Compare and contrast Ulysses and Telemachus in Tennyson's "Ulysses."

While Ulysses is restless for adventure, Telemachus does not have that same spirit for travel. Ulysses is grappling with the knowledge that he is nearing the end of his life, while his son is still a young man. Telemachus can be the great ruler that Ulysses has not been.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tennyson contrasts Ulysses and his son, Telemachus, in the poem “Ulysses.” While Ulysses is a free spirit who longs for adventure, his son is a fixed figure who does not have that same restlessness. Ulysses is an aging man who wishes to have adventure during the little time he has left in life. He is accustomed to travel, so staying home and ruling the people is not his idea of life. His son, Telemachus, on the other hand, is a young man who does not have that restless spirit.

Telemachus, according to his father, is a smart and caring person who will stay and be a good king. He will be gentle with the “savage” people and teach them to be more civilized. Telemachus has the patience to work with people, and Ulysses is confident that he will succeed when the kingship is turned over to him.

Ulysses is quite honest that he has never been able to tame the people the way he anticipates Telemachus will. One of his complaints is that he rules this “savage race” which takes what he gives without knowing the real person behind the ruler. Although on his adventures Ulysses has encountered so many and he carries a piece of everyone with him, he has not been able to connect with the very people he rules. This is in part what feeds his desire to travel again.

Father and son are not exempt from this separation. Ulysses admits that while he loves and respects his son, they are living different lives. “He works his work, I mine.” Yet the differences between father and son do not prevent Ulysses from recognizing the good qualities in Telemachus. He knows that his son will be the gentle and fair ruler that the people need to connect with.

In addition to having the qualities that will make him a good king, Telemachus has shown Ulysses that he is a dutiful son. Ulysses is convinced that Telemachus will pay the proper respect to the gods when his father dies. Overall, the king is quite comfortable leaving his command to a son who will do good things for his people. He is proud of his son and knows he can leave Telemachus in charge while he fulfills his quest for adventure before he dies.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on August 4, 2020
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A central theme of "Ulysses" is that of age: in this poem, we don't encounter the hero of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Rather, we encounter that same hero in his old age, with the glories of the past largely relegated to memory. In Tennyson's poem, Ulysses seeks out one final journey in the limited time left to him.

It's notable, that when the focus of the poem shifts towards Telemachus, the generational difference is the first thing that's stressed, via the father-son relationship between Telemachus and Ulysses. Ulysses is, by this point, an old man, well past the peak of his abilities. Telemachus, his son, is younger and at such a point in his life that he's ready to inherit his father's responsibilities and take on that mantle of kingship while Ulysses embarks on this one last adventure. This generational dynamic is something that I think is perhaps worth thinking about when it comes to comparing and contrasting the two.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To compare denotes finding similarities; in this poem, the narrator finds few things in common with his son, Telemachus. However, they share a royal blood line and Ulysses is content to "leave [him] the sceptre and the isle," trusting that Telemachus would be an effective king of Ithaca. Ulysses is confident that Telemachus would express appropriate "adoration to [my] household gods" in his father's absence. Both men are dutiful, but it is much harder for Ulysses to humble himself than it is for Telemachus. 

Ulysses mostly contrasts himself with Telemachus; his son would be prudent and lead the people of Ithaca "to the useful and the good," while Ulysses chafes at being idle and letting old age set upon him. Ulysses believes that though he is old, adventures "may yet be done." He is a seeker, a restless man who "strove with Gods," and he is not ready to meet Achilles in the afterlife. Ulysses acknowledges that he is not as young and strong as he once was but avows he is still "strong in will."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Ulysses" is narrated by Ulysses himself. In the first two paragraphs of the poem, lines 1-32, Ulysses expresses his restlessness with his relatively uneventful life at home in Ithaca. Having been a great adventurer and a warrior in his younger days, he is now just an "idle king," a mere administrator. He desires experience and adventure and therefore, because of his age and his obligation to his family, he feels trapped in this new sedentary lifestyle. 

In lines 33-43, Ulysses introduces his son Telemachus, describing him in more effeminate, less adventurous terms. In fact, Ulysses suggests that while he is the quintessential warrior, it is Telemachus who would not only feel more at home as a king/administrator; Telemachus would be quite successful at it. 

Ulysses concludes, in line 43, by noting this contrast between himself and his son. "He works his work, I mine." Ulysses is the adventurer and Telemachus is the more passive shepherd/king. Because of their personalities, Ulysses believes that he is more suited for adventure (even in old age) and Telemachus is more suited to be a king. 



Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial