Student Question

What is the speaker's view of the past, present, and future in Tennyson's "Ulysses"?

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In this poem of an aged adventurer desperate for one last jaunt into the unknown we can see that Ulysses is a man who does not sit well with the present. Both the past and the future are described in similar terms: he looks back to the "glory days" of his wanderings, when, free from responsibilities, he could voyage and experience the harships and joys of "roaming with a hungry heart." In the same way, he looks ahead to one last adventure before his death and the return of those carefree days.

However, it is the way that Ulysses describes the present that is interesting. Note how the poem begins:

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Ulysses describes his life as aimless and empty and purposeless. He is savagely critical of his subjects, calling them a "savage race" and exaggerating their ignorance. Later on he describes himself as a "grey spirit yearning in desire" for another chance to have an adventure. We can clearly understand that Ulysses obviously feels trapped and misses the days of his youth when he was free from such monotonous responsibilities, yet we as readers are left with the question if this is an entirely responsible attitude to take. Ulysses appears perfectly happy to leave his kingdom to Telemachus, without asking whether he would like that role. Likewise, little mention is made of the faithful Penelope who waited for her husband so long the first time, except to say that she is now "aged." We get the impression that Ulysses is wishing to flee from his responsibilities rather than face up to them, and that he is a character who is always living in past glory or future dreams of repeated escapades. He is not a character that can face the present.

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