In the poem, Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, what ideas does the author develop regarding the effect of adversity on the human spirit?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The poem, Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, is what is known as a "dramatic monologue." We do not hear the voice of Tennyson directly, but rather overhear the thoughts of Ulysses himself. Ulysses is clearly frustrated by the ordinary and dull nature of his life in Ithaca in comparison to his heroic deeds at Troy. He states:




How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!


On one level, this seems to indicate that Ulysses himself saw that one developed skills and strength in adversity. Yet, the poet himself may be treating Ulysses ironically. His tasks of governing Ithaca are also a form of adversity, without all the adrenaline, excitement and fame associated with epic journeys and wars. It is important that states be well and responsibly governed, and under this sort of adversity, Ulysses is shown to have failed. So one could argue that in the poem adversity tests character, and the person who may thrive under conditions of one type of adversity and develop one type of strength may not be able to handle other types of adversity.

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