Describe the conflict faced by the speaker in "Ulysses." Does Tennyson see Ulysses as heroic or as selfish and self-justifying? Explain your answers using examples from the poem.

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One conflict faced by the speaker in this poem is the conflict between his age and his waning strength on the one hand and his desire for more adventures on the other. Indeed, Ulysses acknowledges that he no longer possesses "that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven," but, nonetheless, he is determined to "strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Another conflict faced by the speaker is implied in your answer. Ulysses must decide whether to stay and rule over the people of Ithaca or leave and fulfill his own desires for adventure. He decides upon the latter course, and this may indeed be a selfish choice. However, he does leave behind his son, Telemachus, who he says is "discerning" and "pruden[t]." If Ulysses believes that his son can rule as well as he, then perhaps his decision to leave them is not so selfish after all. Or, at the very least, his selfishness is mitigated somewhat.

There seems to be far more evidence in the poem that Ulysses is heroic rather than selfish. He wants to make the most of what life he has left (rather than rest and "rust unburnished"). He could live the remainder of his days in comfort, but he chooses adventure instead, and he makes this choice knowing that it may lead to his death. He says that "It may be that the gulfs will wash [me] down," but he is not afraid of death.

Therefore, Ulysses has a good claim to heroism. He chooses the more difficult path, and he does so without fear.

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Ulysses is conflicted because he feels the obligation to be with his family but he also feels the urge for adventure. So, Tennyson presents Ulysses as someone whose main desire is adventure. And since the adventures that he craves are dangerous, Ulysses is described as a frustrated king, anxious to journey and commit to adventures that would necessarily require a heroic man to attempt them. Ulysses is admirable because it is easy to admire one, especially in his relatively old age, to continue to strive to live life to the fullest. But Ulysses is selfish in this respect as well. He is willing to leave his wife in order to make at least one last journey. 

That being said, it is not that Ulysses does not care for his wife (although he notes his boredom being "Matched with an aged wife"). Ulysses simply feels that life is worthless unless he makes the most of his time. It means nothing to him to sit and govern as king. To be so complacent is, to Ulysses, to waste away and wait for death. 

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! 

Ulysses reasons that his son is more suited to sit as a king. In the context of the poem, Ulysses shows himself to be a reluctant (or maybe even irresponsible) king and an unsatisfied husband. But he also shows himself to be an indomitable spirit. 

Despite this conflict of selfishness and heroism, one can read the poem for its broader themes of never becoming complacent, of living life to the fullest until the very end, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." 

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