How is imagery of food and drink used in Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Imagery of food and drink plays a subtle but important role in Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” In the poem, Ulysses – the great Greek epic hero – decides to continue voyaging rather than staying in Ithaca, from which he had been absent for twenty years. Examples in the poem of imagery of eating and drinking include the following:

  • In line 5, Ulysses says that the people he now rules “hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.” He thereby implies that they are materialistic and are concerned only with the pleasures of the flesh. They do not appreciate the loftier ideals that motivate their king.
  • In contrast to his rather lazy people, Ulysses proclaims that he himself will


Life to the lees. (6-7)

He thus implies his intention to enjoy life to the fullest, to get as much satisfaction from it as he possibly can in the time he still has left.

  • In line 12, Ulysses refers to his own “hungry heart,” a phrase that implies his own emotional appetite for life in general and for travel or “roaming” in particular. Ulysses here uses a metaphor to describe his own “hunger,” just as he used a metaphor when he mentioned drinking life to the lees. When referring to the “feed[ing]” of his people, however, his phrasing had been merely literal. Ulysses’ metaphorical appetites are lofty and ennobling; the appetites of his people are simply physical yearnings for very simple satisfactions.
  • Once again, in line 16, Ulysses uses a lofty metaphor when he says that he has “drunk delight of battle.” Now his metaphorical language implies an appetite for combat and for displays of courage.

Except for the opening reference to the “feed[ing]” people, then, the other language in “Ulysses” concerning food and drink is metaphorical. It implies Ulysses’ varied appetites for life, travel, battle, and comradeship.  His people are concerned with nothing more than literal eating and drinking, a fact that symbolizes their lack of ambition, their failure to feel sublime motives. The imagery of food and drink in the poem is one of the various ways Tennyson uses to distinguish the king from the people he rules.




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