Last Updated September 29, 2023.
"Ulysses" is a poem written by English poet, historical novelist, and literary critic Robert Graves, first published in London in his Poems 1930–1933 collection. As a classicist, Graves was an expert in Classical Latin and Ancient Greek texts. In fact, his translations, The Twelve Caesars and The Golden Ass, are still widely used today. While Poems 1930–1933 centers on themes of love and lust, the poem refers to Homer's epic The Odyssey, in which Odysseus (or Ulysses, in Latin) faces various trials and tribulations in his voyage home to Ithaca.
In the first stanza, Ulysses is described as relentless in his relations with women, whether "wife or whore.” Penelope and Circe, two prominent figures from The Odyssey, are contrasted with each other. While the sorcerer Circe can satisfy the hero's carnal whims and desires, his wife Penelope fulfills a different role—she can bear him a son and further his noble bloodline. Despite the two's marked differences in character, Ulysses is presented as equally drawn to both.
The second stanza compares the women in Ulysses' life to the terrifying, fantastical dangers he faces on his voyage home. He specifically mentions the Clashing Rocks, sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and the land of the Lotus-eaters. These were obstacles for Ulysses when he was trying to get home, but they were dangerous in different ways.
The Clashing Rocks and the sea monsters put Ulysses at risk of death, while the land of the Lotus-eaters was a different kind of danger. It made visitors forget their real-life problems and duties, tricking them into not caring about anything. So, when Ulysses compares the women to these dangers, he says that the women torment and trap him in many different ways.
This line of thought continues in the third stanza, where he compares women to the sirens' song, famous for enticing sailors overboard and leading them to their deaths. Although Ulysses was able to escape such a fate by tying himself to his ship's mast, he left his ears unplugged. Out of curiosity or defiance, he wished to hear the sirens' song. The stanza describes Ulysses as helpless and bound, writhing in his desire as he survives the ordeal.
Finally, stanzas four and five speak of Ulysses' worth as a man. The fourth stanza repeats the word "flesh" in all five lines, emphasizing how pursuing pleasure has dominated Ulysses' life and rendered him "blind." While he saw flesh as having the one purpose of triumphing over, he remains unsatisfied, confronted with the fragility of flesh itself—his mortality.
The final stanza concludes that Ulysses is "nothing to be won or lost" despite his nobility, fame, and wiles. Although daughters of kings aspire to have him as their husband, they cannot rely on his loyalty and faithfulness because Ulysses saw all lands as his homeland, Ithaca—a place to possess and call his own. Knowing he is fickle and "love-tossed" leads him to loathe himself and the noble, honorable facade he presents to others. Despite this level of self-awareness, however, Ulysses cannot go through life without seeking intimacy and companionship from different sources.