In "Ulysses," who will rule the island when Ulysses retires?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is important to realise that Tennyson is using the Odyssey by Homer to write this poem. Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, one of the Greek heroes who fought in the Trojan War and was actually responsible through his cunning and guile for conquering Troy and ending the conflict through his idea of the Trojan Horse. Homer's Odyssey tells the tale of the return of Odysseus back to his beloved wife and son, to take up his rightful rule of Ithaca once more. However, in this poem, Ulysses is now imagined as an old king, desiring one last adventure before his ultimate death. It is clear if you read the poem carefully that Ulysses plans to leave the kingdom in the safe and capable hands of his son, Telemachus. Note what Ulysses says:

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill

This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and through soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Ulysses thus presents his son to the population of Ithaca as a worthy replacement, as a man who will work hard at his job of ruling them and will patiently maintain stability and encounter every problem that could arise.

kipling2448's profile pic

kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem "Ulysses," it is very clear to whom the titular figure bequeaths the island: his son Telemachus. In the pertinent stanza, Lord Tennyson wrote the following:
This is my son, mine own Telemachus, 
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,— 
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil 
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild 
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees 
Subdue them to the useful and the good. 
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere 
Of common duties, decent not to fail 
In offices of tenderness, and pay 
Meet adoration to my household gods, 
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
Tennyson was very close to Arthur Hallam, whose death struck the poet hard and which influenced his writing. Hallam's death in 1833 coincided with the publication of Tennyson's volume Poems to negative reviews, and the poet seems, according to at least one scholar, to have become almost obsessed with the notions of death and legacy. In his essay "Memorials of the Tennysons" (published in Memory and Memorials: From the French Revolution to World War I, Routledge, 2000), Mathew Campbell suggested that "Ulysses" was a product of its author's grief over his friend's death, and that Tennyson was writing "an act of abdication" in which the master steps down from his position of power, bequeathing to his son the power and responsibilities that once lay with him. The action of Ulysses/Odysseus in turning over to his son Telemachus "the scepter and the isle" suggest exactly that: the leader, no longer able or willing to go on, handing over the reins to the next generation.
 
The answer, then, to the question of "who will rule the island when Ulysses retires" is Telemachus, Ulysses's loyal and brave son.