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What makes a good life? Is it a life of adventure, or of settling down? What happens when life throws challenges at you? Do you face them bravely and continue forward, or do you pull away in retreat?
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his 1842 poem 'Ulysses', explores these questions. Though it was written in 1833, it's a timeless poem about a timeless character. He wrestles with tensions, such as the tension between the lived and the unlived life, the dissatisfaction that comes with accomplishment, and the inevitable nature of one’s identity.
|Poet||Alfred, Lord Tennyson|
|Meter||Blank verse (Unrhymed iambic pentameter)|
|Allusion||Odysseus, King of Ithaca, from Homer's The Odyssey|
|Poetic Devices||Metaphor, symbolism, contrast|
|Themes||Mortality, aging, adventure|
|Meaning||People cannot change who they are.|
Let's consider the background of the poem.
The speaker and content of Tennyson’s poem 'Ulysses' are based on the ancient Greek epic poem the Odyssey (1616) by Homer. In Homer’s Odyssey (written between 725–675 BCE), Odysseus (whose Latinized name is Ulysses) is the King of Ithaca. He journeys home for ten years after fighting in the Trojan war. Throughout his journey, he and his mariners face danger and perils of all kinds. Because he had been gone for many years, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus presume Odysseus is dead. When Odysseus finally returns home, he and Telemachus must slay the suitors who have taken over his land. Once they do so, he is reunited with Penelope. Ithaca is at peace once again, but Odysseus must leave on another brief journey to appease Poseidon, the god of the sea and waters.
Tennyson wasn't the only writer inspired by Homer's Odyssey. You may have heard of the novel Ulysses, written by Irish author James Joyce. Published in 1922, this novel draws on Odysseus and the Odyssey. The main character, Leopold Bloom, represents Odysseus (Ulysses), and the narrative recounts one ordinary day in his life. Each episode of this day corresponds with a section of the Odyssey. In the novel Ulysses, however, there aren't gods, monsters, storms, or shipwrecks -- instead, it's full of mundane things, making it a masterpiece of satire. Despite many readers finding it difficult to read due to its structure, style, and language, Joyce's Ulysses is considered one of the greatest novels of all time.
What about the autobiographical background of the poem?
Tennyson wrote much of his best work following the sudden death of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. At the time, Tennyson was also living at home to help his mother and eight siblings after the death of their father in 1831. With increasing domestic duties — and mounting grief — Tennyson penned 'Ulysses.' In fact, Tennyson said that Ulysses’s brave defiance of his household circumstances got him interested in the Greek myth in the first place. Tennyson said1 that the poem
Gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life.
How does knowing Tennyson’s emotional and physical state during the time of writing “Ulysses” help inform your interpretation of it?
The poem begins with the speaker, Ulysses, reflecting on his present circumstances: he is old, at home, and dissatisfied with his domestic life. He states, “I cannot rest from travel” (line 6), the first indication of his unease at staying still. He then begins to reminisce about his voyages. He reflects fondly of his “always roaming with a hungry heart” (line 12) and speaks proudly of his accomplishments. He admits that “I am a part of all I have met” (line 18), yet his appetite for travel and adventure is not satisfied.
After he reminisces, he speaks again in the present moment and bemoans his current state: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rest unburnished, to not shine in use!” (lines 22-23). Here, he begins to think about the possibility of leaving again — to find new knowledge, travel uncharted seas, and embark on another journey.
The speaker then shifts his focus to his son, Telemachus, whom he admires but feels disconnected from. Ulysses draws a sharp contrast between him and his son. Where Ulysses has “drunk delight of battle with my peers, far on the ringing plains of Troy,” (lines 16-17), he sees Telemachus as tender, mild-mannered, and a ruler of the domestic sphere. Although he trusts Ithaca will be in good hands with Telemachus at the helm after he is gone, Ulysses believes the two men have divergent paths. To close this aside, he says, “He works his work, I mine” (line 43), indicating their separate ways.
