Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Updated on October 6, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson



Tennyson's "Ulysses" features five unrimed blank verse paragraphs.

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'.

Thus, Tennyson's "Ulysses" dramatizes the theme of struggling to face life after living through a cataclysmic experience.

First Versagraph: "It little profits that an idle king"

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: "I cannot rest from travel: I will drink"

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: "This is my son, mine own Telemachus"

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."

Fourth Versagraph: "There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail"

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.

Fifth Versagraph: "Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though"

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.

Reading of Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 18 months ago from U.S.A.

      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 profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 18 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      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.