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I'm afraid his wife doesn't get much mention in Tennyson's "Ulysses." The only thought the speaker has of her is that she is "aged." He opens the poem:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,...
Telemachus fares a little better. Ulysses wants to leave his kingdom to him, and considers his son a worthy successor. Tennyson writes:
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle?
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of ternderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
Telemachus is more suited to ruling--rather than adventuring--than Ulysses is. Ulysses loves him and recognizes that his son is better at domestic duties. He will subdue the people with "soft degree," and lead them to the good and the useful.
Both his wife and son, though, are secondary in the poem. Ulysses' interests in this poem lie in adventure, and his family is not a part of that.
Ulysses sees his son as dutiful and good, but lacking the restless spirit of adventure that he has.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere,
Of common duties, decent not to fail,
In offices of tenderness . . .
Likewise, Ulysses does not have angst or even aversion to his wife. He only refers to her once as "aged." He sees his future with her as decent but boring and somewhat of a 'giving up.' He compares going home to Ithaca with "to rust unburnished" and adventure with "to shine in use." In this poem, Ulysses does what Aeneas did by leaving Dido in The Aeneid. He chooses adventure over love. One interpretation of this is that Ulysses is more interested in fame than in his family. But Tennyson's version of Ulysses' story is about Ulysses' inability to cope with old age and his refusal to accept a less than adventurous end to life.
The characterization of the Greek hero offered in Tennyson's poem does not dislike his wife and son, but cannot see staying with them either. The overriding characterization of Ulysses offered is one where the domestic life is associated with the uneventful, the banal, and the mundane. This is antithetical to the life of adventure and spirited essence of the life lived as a warrior, fighting for kingdom and honor. In his mind, the life of the family and of domesticity is one that lacks the spirit of the life of the warrior. While he certainly does not hold his son or wife in a disdainful light, he does believe that he cannot be true to his own identity while remaining with them.
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