What ideas does the poem “Ulysses”  by Alfred Lord Tennyson convey to you about the factors involved in risk-taking?

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susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This dramatic monologue is spoken by Ulysses, who has returned from the Trojan War and finds himself unhappy in Ithaca.  For him living is not sitting, pausing, resting:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life.

He wants to leave the safe haven of his administrative kingly position, and take one more risk.  Life, for Ulysses, must be filled with action, with rich experiences, with daring deeds.  Ulysses admits that this definition of life is not for everyone.  Telemachus, he says, is "centered in the sphere/Of common duties" and can fulfill his job of king much better than he.

But as for him, he will set sail one last time.  He urges his fellow mariners, men who have "toiled and wrought, and thought with me--" to do the same.  This last adventure involves much risk.  They may die:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

He knows too that they are not as strong as they once were.  But they have "heroic hearts," and they must continue to "strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Living life fully for Ulysses means taking risks, exploring new worlds, fighting more battles--not sitting behind a desk legislating laws or signing edicts.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The closing line might sum it up quite nicely.  The idea of taking a position in life where one is driven "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," is one that embraces a life committed to risk- taking.  Remember the premise of the poem is what happens to Odysseus when he returns to Ithaca.  He is reunited with Penelope and Telemachus, and in Homer's work, this is the end of the narrative.  Yet, someone who was so driven in taking risks, involved in some of the most intense of experiences, Tennyson concludes, would not embrace the life of domesticity so easily.  There is a natural element to risk taking that was a part of Odyesseus' life and this cannot be forsaken now that he has successfully navigated through his quest.  Like Odysseus, Tennyson seems to be suggesting that all individuals have a natural penchant for risk taking and for challenge that should never leave our psyches and our experience as a human being.  This is where we, in Tennyson's mind, are like Odysseus in embracing a life that is not "dull" or without distinction.  Rather, it is one where we are constantly immersed in risk taking and making choices that compel us to stand by them and seek out new domains to exercise this autonomy.