Ulysses: Summary & Theme, Alfred Tennyson (2023)

What makes a good life? Is it a life of adventure, or of settling down? What happens when life throws challenges at you? Do you face them bravely and continue forward, or do you pull away in retreat?

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his 1842 poem 'Ulysses', explores these questions. Though it was written in 1833, it's a timeless poem about a timeless character. He wrestles with tensions, such as the tension between the lived and the unlived life, the dissatisfaction that comes with accomplishment, and the inevitable nature of one’s identity.

Ulysses: Summary & Theme, Alfred Tennyson (1)Drawing of the mythical hero Odysseus (Ulysses) tied to the mast of his ship, Wikimedia.org

Poem'Ulysses'
PoetAlfred, Lord Tennyson
Written1833
Published1842
FormDramatic monologue
MeterBlank verse (Unrhymed iambic pentameter)
AllusionOdysseus, King of Ithaca, from Homer's The Odyssey
Poetic DevicesMetaphor, symbolism, contrast
ToneYearning, nostalgic
ThemesMortality, aging, adventure
MeaningPeople cannot change who they are.

'Ulysses': Literary Context and Background

Let's consider the background of the poem.

Homer's Odyssey

The speaker and content of Tennyson’s poem 'Ulysses' are based on the ancient Greek epic poem the Odyssey (1616) by Homer. In Homer’s Odyssey (written between 725–675 BCE), Odysseus (whose Latinized name is Ulysses) is the King of Ithaca. He journeys home for ten years after fighting in the Trojan war. Throughout his journey, he and his mariners face danger and perils of all kinds. Because he had been gone for many years, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus presume Odysseus is dead. When Odysseus finally returns home, he and Telemachus must slay the suitors who have taken over his land. Once they do so, he is reunited with Penelope. Ithaca is at peace once again, but Odysseus must leave on another brief journey to appease Poseidon, the god of the sea and waters.

Tennyson wasn't the only writer inspired by Homer's Odyssey. You may have heard of the novel Ulysses, written by Irish author James Joyce. Published in 1922, this novel draws on Odysseus and the Odyssey. The main character, Leopold Bloom, represents Odysseus (Ulysses), and the narrative recounts one ordinary day in his life. Each episode of this day corresponds with a section of the Odyssey. In the novel Ulysses, however, there aren't gods, monsters, storms, or shipwrecks -- instead, it's full of mundane things, making it a masterpiece of satire. Despite many readers finding it difficult to read due to its structure, style, and language, Joyce's Ulysses is considered one of the greatest novels of all time.

Ulysses: Summary & Theme, Alfred Tennyson (2)Portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Wikimedia.org

'Ulysses': Autobiographical Context

What about the autobiographical background of the poem?

Death of Arthur Henry Hallam

Tennyson wrote much of his best work following the sudden death of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. At the time, Tennyson was also living at home to help his mother and eight siblings after the death of their father in 1831. With increasing domestic duties — and mounting grief — Tennyson penned 'Ulysses.' In fact, Tennyson said that Ulysses’s brave defiance of his household circumstances got him interested in the Greek myth in the first place. Tennyson said1 that the poem

Gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life.

How does knowing Tennyson’s emotional and physical state during the time of writing “Ulysses” help inform your interpretation of it?

'Ulysses': Summary

The poem begins with the speaker, Ulysses, reflecting on his present circumstances: he is old, at home, and dissatisfied with his domestic life. He states, “I cannot rest from travel” (line 6), the first indication of his unease at staying still. He then begins to reminisce about his voyages. He reflects fondly of his “always roaming with a hungry heart” (line 12) and speaks proudly of his accomplishments. He admits that “I am a part of all I have met” (line 18), yet his appetite for travel and adventure is not satisfied.

After he reminisces, he speaks again in the present moment and bemoans his current state: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rest unburnished, to not shine in use!” (lines 22-23). Here, he begins to think about the possibility of leaving again — to find new knowledge, travel uncharted seas, and embark on another journey.

The speaker then shifts his focus to his son, Telemachus, whom he admires but feels disconnected from. Ulysses draws a sharp contrast between him and his son. Where Ulysses has “drunk delight of battle with my peers, far on the ringing plains of Troy,” (lines 16-17), he sees Telemachus as tender, mild-mannered, and a ruler of the domestic sphere. Although he trusts Ithaca will be in good hands with Telemachus at the helm after he is gone, Ulysses believes the two men have divergent paths. To close this aside, he says, “He works his work, I mine” (line 43), indicating their separate ways.

