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Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Summary

The dramatic monologue, Ulysses, narrating the feelings of the legendary hero, “Odysseus,” alludes to both Homer’s “Odyssey” as well as Dante’s “Inferno.” It was written, when, after the death of Tennyson’s close friend, Henry Hallam, he was dispirited. The poem was thus, a vehicle for him to overcome his dejected mood, in his own words, the “need of going forward and braving the struggles of life.”

Part-wise Summary

Part 1

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.

Summary: Ulysses, an aged king of Ithaka, feels bored of his unproductive (idle) life. He declares that it is useless (It little profits), to sit beside an equally elderly wife by a “still hearth” and deliver (mete), “Unequal” rewards and punishments (laws), to uncivilized subjects. This “savage race” remains content by fulfilling daily mundane obligations (hoard, and sleep, and feed), while hardly caring to know their king. After this brief enumeration of his revolting surrounding, he voices his innermost desires. “I cannot rest from travel,” he states, thereby hinting at his eternal roving spirit. Seeing life as a drink, he further affirms that he resolves to explore (drink), life to the fullest (lees).After that, he proceeds to describe at length how his experiences have been. “All times I have enjoy’d/ Greatly, have suffer’d greatly,” he declares, either alone or others, on land (on shore), or, when the sea has been agitated by a violent downpour (scudding drifts), due to the “rainy Hyades,” (the stars in the constellation Taurus, often related to heavy rain). These travels, spurred by his insatiable thirst (hungry heart) to move on, have finally enabled him to earn fame (I am become a name). And the treasure he has accumulated – knowledge about different places with diverse “manners, climates, councils, governments,” where he has been “honoured” by all. Such a detailed estimation of his achievements finally seems to get summed up by another poignant revelation, “”I am a part of all that I have met,” thereby plaintively harping on how the adventures are inseparable from him. It is imperative to “live life to the lees,” for “all experience” appears to him as “an arch,” on which the more he moves, the greater the “margins” of an exotic, “untraveled world” seem to fade, opening up new possibilities, fresh horizons. Thus, there is hardly any utility in pausing (How dull it is to pause), or making “an end.” Likening himself to a metal, he justifies that inactivity is bound to erode his finer instincts of undertaking new adventures, (To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!).For to him, life signifies more than mere breathing; his extensive passion for finding something new cannot be gratified even in manifold lifetimes! And, he desperately aims to dedicate every additional hour of his life in an honest pursuit of adventure, (but every hour is saved/From that eternal silence).Moreover, he is now an aged man, a “grey spirit,” and since three years (three suns) have been wasted, he is now single-mindedly geared up “To follow knowledge” as it sinks like a “star.”

Part 2

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.

Summary: The second stanza begins with Ulysses introducing his son, “Telemachus” on whom he intends to “leave the sceptre and the isle.”It is because he believes that his son, by dint of his patience, (slow prudence), and willingness, would slowly (soft degrees), civilize the “rugged people” of Ithaka. Unlike Ulysses, “Telemachus” is a family man, religiously devoted to fulfilling both household duties as well as others, (common duties).Consequently, being alienated from his father in temperament, he is disposed to execute his work in his way,(He works his work, I mine).

Part 3

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.

Summary: In the third part, Ulysses directly makes the reader acknowledge the objects that would help him to attain his dream – the ship or “vessel” that is getting ready to sail and “the dark, broad seas.” Having ascertained his mission, he now dwells on his “mariners,” who, endowed with bountiful energy (Free hearts), and confidence (free foreheads) have confronted life’s hazards with him, “Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me.”And, even though they have become old, yet it does not mean that they can while away aimlessly, “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil.” “Death” he asserts is an inescapable termination but “some” noble “work” “may yet be done.” So, while the stars start emerging, (The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks), the moon ascends (climbs), he calls his comrades, “Come, my friends.”Urging them to strike the “furrows” with oars, he claims that “T is not too late to seek a newer world.” He plans to sail beyond the “baths” and imagines of reaching (after death), the “Happy Isles,” the Island of the Blessed where Greek heroes enjoyed permanent bliss. He reaffirms that though the old strength has been “taken” by “time and fate,” the “heroic” spirit “abides” or remains in him and his companions. So the ultimate clarions call to his mates become, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” or in a nutshell, to continue and never give up.

Here is a detailed analysis of the poem to understand its background, themes, figures of speech.

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