Last Updated on September 16, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
The poem is narrated by the eponymous Ulysses, which is the Roman name for the hero Odysseus from ancient Greek literature. Tennyson's poem imagines an older Ulysses, bored with the quiet life of retirement and seeking new adventures. In the second stanza of the poem, Ulysses says that he wants to "drink / Life to the lees," meaning that he wants to drink every last drop of adventure that life has to offer. He says that, despite his age, he still has "a hungry heart," and he complains of "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnished." He is, in short, restless, and his appetite for adventure remains insatiable.
Later in the poem, Ulysses acknowledges that the next adventure may very well be his last. He seems at peace with the idea of his own death, so long as it is a death met in the midst of adventure rather than a death met in dull, idle retirement. He yearns, he says, "To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die."
Telemachus is Ulysses's son to whom Ulysses says he will "leave the sceptre and the isle." In other words, Ulysses will leave the government of the land to his son while he travels abroad in search of more adventure. Telemachus seems like he would be a good ruler in his father's place. He is "Well-loved" by his father, "discerning," and prudent. He will, his father says, subdue or civilize his subjects "through soft degrees." The implication here is that he will be a gentle ruler; he will not lead too harshly or make rash decisions. Ulysses also says that Telemachus is "blameless" and "decent." Ulysses seems very confident that Telemachus will be able to rule in his place.
Toward the end of the poem, Ulysses calls upon his remaining mariners to join him for one last adventure. These are men who have "toiled, and wrought, and thought" with Ulysses many times before. They, like Ulysses, are old now, but Ulysses tells them that "Old age hath yet his honour and his toil." In other words, there is still honor to be had and work to be done, despite the fact that they may not have the energy or strength of youth. Ulysses invites his mariners to go with him, insisting that "'T is not too late to seek a newer world." He invites them also to join with him so that they may become "One equal temper of heroic hearts." This camaraderie between himself and his men seems to be an essential part of what Ulysses is yearning for. He does not necessarily want to seek adventure on his own; rather, he seeks to share and enjoy it with his comrades.