Ulysses Alfred Lord Tennyson Essay

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Poem Ulysses is written as a first person narrative from the perspective of a dissatisfied aged man, Ulysses, King of Ithaca. This essay will outline how Alfred Tennyson’s portrays Ulysses as an old man pondering about the life he lived as a younger man and longing for adventures similar to those he ventured on in his youth. Although Ulysses may not be the character that Tennyson’s audience would have expected, this paper will show how the character is compared to that of the society of the time in which the poem was created.

In this poem, Tennyson also conveys a personal message that would have been very timely around the time when the poem was written in 1833 (it was later revised for publication in 1842). Tennyson also uses Ulysses to symbolize the general Victorian age, whereby civilization was growing at a rapid pace, and many technologies and advances were taking place. He uses symbolism to sympathize and connect with his audience at a personal level.

Throughout all of the poetic symbolism, Tennyson writes his poem as a dramatic monologue, with un-rhythmic iambic pentameter to bring all of his thoughts, ideas and symbolism into a beautifully written poem. Tennyson reworks the figure of Ulysses by drawing on the ancient hero of Homer’s Odyssey (“Ulysses” is the Roman form of the Greek “Odysseus”) and the medieval hero of Dante’s Inferno. Tennyson wrote this poem in the first few weeks after he learned of the death of a dear college friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Similarly to Tennyson’s other work, (i. e.

In Memoriam) this poem is also an elegy for a deeply cherished friend. Ulysses symbolizes the grieving poet and proclaims his resolution to push onward in spite of the awareness that “death closes all” (line 51). Tennyson stated himself, the poem expresses his own “need for going forward and braving the struggle of life” after the loss of Hallam. Throughout the poem Ulysses, specifically expresses that though he is old, and has had many adventures, he still dreams of gaining a greater knowledge and a furthering his journey to the point that he would choose death in order to seek that greater adventure.

In the poem, Ulysses shares some of his experiences with regard to traveling and experiencing new cultures and customs, “much have I seen and known,” (line 13) and the people that he has not only met, but also been honored by “myself not least, but honored of them all,” (line 15) but yet Ulysses still remains unsatisfied with his life “Yet all experience is an arch where thro’ / gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / for ever and ever when I make a move.

” (lines 19-21). Ulysses, in a search for the satisfaction he so desperately requires in his aging days, entrusts the ruling of the country to his son (lines 33-34) and sets out to the sea one more time. However, Ulysses tells his men this adventure will be different, “Tis not to late to seek a newer world” (line 57) and “for my purpose holds/ To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths /of all the western starts, until I die.

” (lines 60-61) Tennyson writes “by this still hearth… / Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole / unequal laws unto a savage race;” In other words, Ulysses sees himself old and sedentary, ruling a dishonorable people with unjust laws and will set sail and not return, for he feels this would be a satisfactory end to his life after just one journey. However, in actually facing a tragic end such as this, Ulysses changes his mind and decides that this is in fact not how he would like to end his life.

Instead, Ulysses rolls back to the thoughts and memories of experiences and adventures before and again is filled with the burning desire for greater knowledge that only makes him want to explore the world more and to learn more of what he does not know: “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / for ever and ever when I make a move. ” (lines 19-21).

Tennyson’s passion in his writing and the and conviction of his language how that he (as typical for the Victorian age) deeply admired courage and persistence and actually wrote the poem as a metaphor for never surrendering the questing spirit of youth, never giving up, never ceasing to fight for one’s dreams, even though one has grown grey over the years, perhaps a direct correlation to the personal message that Tennyson is conveying following the death of Hallam. Tennyson may have realized that life is short, so to speak, and that a man should never lose the desire for more knowledge.

He may have realized to keep fighting and live life to the fullest while you are there to enjoy it. Tennyson questions what becomes of the hero after the quest. Even a man as clever as Ulysses could not outwit his fate and, like everyone else, he grew old. Now fully aware of his constant need for understanding, Ulysses finally chooses to leave his mundane life of old age and to die chasing the thought that so much overcomes him; to seek out knowledge and understanding.

Even though Ulysses realizes he may not be physically able as he once was to make the journeys, “tho’ / we are not now that strength which in old days / moved earth and heaven,” (lines 65-67) he plans to rely on his strong willed heart “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. ” (line 69) Ulysses convinces himself that he is seeking the ultimate satisfaction, the ultimate foreign land: heaven. Since the end of the dark ages, western civilization had grown very rapidly with advances in technology (specifically physics, medicine and astronomy) and even many areas of the humanities had experienced explosive growth.

Internal exploration was at a high rate, and the general consensus was that everything that needed to be known, was known or would be soon. Explorers would return from journeys with technology that the general population of society looked at as unfathomable. It was this sense of wonder of achievement that lead the Victorians to believe that they were already living in an ideal world. Everything was known, all of history before them has been leading up to this point and that there was therefore little or not purpose for them to serve anymore.

