What are Ulysses' feelings about aging?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question, the question of confronting the process of aging, is at the heart of Tennyson's "Ulysses." The poem is essentially the soliloquy of an aging Ulysses (the Latin form of Odysseus) reflecting upon his life from the boring comfort of his home, Ithaca. Throughout the poem, Ulysses rails against his advanced years, hating his old age for the perceived weakness and uselessness it brings.

Ulysses gives us several clues as to his feelings about old age, but there are a few particular examples that are worth noting. Consider, for instance, the following lines:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use! (22-3)
In these lines, Ulysses compares old age to uselessness, using the metaphor of rusting, "unburnish'd" metal to drive home his point. Like a sturdy sword that has rusted with time, Ulysses regards the process of aging as one that detracts from a human's ability to act and be useful. However, despite this apparent despair, Ulysses' ultimate attitude is one of defiance. Consider, for example, the famous final lines of the poem:
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)
In this passage, Ulysses basically asserts that, though old age has weakened him, he is still resolved to pursue feats of heroism, venturing off into the unknown to grapple with the gods. While this is certainly an uplifting sentiment, the meaning of the poem is nonetheless ambiguous. We must remember that we are hearing Ulysses' voice, and his opinions are not necessarily Tennyson's opinions. It could be that Tennyson wants us to view the aging process with defiance, to use Ulysses' rebellion as an inspiring example of inner strength and fortitude. On the other hand, Tennyson could be using Ulysses as a tragic example of an old man pathetically trying to relive the glory days. Tennyson's overall opinion of this matter is uncertain, and so it is up to you as the reader to come to whatever decision seems best to you.