Ulysses’s focus shifts from his son to the nearby port. He sees the boat, the open seas, and his mariners. He acknowledges their old age, but he believes there may be something out there that has yet to be done. He notes how the “lights begin to twinkle from the rocks” (line 54), which illustrates his growing desire for adventure. He declares, toward the end of the poem, “'Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (line 57). Even though he is not as young, strong, or energetic as he was in his youth, he cannot stop himself from going. The poem ends with the famous lines:

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

(Lines 65 - 70).

'Ulysses': The Text

LinePoem
1It little profits that an idle king,
2

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

3

Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole

4

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

5

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

6

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

7

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd

8

Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those

9

That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when

10

Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

11

Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;

12

For always roaming with a hungry heart

13

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

14

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

15

Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;

16

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

17

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

18

I am a part of all that I have met;

19

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'

20

Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades

21

For ever and forever when I move.

22

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

23

To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!

24

As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life

25

Were all too little, and of one to me

26

Little remains: but every hour is saved

27

From that eternal silence, something more,

28

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

29

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

30

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

31

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

32

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

33

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

34

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—

35

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

36

This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

37

A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees

38

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

39

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere

40

Of common duties, decent not to fail

41

In offices of tenderness, and pay

42

Meet adoration to my household gods,

43

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

44

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

45

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

46

Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—

47

That ever with a frolic welcome took

48

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

49

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

50

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

51

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

52

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

53

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

54

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

55

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

56

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

57

'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

58

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

59

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

60

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

61

Of all the western stars, until I die.

62

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

63

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

64

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

65

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

66

We are not now that strength which in old days

67

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

68

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

69

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

70

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Critical Analysis of the Poem 'Ulysses'

After reading a poem and understanding its story, your task is to then analyze it. This means you look at its poetic elements and figure out what they do for the meaning of the poem.

Form of 'Ulysses'

What is the form of the poem?

Blank verse

The poem is mostly written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter: A line of verse that consists of ten syllables. Each pair of syllables begins with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. For example, “It little profits that an idle king” (line 1).

When iambic pentameter is unrhymed, it has several effects. It sounds much like the natural rhythms of speech. Tennyson also may have employed blank verse as a tribute to William Shakespeare, John Milton, and others who use it in their poems and plays about epic heroes.

The iambic pentameter is occasionally interrupted in the poem, however – which is rich for analysis. Line 2 reads, “By this still hearth, among these barren crags.” There is a stress on the word “still,” which is irregular for iambic pentameter. This slows the reader down, forcing them to nearly stop — which mirrors what Ulysses is feeling at this moment.

When Ulysses is speaking of the people he governs, he says: “That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me,” (line 5). The regular iambic pentameter pattern with the first six words suggests monotony. It's then disrupted by three stressed and strong syllables. “Know not me” is something that weighs on him. That his people do not know him is a burden he must face.

Dramatic monologue

Tennyson’s use of time in the poem is fluid, going from the present, to memories of the past, to looking forward to and imagining the future. This seamlessness, coupled with the poem's dramatic monologue structure, highlights Ulysses’ inner desires and qualities, rather than his actions.

Dramatic Monologue: A form of poetry in which an imagined character (the speaker) addresses a silent, unknown, or invisible listener (usually the audience or reader). In dramatic monologues, the speaker and the poet are distinct from each other.

In fact, the ending of the poem is ambiguous. It doesn’t explicitly say Ulysses gets on the boat and leaves Ithaca — he only talks about going back to sea. Tennyson's use of the fluidity of time allows readers to see Ulysses as a man yearning for more, yet stuck where he is.

Literary Devices in 'Ulysses'

What literary devices are used in the poem?

Metaphor

If we take the literary and autobiographical contexts into account when reading the poem, we can interpret Ulysses's desire for another quest as a desire to find the meaning of life. If he stays home, he will wither away, and perhaps the life he lived will amount to nothing. But if he goes, then he can find the answers to life that he is looking for. His life can then have meaning. This metaphor is most apparent in lines 22-23. Ulysses says, "How dull it is pause, to make an end, To rest unburnished, not to shine in use!" He compares himself to a tool that no longer has any use and becomes dull and rusty as a result.

