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The dramatic monologue of Tennyson's "Ulysses" takes place on the island of Ithaca, where he has returned after ten years of wandering, having set out from Troy. The time is the moment at which he prepares to set sail for his legendary last voyage. It was predicted in the Odyssey (XI, 100-137) that the hero would make a final voyage on foot and alone, and this journey later became a medieval legend, which Dante developed in Inferno XXVI, where "Ulisee" tells how he met his death searching for knowledge. Tennyson's conception of the hero is actually closer to Dante's than to Homer's, for, like Dante, he interpreted the mythical wanderer for his own age.
Whereas Homer depicts Ulysses as overjoyed to have finally arrived in Ithaca--
Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms
longed for as the sun-warmed earth is longed for by a swimmer--
Tennyson's Ulysses, albeit older, is more restive:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd , not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little and of one to me
...and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself....
Certainly, Tennyson's portrayal of an adventurer discontent with a static existence is more consistent with the characterization of Ulysses, the heroic warrior who has spent his life seeking new worlds, new experiences, and new mysteries, who is yet "strong in will" and desires "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" to the complacency and comfort of his later years. For, Ulysses reasons that in these later years, every hour is one that he has saved from death, so these hours must not be empty ones. They must be made a source of new experiences because only in setting sail and seeking new challenges does Ulysses feel his tired heart become again heroic as he battles life out to the end.
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