They lost hope, and wonder and ultimately the will to learn and grow because they believed they could go no further. As this idealism grew more and more rapidly, Victorians began to feel a loss of psychological individuality. Tennyson uses the character of Ulysses to symbolize the people of the Victorian age. Ulysses then, a man who journeyed afar and set sail on many adventures, but eventually aged and was disillusioned by the very adventures that educated him, is the perfect representation of the Victorian people.

Science and education had made the people suddenly more educated, but at the same time took away from their spirituality and left them hopeless in that there was nothing left to be known. Tennyson specifically speaks to the Victorians within this poem and acknowledges that although they were weaker and not as educated in the past and they were no longer the people of outward courage and valor that their ancestors were, they could still choose not to “rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use” (line 23) but instead choose “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” (line 70) even if that meant meeting their fate, death, head on.

However, the figure of Ulysses was not particularly praised in the Victorian era. While he was a hero, Ulysses is somewhat selfish. He does after all, allow his personal pride and ambitions to endanger others lives. In the infamous final line of the poem “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” Ulysses longs to flee his tedious daily life “among these barren crags” (line 2) and to enter a new world “beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars” (lines 60-61). Therefore, Ulysses was a model for the Romantic rebellion against bourgeois conformity.

Ulysses then not only held mythological meaning, but stood as an important contemporary cultural icon as well. Ulysses is written in 70 lines of blank verse. It is very strongly accented iambic pentameter and uses simple, but strong words. Many lines however, specifically at the end of the poem seem to un-rhythmic to the monologue that it can be correlated with that of the restlessness of Ulysses. Had the poet not intended this, the last lines and much of the body would not be as forceful and intentionally inspiring as they are.

The poem is written as a dramatic monologue: the entire poem is spoken by a single character, whose identity is revealed by his own words. A dramatic monologue is a type of lyric poem (which does not attempt to tell a story, but is of a more personal nature instead) developed during the Victorian period, in the character delivers a speech explaining his or her feelings, actions, or motives. The monologue is usually directed toward a silent audience, with the speaker’s words influenced by a critical situation.

The lines of Ulysses are in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which serves to impart a fluid and natural quality to Ulysses’s speech. Many of the lines are enjambed and this use of enjambment (the breaking of a syntactic unit by the end of a line or between two verses) is appropriate in a poem about pushing forward “beyond the utmost bound of human thought. ” Finally, the poem is divided into four paragraph-like sections, each of which comprises a distinct thematic unit of the poem, outlined in the thesis of this essay.

As in all dramatic monologues, here the Ulysses character can actually be determined merely through his word, unintentionally. Tennyson devotes a full 26 lines to Ulysses struggle with wanting more out of his life, and another 26 lines to the sacrifice made and the exhortation of his men so that he may room the seas. Only 11 lines are directed toward his son concerning the governance of the kingdom in his absence, and only a mere two words about his “aged wife” Penelope. Thus, the speaker’s own words betray his abdication of responsibility and his specificity of purpose.

Tennyson’s Ulysses has also widely been compared to Homers Odyssey. The difference being Homer uses a god-like hero Odysseus and Tennyson uses a humanistic approach with characteristic such as restlessness, selfishness, and lust for glory. Ulysses represents a somewhat shadow of Odyssey. The godly characteristic that set Odysseus apart from Ulysses are those that make Ulysses human. Odysseus former glory is remembered as a boast of greatness with the aid and direction of his gods absent. Ulysses however, now possesses many of the same faults as ordinary men. The result is a human King facing death yet dreaming of godly glory.

Tennyson created his poem on the basis of the character Odysseus, the ancient goldy hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses is in fact the Roman form of the Greek Odysseus and the medieval hero of Dante’s Inferno. Homer’s Ulysses, as described in Scroll XI of the Odyssey, learns from a prophecy that he will take a final sea voyage after killing the suitors of his wife Penelope. The details of this sea voyage are described by Dante in Canto XXVI of the Inferno: Ulysses finds himself restless in Ithaca and driven by “the longing I had to gain experience of the world.

” Dante’s Ulysses is a tragic figure who dies while sailing too far in an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Tennyson combines these two accounts by including Ulysses speech right after returning to Ithaca from his first journey and resuming his administrative responsibility as king, but shortly before setting sail for his final voyage. The timely creation of this poem undoubtedly supports the fact that Tennyson was writing a poem while grieving for a dearly beloved friend, Hallam. Tennyson, being of the similar age as Hallam takes time to reflect on life as short, and only what an individual makes of it.

