. I am a part of all that I have met’ (Tennyson 23). This memory illustrates his bravery and courage; he endured both good and difficult circumstances. In Tennyson’s Ulysses, the narrator has now aged, and is an old man, desiring to go back to his youthful days but is unable to. Therefore, he can only remember and pine for the days when he was not ‘idle’. Hence, the theme of memory is incorporated to reveal Ulysses’ heroic past.

The style of memory also reveals that Ulysses was deeply attached to his days of battle, his crew and the experiences he gained during this legendary period. This period propelled him to his current celebrated status. His nostalgic memories of days gone therefore reveal that Ulysses’ spirit of heroism continued until his ripe old age, and he deeply treasured the memories of defending his country and his people against enemy forces. He says, ‘To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die’ (Tennyson 24). This shows that even in his old age, he would prefer to go out to sea than stay at home and rest. The narrator is fond of his past memories, which signifies his discontentment with his present life and a deep yearning for the past. The theme of memory also shows that heroism is a state of mind. This is evidenced by the fact that Ulysses despite his frailty and old age is so tough-minded that he believes that he would be able to live the way he had lived before when he had sufficient strength and vigor. He speaks of his past so confidently and asserts that he would still be able to travel the seas despite his age.

In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The man who would be king’, memory is used to tell the story of two soldiers who were tired of their mediocre lives and believed that they could use their wit and shrewdness to make people believe that they were kings. These two men are Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan. The story is told by the narrator Kipling through the style of memory. The narrator remembers the two men’s burning ambition to do something significant with their lives. As he recounts the story, he makes it seem like Dravot and Carnehan were exceptional men, who had deserved to become heroes while in reality, the two men were just regular people who used the naivety of the Kafiristans to their advantage (Kipling 32). Memory therefore blunts the individual’s memory such that he is only able to remember the outstanding qualities of the individual. Memory also causes the individual to magnify acts of heroism, which in normal circumstances would seem quite ordinary.

The heroes in this story, Carnehan and Dravot invoke memories of strong faith and self-belief. The two men did not have a bright future but together they believed that they would be able to come up with an idea that would propel them to fame and fortune. Hence, they decided to go somewhere that would allow them to leave a mark in the world. Due to their strong faith, they encounter many hardships on their way that would otherwise cause them to despair but they trudge on, strongly believing that there would be better fortunes for them ahead. The heroes also invoke memories of the demise caused by excessive power and fame. As the king and god of the Kafiristans, Carnehan became so powerful that he himself came to believe that he was a god and the son of Alexander the Great. This power made him so arrogant even towards his friend Dravot such that he commanded Dravot to bow before him. His power also led to his downfall because it gave him a sense of entitlement. He claimed one of the girls to be his wife, but she bit his neck fearing that if she kissed him she would die. Upon seeing blood, the Kafiristans realized that he was neither God nor the Devil and thus send him to his death (Kipling 40).

Dravot recounts the events that occurred in Kafiristan to the narrator from memory. Thus, memory plays a significant role in enhancing the continuity of the story. The story is told from both the narrators and Dravot’s memory of events. Memory is also important because it determines the heroes’ course of action. Carnehan became so self-absorbed after he gained power and became ‘God’ that he forgot who he was prior to going to Kafiristan. This made him start believing within himself that he was indeed God and had insurmountable power over the people. This led to his downfall eventually. Dravot on the other hand did not lose memory of who he was and where he had come from and therefore did not let himself become obsessed with the newly found power. He even desired to take his share of their wealth and go back home, unlike Carnehan who desired to rule over the people as their God forever.

Therefore, memory is important because it ensures that the hero remains grounded despite the power and fame he achieves. Indeed, being heroism does not come to those with feeble hearts or those without the aspirations to become great. Memories aid in providing the hero with a past recollection of great fetes that spur the individual towards even greater achievements.

Works Cited

Kipling, Rudyard. The Man Who Would Be King. New York, NY: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2008. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred. Ulysses. Paris, France: Ferran jeune, 1923. Print.


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