Contrast

Tennyson strikes several contrasts throughout the poem to heighten the poem’s tension and reinforce its themes. Ulysses does not feel “at home” at home – he only feels at home when he’s at sea. He also juxtaposes himself with his son, who he believes is “discerning to fulfill” the labor of domestic and civic management. These contrasts illuminate that Ulysses is exactly who he is, and nothing more – a perpetual mariner.

Diction

When Ulysses speaks of his time at sea, he uses words that suggest vitality, movement, and grandiosity.

Diction: An author's choice of words, especially chosen for their sound, connotations, and usage.

His use of “drink,” (line 6), “drunk delight” (line 16), "gleams" (line 20), “frolic,” (line 47), “thunder and sunshine” (line 48), and “twinkle" (line 54) suggest his desire for unrest is intoxicating, fulfilling, and bigger than himself. When he speaks of staying home, he uses words with darker, lifeless connotations, such as “dull,” (line 22), “eternal silence,” (line 27), “vile” (line 28), and “yield” (line 70). These word choices reinforce the notion of Ulysses's feeling of discontent at home and his yearning for something more.

'Ulysses': Themes

What themes are present in the poem?

The Inevitability of one's identity

One of the most famous lines of the poem arrives at the end. As Ulysses feels compelled to go back out to sea, he states: "that which we are, we are" (line 67). This is a statement of resolution. Ulysses is who he is – a man who belongs at sea. Despite his old age and weak stature, his heart still yearns for the life of adventure. By ending the poem with this sentiment, Tennyson remarks that people are who they are. In other words, their identity is inevitable.

The life unlived

One irony in this poem is the perspective Ulysses has on "the unlived life." As he sits at his home alongside his old wife, he feels restless and hungry for more. He states:

All experience is an arch wherethro'

Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

(lines 19-21).

He's not satisfied with what he's accomplished. He feels to rest is to die. All of his past experiences have made him eager for more instead of satisfying him. Yet to anyone else, Ulysses has lived the full life. He's known "men, and manners, climates, councils, and governments" (lines 13 - 14), and he's battled through the "scudding drifts of the rainy Hyades" (line 10). This irony suggests that a person's values and beliefs about what makes the good life is individual to them. Sometimes, people don't realize what they have, so they seek greener pastures.

Symbolism in "Ulysses"

Ulysses: Summary & Theme, Alfred Tennyson (3)The sea and cliffs off the coast of Greece, Wikimedia.org

The Sea

The sea functions as a symbol of freedom. It is the opposite of confinement, stillness, and stability. It offers dangers and unknowns, yet Ulysses is called to it anyway. As Ulysses makes a rallying call for his mariners, he says he does not know what the voyage will bring:

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles And see the great Achilles” (lines 62-63).

This unknown is exactly what compels him to the great beyond.

Home

In contrast, home is a symbol of confinement, familiarity, and “common duties” (line 40). Ulysses views the home as the place where he will waste away and meet an “eternal silence” (line 27). It is the place for his son, who is much better suited for that kind of work.

Ulysses: Summary & Theme, Alfred Tennyson (4)Artist rendering of Odysseus (Ulysses) as an old man, Wikimedia.org

Ulysses

Knowing Tennyson’s background helps us to see Ulysses as a symbol of restlessness, yearning, defiance, and ambition. Tennyson wrote the poem at age 33 — even though it features an old man nearing the end of his life. Regardless, Tennyson no doubt related to Ulysses as a man who braved the challenges before him, who found discontent with domestic responsibility, and who yearned for a life full of adventure and excitement.

'Ulysses' - Key Takeaways

  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote 'Ulysses' in 1833, at the age of 33. He penned the poem shortly after his beloved friend passed away and as he was caring for his mother and eight siblings after the death of his father two years prior.
  • The poem is a dramatic monologue from the perspective of Ulysses, the ancient Greek hero in Homer's epic poem the Odyssey.
  • 'Ulysses' mostly employs blank verse, but has occasional interruptions in meter, which often mirror what Ulysses is feeling.
  • The poem's central tension is between Ulysses's old age and his burning desire for perpetual sea-faring.
  • 'Ulysses' uses literary devices such as metaphor, contrast, and diction to convey the speaker's yearning for meaning and adventure in his life.
  • 'Ulysses' incorporates themes of the unchangeable nature of one's identity and the pursuit of a full life.

1 W.B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: a Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero., 1933.

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