In the poem "Ulysses" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, is Ulysses a heroic or an unheroic figure?

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In the poem "Ulysses," Alfred, Lord Tennyson presents an old man who has safely returned from all the exciting, life-threatening adventures recounted in The Odyssey . He sits upon his throne, an "idle king" with an "aged wife" and remembers his days of glory. He considers his son...

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In the poem "Ulysses," Alfred, Lord Tennyson presents an old man who has safely returned from all the exciting, life-threatening adventures recounted in The Odyssey. He sits upon his throne, an "idle king" with an "aged wife" and remembers his days of glory. He considers his son with fondness and contemplates with approval leaving his kingdom "the sceptre and the isle" to Telemachus. Ulysses longs to set sail with his mariners for one last adventure. Acknowledging that death is near, he says,

Death closes all, but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men who strove with Gods.

To answer your question, whether in the poem Ulysses is heroic or unheroic depends upon your definition of heroism. In the classical sense, a hero is a person of bravery and strength who undertakes a journey and overcomes dangers for the sake of fame and honor. By this definition, Ulysses is heroic in this poem because he desires to leave his complacent domesticity for the opportunity for further danger and adventure. However, in a more modern personal sense, a hero is a person who forsakes his own desires to give first priority to the welfare of those he is responsible for. In Ulysses's case, these people would include his family and all the subjects of his kingdom. It would be unheroic of him to abandon his responsibilities and sail away without seeing to the welfare of those who depend on him.

A final thought, though: Although in the poem Ulysses dreams of past adventure and contemplates leaving, he is still there in his kingdom. In other words, he has not yielded to the temptation to forsake his responsibilities. Everyone sometimes has temptations to do the wrong thing, but it is heroic not to give in to those temptations.

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To answer this question, you must decide what you think is "heroic" and why. Ulysses presents himself, at the beginning of the poem, as a rather pathetic figure. He is an "idle king," living among "barren crags," his wife is old, and all he does is "mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race" whose lives consists of collecting stuff, eating, and sleeping. He realizes that he has "become a name," meaning that he once made a name for himself, but all his heroism is in the past. Throughout the poem, he speaks of what he has done and how he cannot stop; he must go on, "cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees." But consider: to do this, he must leave his "aged wife"--a wife who waited twenty years, being faithful to him and fending off her suitors while he fought at Troy and got lost coming home.

The poem has some of the most heroic lines in it of all literature, in my opinion, but the actions Ulysses is considering are quite the opposite.

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