This is fully supported within the poem, whereby Tennyson references one of mankind’s biggest questions – am I living life to it’s fullest? This tragic event of the passing of a friend in Tennyson’s life was the basis for writing the poem. Using Ulysses to symbolize the general Victorian age is another theme that Tennyson carries throughout the poem. With the rapid growth of society many Victorian had stopped to wonder – what’s left? This theme ties into the personal one included in the poem, that being living life to the fullest.

Many Victorians including Tennyson himself at this time were pondering what their purpose was, and what they would do to be satisfied with their lives. Throughout all of this poetic symbolism that Tennyson includes in order to deeply sympathize with his audience, Tennyson writes his poem as a dramatic monologue, with un-rhythmic iambic pentameter to bring all of his thoughts, ideas and symbolism into a beautifully written poem. The iambic pentameter gives the poem the harshness of what was being felt by society at the time, and in character, by Ulysses.

Tennyson does all of this, based on the reworking the figure of Ulysses by drawing on the ancient hero of Homer’s Odyssey (“Ulysses” is the Roman form of the Greek “Odysseus”) and the medieval hero of Dante’s Inferno. Alfred Tennyson’s poem Ulysses is one of great meaning, depth and a poetic genius.


Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. Ohio: McGraw Hill, 1965, revised 1979. Gordon, William Clark. The Social Ideals of Alfred Tennyson as Related to His Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906.

Hughes, Linda K. “Tennyson” Victorian Poetry Vol. 44, (2006). Hughes, Linda. The Many Faceted Glass: Tennyson’s Dramatic Monologues. Athens: Ohio UP, 1987. Reese, Jack E. Sound and Sense: The Teaching of Prosody,Vol. 27, No. 5 (Feb. , 1966), pp. 368-373 Saunders, Mary. “Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ as a Rhetorical Monologue. ” Victorian Newsletter 60 (1981): 20-24. Tennyson, Lord Alfred. Selected Poems. Toronto: Penguin Classics, 2004. Wikipedia, “Blank verse, iambic pentameter, dramatic monologue” 30 Apr. 2007. <http://www. wikipedia. org>

Complete Text

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,
’Tis 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.


Ulysses (Odysseus) declares that there is little point in his staying home “by this still hearth” with his old wife, doling out rewards and punishments for the unnamed masses who live in his kingdom.

Still speaking to himself he proclaims that he “cannot rest from travel” but feels compelled to live to the fullest and swallow every last drop of life. He has enjoyed all his experiences as a sailor who travels the seas, and he considers himself a symbol for everyone who wanders and roams the earth. His travels have exposed him to many different types of people and ways of living. They have also exposed him to the “delight of battle” while fighting the Trojan War with his men. Ulysses declares that his travels and encounters have shaped who he is: “I am a part of all that I have met,” he asserts. And it is only when he is traveling that the “margin” of the globe that he has not yet traversed shrink and fade, and cease to goad him.

Ulysses declares that it is boring to stay in one place, and that to remain stationary is to rust rather than to shine; to stay in one place is to pretend that all there is to life is the simple act of breathing, whereas he knows that in fact life contains much novelty, and he longs to encounter this. His spirit yearns constantly for new experiences that will broaden his horizons; he wishes “to follow knowledge like a sinking star” and forever grow in wisdom and in learning.

Ulysses now speaks to an unidentified audience concerning his son Telemachus, who will act as his successor while the great hero resumes his travels: he says, “This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the scepter and the isle.” He speaks highly but also patronizingly of his son’s capabilities as a ruler, praising his prudence, dedication, and devotion to the gods. Telemachus will do his work of governing the island while Ulysses will do his work of traveling the seas: “He works his work, I mine.”

In the final stanza, Ulysses addresses the mariners with whom he has worked, traveled, and weathered life’s storms over many years. He declares that although he and they are old, they still have the potential to do something noble and honorable before “the long day wanes.” He encourages them to make use of their old age because “ ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.” He declares that his goal is to sail onward “beyond the sunset” until his death. Perhaps, he suggests, they may even reach the “Happy Isles,” or the paradise of perpetual summer described in Greek mythology where great heroes like the warrior Achilles were believed to have been taken after their deaths. Although Ulysses and his mariners are not as strong as they were in youth, they are “strong in will” and are sustained by their resolve to push onward relentlessly: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


This poem is written as a dramatic monologue: the entire poem is spoken by a single character, whose identity is revealed by his own words. The lines are in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which serves to impart a fluid and natural quality to Ulysses’s speech. Many of the lines are enjambed, which means that a thought does not end with the line-break; the sentences often end in the middle, rather than the end, of the lines. The use of enjambment is appropriate in a poem about pushing forward “beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Finally, the poem is divided into four paragraph-like sections, each of which comprises a distinct thematic unit of the poem.

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