Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson: An Analysis
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
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! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
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.
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.
Starting with the Poem
Ulysses, a dramatic monologue, published in 1842, is universally recognized as one of Tennyson’s finest poems that embody the Victorian spirit of ceaselessly imbibing knowledge, and triumphing over the limitations posed by age, infirmity, and death. To understand the subject matter in a better way, you may go through the detailed summary.
Tennyson wrote Ulysses, when, after the death of his close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, he was mentally depressed. He later elaborated how the poem emphasized his personal “need of going forward and braving the struggles of life.” This explains much of the poems deliberate insistence upon drinking “Life to the lees,” such that “something ere the end, /Some work of noble note, may yet be done.”
The themes of the poem can be interpreted as meandering trails converging towards several poignant assertions. For instance, the arguments raised by Ulysses may be categorized under the themes:
The resistance of inactivity,
“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”
Ulysses contends that cessation of work and subjecting oneself to a life of utter idleness is similar to having the feeling of getting rusted; for just as a metal accumulates rust being unused, so too man’s finer sentiments get corroded due to prolonged lethargy.
One life is too short for gaining infinite knowledge,
“As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little”
To Ulysses, life signifies much more than mere inhalation and exhalation; it is a storehouse of unknown opportunities, an endless quest for gaining insight. Consequently, he plans to invest every additional hour of his life in an honest pursuit of adventure.
Accepting and triumphing over old age and mortality,
“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done”
Ulysses recognizes the limitations of “Old age” and the universal truth that “Death” is an inevitable end. But as long as there is life, the restraints of both can be confronted with gusto and some “noble work” be accomplished.
Taking the above statements as a supporting framework, the bold declarations that Ulysses put forward may also be thematically categorized as:
Fullest exploration of life, “I want to drink life to the lees”
Comparing life to a drink, Ulysses affirms that he desires to experience it in totality (to its very sediment), thereby giving a glimpse of his roving spirit.
Unrestricted following of knowledge, “To follow knowledge like a sinking star”
Ulysses seems to be intoxicated by the world’s extensive gallery of unexplored things, and he feels an irresistible pull towards them. He cannot rest from travel, has a “hungry heart,” has relished every bit of adventure with his companions, “All times I have enjoy’d/ Greatly, have suffer’d greatly,” such that they have become an inseparable part of him, “I am a part of all that I have met.”
Determination to never give up, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”
Ulysses acknowledges that he along with his mates have grown old (You and I are old), their strength has been weakened by “time” and “fate,” but “a newer world” can still be sought. So he summons his comrades to board the “vessel” that is already getting ready to set sail.
It is a dramatic monologue in unrhymed iambic pentameter or blank verse and does not have any rhyme scheme.
Mood and Tone
The poem has a meditative mood and an inspiring tone throughout.
Figures of Speech
Ulysses alludes to “Odysseus” whose long journey of ten years is described in Homer’s epic poem, “Odyssey,” and also to the legendary figure of the same name, featured in Dante’s “Inferno.” The poem is a fusion of both versions in representing Ulysses as having returned home (Homer) and desirous of sailing again (Dante).
In line 17, the expression, “the ringing plains of windy Troy” alludes to the ancient city Troy, where the famous Trojan War was fought.
In line 33, “Telemachus” alludes to a character in Homer’s “Odyssey.”
In line 53, the phrase, “that strove with Gods” alludes to the participation of Greek Gods like Athena, Ares, and Venus in Trojan War.
In lines 63‑64, the mentioning of “Happy Isles,” alludes to a type of Elysium, where Greek heroes like “Achilles” enjoy permanent bliss.
In lines 9‑11, the poet refers to the constellation of stars, “Hyades” as responsible for disturbing the “dim sea.”
In lines 44‑45, the “vessel” is said to “puff her sail.”
In lines 6‑7, “Life” is compared to drink when he says, “I will drink
Life to the lees”
In lines 12‑15, Ulysses compares himself to an animal when he says, “roaming with a hungry heart.”
In lines 19‑21, Ulysses compares experiences to an arch when he mentions, “Yet all experience is an arch.”
In line 31, Ulysses states that he wants to seek knowledge “like a sinking star.”
In line 46, Ulysses refers to his mariners as souls.