Ulysses Poem Theme

What is the central theme of "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson?

The central theme of “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is that life is not worth living without some adventure in it. The eponymous hero has reached his twilight years, yet he is still filled with the wanderlust of his younger days, when he traveled throughout the known world on numerous adventures. As a result of his experiences, he has come to appreciate the value of a life filled with adventure.

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Tennyson's "Ulysses" brings together several themes. One is old age and restlessness in retirement. Ulysses has been a great hero, accustomed to being at the center of the world's most important events. He is ill-suited to the task of ruling a small, rocky island or to being on the periphery of civilization. Another theme is adventure; Ulysses and his comrades have accomplished many great deeds together. Yet another theme is meaning—what is it that makes life worth living?

These themes come together to form a central theme which might be expressed the proverb "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." Less colloquially, one might say something like "old age does not fundamentally change anyone" or "what gave your life meaning in the past will continue to give it meaning in the future."

This is an idea which applies to many people, especially upon retirement. Even if one did not choose or even particularly enjoy their work, upon retiring, they might feel

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life!

Ulysses expresses this common sentiment through his restlessness. He has been an adventurer all his life, and that life is meaningless without adventure.

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If there's one overriding message to be gleaned from Tennyson's “Ulysses”, it's that life is meaningless without adventures of one kind of another.

To be sure, Tennyson's poem doesn't necessarily suggest that we should all try to emulate the heroic voyages of Ulysses, who in Greek mythology was known as Odysseus. There are many different kinds of adventure, intellectual and spiritual as well as physical. The precise nature of the adventure isn't important; what matters is that our lives contain some element of adventure or enterprise, whatever form that might take.

For a life without adventure is a meaningless life, a life devoid of purpose and goals. Tennyson's version of Ulysses understands this, which is why, despite his great age, he yearns to head off to sea once more, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Ulysses instinctively grasps that without some kind of purpose in life, the kind of purpose that only adventures can provide, we are likely to grow stale, to become, like the aging Ulysses, an “idle king” in our own little kingdoms.

Tennyson offers up a bracing, life-affirming vision in which it is never too late “to seek a newer world.” One may lack the physical strength of youth, but so long as one still has a sense of adventure, one can still do something with one's lives. And that, in the final analysis, is what's most important.

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The central theme of “Ulysses” is that there is a search for adventure, experience and meaning which makes life worth living. Tennyson used Ulysses as the old adventurer, unwilling to accept the settling of old age, longing for one more quest. Tennyson also wrote this in memory of his friend Arthur Hallam.

In the second section, Ulysses implies that Telemachus is better fitted to be a king, which requires more governance, discipline and patience. And he (Ulysses) is better fitted to be an adventurer. This is what he means when he says, “He works his work, I mine.”

One might think that he is being selfish, wishing to abandon his wife in exchange for one more adventure; and this criticism is justified. However, for Ulysses, life is meaningful only if there is some quest. In the first section, he says,

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

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! (22-23)

He is saying how boring it is to rest at home; that he essentially rusts from lack of use. 

The last section is a speech intended for his men. However, if this is the crew of the adventures in The Odyssey (Odysseus is the Greek name for Ulysses), it must be understood as a day dream Ulysses is having or he is contemplating one last rousing of the troops for another quest despite their, and his, old age:

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are--

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (66-70)

Their will to seek adventure will overcome what limits age has brought upon them. Ulysses is not satisfied to sit and contemplate on his past adventures. He is somewhat egotistical but that egotism is secondary to his deep desire for adventure. In other words, he is proud of his reputation, but resting on those laurels is meaningless. This refers to that line where he compares himself to a tool, presumably a sword, that only shines if it is in use. 

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