Ulysses’s focus shifts from his son to the nearby port. He sees the boat, the open seas, and his mariners. He acknowledges their old age, but he believes there may be something out there that has yet to be done. He notes how the “lights begin to twinkle from the rocks” (line 54), which illustrates his growing desire for adventure. He declares, toward the end of the poem, “'Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (line 57). Even though he is not as young, strong, or energetic as he was in his youth, he cannot stop himself from going. The poem ends with the famous lines:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
(Lines 65 - 70).
|1||It little profits that an idle king,|
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
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;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. 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 honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
After reading a poem and understanding its story, your task is to then analyze it. This means you look at its poetic elements and figure out what they do for the meaning of the poem.
What is the form of the poem?
The poem is mostly written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter: A line of verse that consists of ten syllables. Each pair of syllables begins with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. For example, “It little profits that an idle king” (line 1).
When iambic pentameter is unrhymed, it has several effects. It sounds much like the natural rhythms of speech. Tennyson also may have employed blank verse as a tribute to William Shakespeare, John Milton, and others who use it in their poems and plays about epic heroes.
The iambic pentameter is occasionally interrupted in the poem, however – which is rich for analysis. Line 2 reads, “By this still hearth, among these barren crags.” There is a stress on the word “still,” which is irregular for iambic pentameter. This slows the reader down, forcing them to nearly stop — which mirrors what Ulysses is feeling at this moment.
When Ulysses is speaking of the people he governs, he says: “That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me,” (line 5). The regular iambic pentameter pattern with the first six words suggests monotony. It's then disrupted by three stressed and strong syllables. “Know not me” is something that weighs on him. That his people do not know him is a burden he must face.
Tennyson’s use of time in the poem is fluid, going from the present, to memories of the past, to looking forward to and imagining the future. This seamlessness, coupled with the poem's dramatic monologue structure, highlights Ulysses’ inner desires and qualities, rather than his actions.
Dramatic Monologue: A form of poetry in which an imagined character (the speaker) addresses a silent, unknown, or invisible listener (usually the audience or reader). In dramatic monologues, the speaker and the poet are distinct from each other.
In fact, the ending of the poem is ambiguous. It doesn’t explicitly say Ulysses gets on the boat and leaves Ithaca — he only talks about going back to sea. Tennyson's use of the fluidity of time allows readers to see Ulysses as a man yearning for more, yet stuck where he is.
What literary devices are used in the poem?
If we take the literary and autobiographical contexts into account when reading the poem, we can interpret Ulysses's desire for another quest as a desire to find the meaning of life. If he stays home, he will wither away, and perhaps the life he lived will amount to nothing. But if he goes, then he can find the answers to life that he is looking for. His life can then have meaning. This metaphor is most apparent in lines 22-23. Ulysses says, "How dull it is pause, to make an end, To rest unburnished, not to shine in use!" He compares himself to a tool that no longer has any use and becomes dull and rusty as a result.
Tennyson strikes several contrasts throughout the poem to heighten the poem’s tension and reinforce its themes. Ulysses does not feel “at home” at home – he only feels at home when he’s at sea. He also juxtaposes himself with his son, who he believes is “discerning to fulfill” the labor of domestic and civic management. These contrasts illuminate that Ulysses is exactly who he is, and nothing more – a perpetual mariner.
When Ulysses speaks of his time at sea, he uses words that suggest vitality, movement, and grandiosity.
Diction: An author's choice of words, especially chosen for their sound, connotations, and usage.
His use of “drink,” (line 6), “drunk delight” (line 16), "gleams" (line 20), “frolic,” (line 47), “thunder and sunshine” (line 48), and “twinkle" (line 54) suggest his desire for unrest is intoxicating, fulfilling, and bigger than himself. When he speaks of staying home, he uses words with darker, lifeless connotations, such as “dull,” (line 22), “eternal silence,” (line 27), “vile” (line 28), and “yield” (line 70). These word choices reinforce the notion of Ulysses's feeling of discontent at home and his yearning for something more.
