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Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Introduction and Text of "Ulysses"

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses" features three unrimed blank verse paragraphs (versagraphs). Tennyson's "Ulysses" dramatizes the theme of struggling to face life after living through a cataclysmic experience.

About his poem, Tennyson has explained, "Ulysses was written soon after Arthur Hallam's death, and gave my feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in 'In Memoriam'."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Ulysses

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.

Reading of Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Commentary

Alfred, Lord Tennyson conflated Homer's character with that of Dante's to speak to his own difficulty of facing life after the death of his dear friend, Arthur Hallam.

First Versagraph: The Value of an Idle Life

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.

In the first versagraph, the speaker, Ulysses, the Roman counterpart of the Greek "Odysseus," complains that his life as "an idle king" is not worth much. The speaker's activity consists of administering justice to the citizens who do not even understand him. All they are interested in is sleeping and eating.

Second Versagraph: The Habit of Travel

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.

The habit of "travel" has become such a great part of the speaker's life that he finds he is unable to rehabituate himself to a settled existence. The speaker then catalogues the events and feelings that have kept him occupied most of his life during his adventures. While traveling, he became "a name" "roaming with a hungry heart." The speaker reports, "Much have I seen and known; cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments, / Myself not least, but honoured of them all."

Compared to the excitement of the traveling life, settling down with an "aged wife" and trying to govern a territory seem dull and unsatisfying. Although he has been back from his odyssey for only three years, the speaker yearns to be able to set sail again: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!"

Third Versagraph: A Strong Will

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.

In the third versagraph, Ulysses introduces his son, Telemachus. He describes his son as decent and capable of fulfilling the role Ulysses now fills. And the speaker makes it clear that he would prefer his son take over his governing responsibilities, so that he can continue his swashbuckling world-wide adventures: "When I am gone. He works his work, I mine." The speaker then claims that in the harbor his ships are ready. And although he and his sailors are old, "Some work of noble note, may yet be done."

For the men who fought very great odds to return to their homes, the speaker avers that something useful should still be available for them accomplish. Thus, Ulysses appeals to this sailors, "Come, my friends, / 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world." He insists that he still has goals to achieve and miles to travel before he is ready to give up his striving.

Finally, the speaker admits that he and his sailors are not as strong as they used to be "in old days," but although they may be weaker physically, they are nevertheless "strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." The speaker is convinced that they all have the spiritual strength to conquer foes, whether those adversaries be external or internal.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the main theme of the poem, “Ulysses" by Alfred Tennyson?

Answer: About his poem’s theme, Tennyson has explained, "Ulysses was written soon after Arthur Hallam's death, and gave my feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in "In Memoriam.""

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 04, 2016:

Thank you, Kathleen, for the kind words. It is a great poem from one of the great poets. Its universal theme does remain timeless and captures an important sentiment held deep in the hearts and minds of humanity. I can understand why it is one of your favorites.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on November 04, 2016:

Oh, Linda. This is just about my favorite, all-time poem. What a masterpiece of words. You've done a great job here. Thanks for this work on a timeless poem.