Identify the basic meaning of Tennyson's "Ulysses."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Tennyson felt that an essential part of the human predicament is quality of endurance.  He believed that “the need for going forward, and braving the struggle of life" is a critical part of human identity. This construction underscores Tennyson's view of Ulysses in the poem.  

The poem centers on an exploration of the Greek warrior after his return to Ithaca.  Making the transition from the life of war and challenge to the civilian life is shown to be a difficult reality.  Tennyson's Greek hero challenges the idea of the "idle king."   This vision is one who "cannot rest from travel."  From this exposition, Odysseus is shown to eagerly anticipate the uncertainty of voyage, repudiating the life of staying at home in a domesticated fashion.  "Always roaming with a hungry heart," Tennyson's poem explores how human beings must embrace freedom and the sojourn at all costs.  Even when there might not be a guarantee of success, the spirit of vitality that defines the human spirit is illuminated throughout the poem and within Tennyson's construction of Ulysses.  The search for truth is something that cannot be removed, even through the domestic life.  While he has come home, some part of his voyage has been imprinted on his own being and cannot be denied:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
The desire to explore "that untravell'd world whose margin fades" is of primary importance to Tennyson.  To explore a world in which one might be able to brush past the greats like Achilles is what makes human existence so meaningful. Ulysses understands that his responsibilities have been met, as Telemachus will look out for Ithaca and that Penelope will be secure.  With these addressed, Tennyson's Ulysses speaks to a larger condition.  It is one in which human beings have only the spirit of freedom and endurance within them:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
While individuals might be battered and ravaged by consciousness, the spirit that enables them to embrace activity and the vitality for life is of vital importance.  The call of "to strive, to seek to find, and not to yield" not only close the poem, but they speak to a vision that drives the poem and provides purpose to the definitions of human identity.
 
This becomes the primary focus of the poem.  It is a poem that asserts the condition of existence.  Tennyson wrote the poem as a direct statement of how human beings can address the realities of pain and suffering, as well as the unconquerable forces of death.  Being able to find a way to cope with such overwhelming forces becomes what the poem is all about.  It speaks to the spirit of the human being that finds a resolute commitment to voyage and exist, even when so much might be taken away from the individual.  Tennyson sought to convey "the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end."  This resiliency is a significant part of the poem in how it speaks to the human condition.
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