What are the characteristics of Ulysses in Tennyson's poem?

The Ulysses in Tennyson's poem can be characterized as an old man who wants to travel, strive, achieve, and continue to make a difference in the world. He refuses to allow stereotypes about old age to hold him back.

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In the poem "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson , an aged Ulysses, having finally returned safely to his homeland from his long odyssey after the Trojan War, sits in idleness on his throne and contemplates going on another adventure. He wants to leave his "aged wife" and the...

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In the poem "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, an aged Ulysses, having finally returned safely to his homeland from his long odyssey after the Trojan War, sits in idleness on his throne and contemplates going on another adventure. He wants to leave his "aged wife" and the "savage race" of people that he rules and venture forth on the seas one more time. He supposes that he will leave "the septre and the isle" with his son Telemachus, who will rule in his place.

We see an old man who has returned home after many hardships. After he has settled down, he realizes that he felt more fulfilled during his adventurous journey than he does while undertaking his responsibilities as a ruler. In this poem, Ulysses is a complex character. There are numerous words that we could use to describe characteristics that he displays.

First of all, he is dissatisfied with the life that he is now living, so he longs to escape it. He is restless when he compares the serenity and inactivity of his present state with the constant adventures and dangers of the past. He is anxious to be gone again and to seek out new lands and new activities. He is aware of his impending death, and instead of staying in one place and waiting for it, he longs to go forth and meet it.

Along with all of these other characteristics, Ulysses is unwise, irresponsible, and selfish. He is not thinking of his wife, his son, or his people, but only of himself and his own desires. As the ruler of a "rugged people," as well as a husband and father, he should stay and take care of the people he is tasked with governing. Many in positions of responsibility long to run away and be free of the dependence of others, but that is not what a mature, thoughtful, and considerate person does. An ethical person doesn't run away, but stays and fulfills his responsibilities.

A clue to how Ulysses is feeling in this poem can be found in another poem about Ulysses called "Ithaka" by C. P. Cavafy. The poet stresses that as you journey homeward towards Ithaka (Ulysses' homeland) travelers should hope their journey takes a long time. The journey itself is full of excitement and wonder. When one finally makes it home, they may be disappointed. Ithaka is the destination at the end of a journey, not a middle stage in the journey. Once you have reached Ithaka, the voyager has come to the journey's end.

We see, then, that the main characteristic that Ulysses displays in the poem "Ulysses" is the disappointment of an old man who has come to the end of his journey but wishes that it was not over. However, in the course of his musings, he also displays the characteristics of dissatisfaction, restlessness, anxiousness, lack of wisdom, irresponsibility, selfishness, and awareness of his impending death.

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The Ulysses in Tennyson's poem differs from the Ulysses (Odysseus) in Homer's Odyssey in two main ways: First, he is an old man, near the end of life. Second, he is filled with a renewed wanderlust and desire to make a difference after many years at home in Ithaca.
Homer's poem valorizes and celebrates the yearning for home and hearth. It shows the warrior Ulysses, despite his Herculean strength and wily intelligence, as wanting to be home; a safe, peaceful homeland is what he and his now dead peers fought for for ten years in Troy. However, Tennyson's older Ulysses, less strong in an aged body, feels the restless urge to journey, saying:
I cannot rest from travel
This desire to travel is a relation to the idea that older people—even aged people—still want to achieve, accomplish, and to make difference in the world. Ulysses's desire to travel is a desire to live life to the fullest to his very last day. He says:
I will drink
Life to the lees
He contrasts himself to his son Telemachus, saying that he, Ulysses, is "a hungry heart." He implies that the duller business of staying home and running a kingdom is the provenance of the young, while the old want to meet their deepest heart's desires and face their final challenges, not be shelved because of ageism:
I am a part of all that I have met
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
Ulysses can be characterized as wanting adventure: he wishes to travel, strive, and achieve while he still has breath in his body.
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Tennyson's characterization of Ulysses is a bit different from the Homeric vision.  The traditional texts present Ulysses as a character who seeks to be home with Penelope and Telemachus, an individual whose final destination is his home in Ithaca.  However, Tennyson casts a modern revision on such a notion in presenting him as not very content with the domesticated life.  Tennyson's analysis is reasonable in that if Ulysses was such a passionate and cunning warrior, one who battled forces that would intimidate other mortals, it seems that he would not be very content with a life devoid of challenges, obstacles, and hurdles that would test the character of most men.  In this light, the restlessness is not seen in battle, but rather in peace, in boredom, in domesticity.  Tennyson uses the dramatic monologue through his poem to explore this aspect of Ulysses, who returns to Ithaca not to settle down and establish roots, but rather as a transit stop for yet another challenge.  Tennyson casts Ulysses in the light of not being content with the mundane details of day to day life, and one who seeks adventure, purpose, and the life of the soldier.  The implication here is that like Ulysses, human beings must seek out challenges, and must be poised in conditions that test their own sense of fortitude for it is these moments that make life worth living.  The closing lines of "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" reveals a portrait of an individual who will only be content when he is immersed in situations that most would be running from, but he covets.

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