Student Question

Does the speaker in "Ulysses" wish for adventure or death?

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There is a fundamental tension throughout the poem between Ulysses's continuing taste for adventure and exploration, and a desire to face up to his old age and mortality. Ulysses (or Odysseus as he was known to the Greeks) was a great warrior, a noble explorer who undertook many dangerous, perilous journeys and voyages throughout the known world. It's not surprising, then, that Ulysses should still retain a strong sense of wanderlust.

But Ulysses is also mortal, so he's getting older. He's now confronted with the question of how to live out the rest of his days. Should he slip quietly into a stale, yet comfortable dotage? Or should he ignore death altogether and continue on with a life of adventure until his body finally gives up on him? As a dignified old warrior, with the blood of adventure coursing through his withered veins, there can only be one answer.

Then, what of death? I'd argue that there's no evidence in the poem to suggest that Ulysses longs for death as such. It would be more accurate to say that Ulysses seeks a new life in death, a new adventure in the afterlife, despite the fact that Ulysses is uncertain as to whether or not it even exists:

"It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: 
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew."
But no matter. Ulysses and his men are explorers, after all, and so there's always an element of risk involved in any voyage. Exploring the afterlife, if it does indeed exist, will be the ultimate adventure. But until the day of death finally arrives, we must all of us, brave explorers or not, in the meantime carry on our lives with vigor, purpose, and strength of will:
"One equal temper of heroic hearts,  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
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What evidence is there in "Ulysses" that the speaker does not long for adventure but for death?  

As with much of Tennyson's verse, the dominant tone of "Ulysses " is arguably one of quiet resignation or even despair. Despite the declaration that he wishes yet to seek a newer world, I sense that the speaker is alluding to one last accomplishment as a prelude to death. Or the newer world in itself may refer to death.

Ulysses knows his time is almost up. The opening statement of the poem is what lingers most in the memory: his realization that his time is past: that he is an "idle king." He does not plead to the gods that they restore his youth. I think this is partly because he knows that he has almost done too much in life. Yet the concept that it is his mission "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" is emblematic of the primal human desire to go on—to remain in a state of activity as long as possible.

But it is a valedictory wish, as Ulysses expresses it. Or, perhaps Tennyson intends it as simply a metaphor of the wish to die, because it is couched in imagery we normally associate with death: the sunset, the realm beyond the western stars, and the "Happy Isles" where he wishes to meet the long-dead Achilles. So, as with all great poems, the basic idea of "Ulysses" is open to interpretation, but it's undeniable that there is a dual sentiment of hope for one last achievement and the wish to expire—to end a life that Ulysses realizes has gone on too long.

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