In "Ulysses," why does the king want to travel?

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Ulysses, once a great hero, is very aware that he is now old. Death will be his next great journey, but he craves "something ere the end" and does not want to end his life as an "idle king" doing administrative duties, which he feels have little impact.

Ulysses has a deep sense of wanderlust—he does not want to "rest" when he still has the opportunity to "drink / life to the lees," namely, to get something out of his existence. He thinks of the things he has previously seen in his life and of his experiences in Troy, and he feels "hungry" for that kind of life, forever moving, discovering, and learning. Being still, to him, is not life, and particularly because he has so little time left, he does not want to spend it "unburnished." Ulysses seems to compare himself to a metal object that has grown dull from disuse: only by continuing to move and by being useful can he "shine."

Beautifully, Ulysses expresses that his "gray spirit" is "yearning in desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star." He knows he has a son, Telemachus, who is now perfectly capable of looking after his lands, and he knows that he is going to die soon. Therefore, he wants to make sure he learns as much about the world as he possibly can before that moment comes. He wants to "seek a newer world" and remember the way it felt to be a young man fighting with Achilles long ago.

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In Tennyson's "Ulysses," the aged king of Ithaca leaves his home and his family in search of new adventures. Ulysses touches on the reason for his departure late in the poem when he says, "Some work of noble note, may yet be done,/ Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods" (52-3).

Basically, Ulysses wants to leave Ithaca because he yearns for the days when he performed heroic deeds ("work of noble note," in other words). While the duties of kingship might be enough for another man, Ulysses is unsatisfied. He feels that, compared to the valiant excitement of his youth, managing an island kingdom is pretty dull. As such, Ulysses is leaving home in order to seek out adventures that he feels are worthy of his legendary status, things that are "not unbecoming for men that strove with Gods." If this desire reveals the vain nature of Ulysses' personality, it also makes the character more human, as his experience of nostalgia and yearning for excitement make him surprisingly relatable.    

 

 

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