What themes are present in the poem?
One of the most famous lines of the poem arrives at the end. As Ulysses feels compelled to go back out to sea, he states: "that which we are, we are" (line 67). This is a statement of resolution. Ulysses is who he is – a man who belongs at sea. Despite his old age and weak stature, his heart still yearns for the life of adventure. By ending the poem with this sentiment, Tennyson remarks that people are who they are. In other words, their identity is inevitable.
One irony in this poem is the perspective Ulysses has on "the unlived life." As he sits at his home alongside his old wife, he feels restless and hungry for more. He states:
All experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
He's not satisfied with what he's accomplished. He feels to rest is to die. All of his past experiences have made him eager for more instead of satisfying him. Yet to anyone else, Ulysses has lived the full life. He's known "men, and manners, climates, councils, and governments" (lines 13 - 14), and he's battled through the "scudding drifts of the rainy Hyades" (line 10). This irony suggests that a person's values and beliefs about what makes the good life is individual to them. Sometimes, people don't realize what they have, so they seek greener pastures.
The sea functions as a symbol of freedom. It is the opposite of confinement, stillness, and stability. It offers dangers and unknowns, yet Ulysses is called to it anyway. As Ulysses makes a rallying call for his mariners, he says he does not know what the voyage will bring:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles And see the great Achilles” (lines 62-63).
This unknown is exactly what compels him to the great beyond.
In contrast, home is a symbol of confinement, familiarity, and “common duties” (line 40). Ulysses views the home as the place where he will waste away and meet an “eternal silence” (line 27). It is the place for his son, who is much better suited for that kind of work.
Knowing Tennyson’s background helps us to see Ulysses as a symbol of restlessness, yearning, defiance, and ambition. Tennyson wrote the poem at age 33 — even though it features an old man nearing the end of his life. Regardless, Tennyson no doubt related to Ulysses as a man who braved the challenges before him, who found discontent with domestic responsibility, and who yearned for a life full of adventure and excitement.
1 W.B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: a Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero., 1933.
The tone of the poem 'Ulysses' is a combination of nostalgic and yearning. Ulysses looks back on his life with fondness, yet yearns to do more.
The main idea of the poem 'Ulysses' is that the good life means travel, adventure, and gaining new knowledge. A life of stability is dull.
The poem 'Ulysses' is based on the mythical hero Odysseus, King of Ithaca, from Homer's The Odyssey.
The metaphoric meaning of the poem 'Ulysses' is that seeking adventures of the sea means finding the meaning of life.
One central idea of the poem 'Ulysses' is that it's better to live a life of adventure than stay put. Another central idea is that people are who they are and cannot change.
Who wrote the poem "Ulysses"?
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
What is blank verse?
Unrhymed iambic pentameter
What is iambic pentameter?
A line of verse consisting of 10 syllables. Each pair of syllables begins with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable.
What is the poem "Ulysses" based on?
The epic poem The Odyssey by ancient Greek poet Homer.
How does Ulysses view his son Telemachus in the poem?
Ulysses views Telemachus as different from himself. Telemachus is tender, loyal to his people, and better suited for domestic responsibilities. Ulysses is better suited for voyaging the seas.
What is the structure of the poem "Ulysses"?
The structure of "Ulysses" is a dramatic monologue.
What does the sea in "Ulysses" represent?
The sea represents freedom, adventure, overcoming challenges, and gaining new knowledge.
What is a dramatic monologue?
A dramatic monologue is when an imagined character speaks to a silent or invisible audience. The poet and the speaker are different from each other.
At what point in Ulysses's life does this poem take place?
In the poem, Ulysses is an old man and reflects on his past experiences.
What is a famous line from the poem "Ulysses"?
"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
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