Ulysses Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The significance of the will as expressed in “Ulysses” has generated some conflicting views. In one sense, in his restless desire to move on and to face new challenges, Ulysses is concerned only with satisfying his own needs. “Life piled on life” has suggested to some experience piled on experience rather than experience leading to wisdom. With his rejection of Penelope, the incarnation of patience, loyalty, and devotion (“Matched” even suggests that Ulysses sees their union as having been imposed on him), and with his rejection of his duty toward his subjects, Ulysses has been seen as a selfish hero, if not an immature, elderly man who refuses to accept responsibility. He exhibits an unattractive self-concern, however characteristic of the hero it may be. His distaste for social and domestic responsibilities, in fact, led W. H. Auden to call him a glorified heroic dandy.

A more common view is the one Tennyson himself supported: The poem is about the need to battle life out to the end. Tennyson can be seen as reflecting the spirit of the nineteenth century in approving the determination of Ulysses to explore the unknown no matter what the consequences; interestingly, the fact that Ulysses abandons his wife and child is not treated as the violation of Victorian mores that it was. In this view, his rejection of Penelope is in keeping with his character. Her faithfulness reflects her will, certainly, but not necessarily his. A refusal to see his...

(The entire section is 602 words.)