In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” the title character makes comments about his wife and son that seem a bit surprising. Thus, in line 3 of the poem he mentions that he is “Matched with an agèd wife.” This, ironically, is his only reference to the woman from whom he suffered an enforced absence of twenty years! Penelope was (and is) usually considered the ideal wife – emotionally loyal, sexually faithful, wise, clever, and supremely determined to resist the blandishments of the many men who tried to court her while Ulysses was away for two decades. The fact that Ulyssses thus dismisses her with one word – “agèd”—seems somewhat shocking. Perhaps he means to suggest that she has lost her youthful spirit. Perhaps he is regretting that he did not take better advantage of his erotic opportunities when he was younger. The fact that he expresses no regrets about leaving his loyal wife also seems unusual. Even more unusual is the fact that he apparently takes no time to bid her farewell or even to explain to her the reasons for his leaving. Surely he cannot be addressing her in this poem; if that were the case, he would be a true cad. Thus Tennyson’s poem gets off to a surprising start, to say the least.
Ulysses’ comments on his loyal, brave, resilient son, Telemachus, can also seem unexpected:
This my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
Ulysses acknowledges the political skills of Telemachus as well as his moral virtues, but there seems a bit of a tone of condescension in his remarks. This is especially true when he refers to “common duties.” It is as if Ulysses is more than willing to let his son do the everyday job of ruling the kingdom while he, the father, goes off in pursuit of new adventures. This is the son, by the way, who was merely a small boy when Ulysses left to go off and fight at Troy. This is the son who essentially grew up without a father. This is the son who also had to deal with scores of greedy potential stepfathers while his real father was absent.
In short, by contemporary standards, Ulysses’s behavior and attitudes seem hard to comprehend.