Tennyson’s dramatic monologue “Ulysses” tells the story of what happens to the aging hero after he returns home. Ulysses (the Latin name for Greek mythology's Odysseus) is well known as a hero who fought many battles as a young man, spent ten years battling in the siege of Troy, and took a journey of ten additional years to return home to Ithaca. Now, he has been home for some time, and he is troubled.
Ulysses, the poem’s speaker, begins by giving a picture of what his life has been like during the past years. He is an aging king, married to an aging queen, who lives unknown to his subjects. He describes them as “a savage race” who take advantage of all that he does for them without knowing who he truly is. He merely creates laws and rules idly. He is a man who is used to constant movement, so he cannot be expected to be happy living a quiet life.
Ulysses then nostalgically outlines some of his adventures in his younger days. He speaks of battles he fought with his comrades, people he met, and places he saw. All are a permanent part of the man he is today. He greatly misses those days when he traveled to many lands and was “honour’d of them all.” Young Ulysses was not merely a name—he was important to those he knew, unlike today, and they were all important to him, too. He says, “I am a part of all that I have met” and that each adventure, each being, each place remains in his “hungry heart.” He believes that he truly lived life in those days.
Ulysses expresses some regret that his present life is doomed to “rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use.” He longs to do something other than merely breathe in life; he knows that life is meant to be lived, and he does not want merely to exist. He is also keenly aware that as he grows older, he has little time left to live before “that eternal silence” of death takes over. He knows that with each hour that goes by, he has the opportunity to do something great before the final silence. Therefore, Ulysses is determined to follow his desires and stop sitting around waiting for death to overcome him.
He mentions his son, Telemachus, to whom he leaves his kingdom. Telemachus is a different person than his father and will rule in his own way. However, Ulysses is confident that he will do well “to make mild / A rugged people” and help them. Knowing that Telemachus is fit for the task gives Ulysses hope and confidence to continue on to the next part of his own life.
Ulysses next asks his friends, his former fellow mariners, to accompany him on an adventure. He points out the port, the ship, and the sea in an attempt to bring his nostalgia to their hearts as well. He knows he will have a difficult time convincing them to leave, since the journey will involve danger, and it is possible they won’t ever return home. However, he reminds them that if they don’t go now, they will merely sit and wait for death in boredom and inactivity. They may still do something before death: “Death closes all: but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” He urges his friends to join him in finding new lands, as they did in their youth. He acknowledges that they are old and do not have the strength and stamina that they used to have but assures them that, if they accept this fact, they can still seek adventure. What will keep them going are their noble hearts and wills, their heroic natures, and the knowledge that death is around the corner. Therefore, they must seize the moment before it’s too late; they must try “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
When Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published “Ulysses” in 1842, his contemporaries tended to read the poem straightforwardly, as a speech given by a heroic figure who asserts that there is value in learning, in doing, and in taking risks. Later critics,...
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