Please give your opinion of the character of Ulysses in "Ulysses" by Tennyson.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Let me start off by saying how much I like this poem and how its famous call to make the most out of life and avoid becoming old and dull is something that inspires me and something that I in turn go on to use to inspire others. Having said that, there is always something that concerns me about this poem and the character of Ulysses. Let us remember that he undertook an incredible voyage to get home, and what inspired him to keep on going was the thought of being reunited with his beloved and faithful wife, Penelope, and his son Telemachus, and reclaiming his rightful position as King of Ithaca. What disturbs me in this poem is the way that he speaks about Ithaca and his wife in very negative terms:

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,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

To my mind, there is a note of arrogance in refering to his people as a "savage race," just as there is a note of cruelty in calling his wife "aged." His desire to leave his kingdom to Telemachus seems to me to be more of an avoidance of responsibility than anything else. His famous declaration that "I cannot rest from travel" and his determination to make the most out of life could also be seen in a much more negative light, as a man who is determined to avoid responsibility and will betray the trust that has been placed in him by so many. Whilst certainly there are points in our life where we are able to travel and do crazy things, at the same time we all have responsibilities, and the extent to which we can be considered heroic or not is dependent on how we accept those responsibilities and are faithful to the faith that others have placed in us. Ulysses in this poem wants to reject all of his responsibilities, and because of this, to my mind, is not very heroic.

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