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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In attempting to convince his friends to accompany him on one final adventure, the great mariner Ulysses craftily reminds them of some key points. First, he reminds them of all the adventures they have had together in juxtaposition with the quiet, inactive lives they currently lead as they age. Ulysses is hungry for more adventure and cannot go to his death without having at least one more. He tells his mariners,

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life!

Ulysses now reminds them that a dull life of inactivity is no life at all. He longs to feel useful and important, and to live fully. As the king, he has no opportunity for adventure any longer; in fact, he has no opportunity to do anything except rule the kingdom from his throne. Here, Tennyson cautions us to live unrelentingly. If we do nothing with our lives, we waste precious time, because breathing is not synonymous with living.

Ulysses also tells his friends,

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done.

He wants the sailors to understand that time is ticking, and there is no going back. While they can never regain their youth, they certainly should not give in to old age just yet. They still have the strength and will to have one more adventure. They were honorable when they were young because they fought bravely and did not give in to any obstacles. Here, Tennyson makes clear that we must understand the inevitable—that all life ends in death—but we do not have to submit to it. We can meet age with dignity if we continue to take risks and strive to live full lives.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
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.

Here, Ulysses gives a final attempt to convince his mariners to join him in truly living out the rest of their lives. He acknowledges they are old but reminds them that they are not dead yet. Tennyson urges us to accept what we cannot change but also to fight for what is achievable. It is human to feel that old age must be accepted willingly and that we cannot do the things we used to do. However, that does not mean we must give up. Instead, it is the time to push forward and find what new things we are capable of accomplishing; as we age, we know our strengths and roles in life, as Ulysses does. We must accept that all life comes to an end, but we do not have to quietly yield to it.

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