Ulysses Poem Summary & Analysis

In Short

  • Ulysses, the great Greek hero as depicted by Tennyson, is tired of living an idle life in Ithaca. He has gained knowledge and experience from his previous travels and wants to set sail again and know the unknown.
  • Ulysses is a man of action. He describes his colourful past eloquently in a nostalgic mood. The unknown world beckons him for adventure. So, he feels restless.
  • Ulysses hands over the reins of his kingdom to his son, Telemachus. He thinks that Telemachus will be a good ruler and will do the household duties properly.
  • Ulysses calls his trusted band of sailors to set sail again. They will explore the unknown region together. Ulysses wants to explore till his last breath.

Ulysses – Line by Line Explanation

Lines 1 – 5

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.

Ulysses, the king of Ithaca, finds his life very dull because he has very little to do as the ruler of his native island. Life in Ithaca is presented as ‘still hearth’ that has no warmth. The island is rocky, so he feels trapped here. His wife grows old and he can’t feel happy in her company either.

Ulysses practices his day-to-day laws on his subjects who are unrefined and rugged people. They live a useless life. They do not understand Ulysses’ real nature and can’t appreciate his worth. That’s why he is reluctant to rule them and live amongst them.

Lines 6 – 12

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

Ulysses has a tremendous fondness for travelling. He is an adventurer. He has long been used to a life of travel. That’s why he proclaims that he can’t rest from travel. He wants to live his life to the fullest as he would drink the last drop of wine.

As a traveller he has enjoyed so much and seen sufferings also. He has gone through good and bad times, sometimes with his dear friends and sometimes alone, both on the land and through the rainy storms (scudding drifts) in the sea agitated (vexed) by the Hyades (a group of stars in the constellation Taurus often associated with rain). He considers himself a household name for roaming all over the world.

Lines 13 – 21

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.

Ulysses has seen different kinds of men and manners, governments and courtiers. He has been considered an important person and suitably honoured. He has fought against the Trojan heroes and enjoyed the thrill of fighting. He has experienced so many things. His all experience is compared to an arch-like horizon. He wants to travel the unknown parts of the world. As he travels towards them, the margin or the end of those unknown lands moves back.

Lines 22 – 32

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.

Ulysses’ present life is dull and useless. He doesn’t want to take rest any more. He declares that it is boring to stay at one place, to remain silent rather than to do something. He can’t pretend that life is the simple act of breathing. He feels even multiple lives would fall short for all the things he wants to do. And of this single life of his, only a little time remains to be lived.

So, every hour is now valuable. Before the ‘eternal silence’ (death), his spirit yearns for more adventure. He seems to have spent quite some time sitting idle in Ithaca and considers it a sin (vile) to sit and spend some three years (three suns) doing nothing. He would follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost limit of human thought.

Here “follow knowledge like a sinking star” can have different interpretations. We may think that knowledge is like a sinking star and Ulysses wants to catch it before it sinks. Again, we may argue that Ulysses himself is like a sinking star as he nears his death and so wants to gain knowledge quickly without wasting more time.

Lines 33 – 43

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.

Ulysses now introduces his son to the readers. He passes on the charge of kingship to his beloved son, Telemachus. In his opinion, Telemachus will be a good ruler. With his worldly wisdom and patience, he will be able to civilize the savage people of the island. Gradually he would make them useful and good.

Telemachus is very much innocent. He will do the homely duties and properly worship the household gods in Ulysses’ absence. So, let Telemachus do his duty while Ulysses would continue to travel.

Lines 44 – 50

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;

The scene shifts to the seaside, to the port of Ithaca. The wind is favourable to start the journey. The sails of the ship bulge with wind. The darkness of the evening looms on the broad sea.

Ulysses addresses his mariners and commands them to get ready for the voyage. They have always been brave (free hearts) and intelligent (free foreheads) in facing the good and bad weather, both fair and foul. Now they have grown old. Ulysses suggests that though the old people are honoured, they have got responsibility to toil (work). So, they can’t rest and repose.

Lines 51 – 61

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.

Death is the ultimate destination of life. But before the final end, some noble work has yet to be done. And they are worthy (not unbecoming) because they fought against the gods in the Trojan war.

Meanwhile, the day ends, the stars start to twinkle and the moon emerges. “Deep moans round with many voices” though may mean the sound of waves in the sea, it may also suggest the moans of the dead (the ghosts) or even people mourning a death. So, Ulysses is thinking of his nearing death and hence the craving for a last voyage.

He asks his sailors to take their respective positions and to strike the water (smite the sounding furrows) with their oars to steer the ship. He wants to explore the unknown regions till his last breath.

Lines 62 – 70

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.

During this exploration they might be washed down or they may reach the Islands of the Blessed (In Greek mythology, a heavenly place where the Greek war heroes enjoyed after their death) where they would be able to meet Achilles (the greatest Greek warrior of the Trojan war), his old friend. So, Ulysses knows that they may die during the voyage and may never return.

Though weak in body, they are not at all flagging in spirit. They are strong in will. That’s why they will strive to seek, to find and not to yield (surrender) in carrying on their mission.

Ulysses – A Critical Commentary

Ulysses, written by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is one of his greatest and noblest poems. It was written in October, 1833, soon after Tennyson heard of the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam in Vienna. He was then completely broken down and very much upset. In Tennyson’s words –

“There is more about myself in “Ulysses”, which was written under the sense of loss and all that had gone by, but that still life must be fought out till the end. It was more written with the feeling of this loss upon me than many poems.” – “In Memorium” (his elegiac tribute to Hallam)

The poem was first published in in 1842 in the second volume of his poetry.

Ulysses was a legendary Greek hero, whose heroic deeds and adventures are sung by Homer in his “Odyssey”. Tennyson quoted both “Odyssey” and “The Divine Comedy” of Dante as his sources.

The poem is closely modelled on Dante’s “Inferno” (26th Canto) that contains a description of this voyage and its sequel. Tennyson took the idea of the voyage of Ulysses from “Inferno” and modelled his hero on Homer’s. The verse of Ulysses is modelled on the great speeches contained in the first and second books of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. The oratory of Ulysses reminds one of that of Satan in these books. There is a Faustian and satanical quality in his rhetorical speech.

Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is written in blank verse. The flow of iambic pentameter lines is often disturbed by spondees. And the frequent enjambments (phrases carrying over into the next line) may suggest the restlessness and dissatisfaction Ulysses is going through.

The poem is a fine example of dramatic monologue. The best part of Tennyson’s poem is classical subject and large body of lyrics. It is a kind of soliloquy also; the whole poem is a sole speech of Ulysses. Through his speech, Ulysses gives his pent-up feelings of enervation and desiccation of spirit, his craving for new adventure, his indomitable desire to explore the unknown world.

Though in form the poem is a dramatic monologue, modern critics have treated it as an interior monologue too. Interior monologue is a literary term user for a character’s thoughts in a novel. It is a narrative technique that exhibits the thoughts passing through the minds of the protagonists though it doesn’t happen in reality. In “Ulysses” we see a hero indulging himself in the fantasy that his beloved mariners are still alive. And it is a dream providing a means of temporary escape from the uncongenial reality of Ithaca.

Written by , Last updated on November 5, 2022