In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses expresses his dedication to the spirit of adventure and discovery. In his older years, ready to pass the king's title to his son, Telemachus, he reminisces about the adventurous life he has lived. But not content just to reminisce, he also states that this spirit still animates him. He uses the metaphor of drinking down to the dregs or lees:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees.
This attitude, he declares, is the proper one for a king. He sees passing laws and governing as indicative of an “idle king.”
As he continues speaking, he mentions numerous aspects of the bold exploits that involved him on his varied travels. He uses the metaphor of a “a hungry heart” for his insatiable desire to see and know more. The prior experiences have not only made him famous (“a name”) but also helped make him the person he is.
I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known. ...
I am a part of all that I have met.
This desire to move on remains strong, as he wants always to reach unknown regions:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world.
Ulysses is critical of the idea that, because he is old, he should sit back and rest. He uses the metaphor of a rusty sword and seems to fear that rest is too much like death.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life.
In passing “the scepter and the isle” to Telemachus and then taking off for a last adventure with his mariners, Ulysses seeks to claim further honor, even though he is old, and to accomplish one more noble goal:
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.