Analysis of Poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Updated on August 13, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Alfred Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson | Source

Alfred Tennyson And A Summary of Ulysses

Ulysses is a blank verse dramatic monologue written when Tennyson was a young man of 24 years, in 1833, the year his best friend Arthur Hallam died whilst touring in Europe.

The poem was inspired by his friend's passing, as Tennyson acknowledged:

'There is more about myself in Ulysses, which was written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many poems.'

Ulysses is the latinised version of the Greek mythological hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, first recorded in Homer's classic poems the Iliad and its sequel the Odyssey, which tells of Odysseus's ten year journey home following the Trojan War.

Tennyson loved the Greek myths. Several poems of his are directly inspired by them, so his choice of Ulysses (Odysseus) is understandable. He also knew of Dante's Inferno canto 26 where Ulysses is found in hell, for his many sins. Virgil the Roman poet also used Ulysses in his epic poem the Aeneid.

So it is that Virgil, Dante and Tennyson chose the original Homeric Odysseus and in each case recast the character for their particular work. James Joyce the Irish novelist also got in on the act with his novel Ulysses published in 1922.

Tennyson's Ulysses finds himself idle and restless at home after years of exploration and adventure. He tells himself :

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Three Stages in Ulysses

1. The poem begins with Ulysses admitting that his life is a monotony despite him being king. All he does is waste his time with a people who don't know him. His wife is old, he doesn't even mention her name. (lines 1 - 5)

Ulysses looks back to better days when he truly lived and travelled the world. He yearns for more adventure and 'to follow knowledge' (lines 6 - 32)

  • Ulysses rejects the status quo.

2. He knows his son Telemachus will take over the kingdom and run it well when Ulysses has gone. (lines 33 - 43).

  • Abdicates responsibility.

3. Ulysses addresses his mariners and prepares them for the journey of all journeys, 'beyond the sunset', to seek and find and not to yield. (lines 44 - 70).

  • Prepares for the final journey.

The poem was written in 1833 and published in Poems in 1842. Some publications have the poem split into four stanzas but in the original book (and Tennyson's personal notebook) the poem is one long stanza, with indentations at lines 33 and 44.

What Is The Main Idea or Theme of Ulysses?

The main idea or theme of Ulysses is that of conquering or overcoming a situation that threatens to bring a person down. The poem builds up to those final few lines which are defiant, hopeful, pro-life and inspirational.

What Is The Tone Of Ulysses?

The tone of Ulysses is reflective, contemplative and hopeful. The speaker has come to the conclusion that, to live a meaningful life, he has to move on from his domestic situation.

Whilst the poem is a kind of dramatic monologue, it is more of a soliloquy - an address to oneself but in the presence of others.

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.

Full Analysis of Ulysses Line By Line

Ulysses is a dramatic monologue, the speaker, Ulysses himself, reflecting on his current domestic situation, looking back to when his life was exciting and adrenaline filled, looking forward to more of the same now that his son Telemachus can rule the kingdom of Ithaca.

Lines 1 - 5

The opening two lines and a half suggest that the speaker is observing an idle king and it's only when the rest of line three is read that the first person is revealed. This is Ulysses himself, bemoaning the fact that he's stuck at home.

Just look at the language...little profit, idle, still, barren, agèd. Words that imply emptiness and stagnation. (note the accent on the è in agèd making this a two syllable word which fits into the pentameter)

That phrase mete and dole means to weigh and measure but he's having to do it to a savage race unequally, suggesting that he thinks the people uncouth and he feels himself far apart from those he rules.

So by the end of line 5 he's already in a difficult position.

These lines have caused controversy over the years because, for some, they lack proper grammar, specifically a comma which should come after the word that in the first line.

Without the comma the third line's I mete and dole seems out of place. But, if the first line is read slowly with one ear on the metrical beat this appositional opening makes sense.

Lines 6 - 17

The confession is out. The speaker, Ulysses, is restless because he has wanderlust. It's in his being to travel. He wants to drink life to the lees (make the most of it) and begins to look back at those times when he was doing just that.

  • Note the contrasts set up as this section of the poem progresses: enjoyment/suffering, in loving company/alone, on land/at sea.
  • Ulysses the hero, warrior and adventurer is slowly deteriorating at home. Discontentment rules. Something has to change.

The syntax here is complex - the way clauses and grammar are put together - the eleven lines being one complete sentence. Tennyson's use of colons and semi-colons together with enjambment challenge the reader to make meaningful pauses.

This is especially true for lines 6 - 10 where most pauses are mid-line, which helps break up the steady iambic beat. Hyades is a group of stars in the constellation Taurus, believed to foretell the coming of rain.

In line 11 note the use of the word Vext (sometimes written vexed) which means agitated or angered or annoyed.

He states that he has become a name, that is, Ulysses is known by many abroad (in contrast to his name at home where the people know not me, a sad truth).

As the poem moves on the reader becomes increasingly aware of this divide between what Ulysses was to what he has become. His former life was a heady mix of travel, meetings with important men in far off places and battle. The alpha male's dream existence.

Lines 18 - 21

The next four lines sum up Ulysses's existential dilemma in a somewhat abstract image.

His past experiences are an integral part of who he is. To elaborate this idea Tennyson introduces a metaphorical arch through which the future untravelled world appears, to be experienced only when he is moving.

So it is forward motion in life that is crucial for Ulysses.

Lines 22 - 23

In contrast these two lines sum up what it feels like to be stuck at home, a passive, resigned figure.

This could be a sword that rusts, or a shield. Ulysses oxidised. On the scrapheap, a piece of junk.

Lines 24 - 32

More reasons to move on! Breathing might be a sign of life but not for Ulysses. How many breaths make a life? Time waits for no man...every hour is precious. Every hour could bring forward new things from out of that eternal silence (death).

Ulysses pictures himself in the same vile (horrible) position for three years or three days (three suns) when inside he craves travel and knowledge, right round the earth and beyond all human thought.

The reader can now get a good grasp of what is going on inside Ulysses's heart and mind. Here is a desperate man yearning for his former life, keen to move on.

Line By Line Analysis of Ulysses

Lines 33 - 43

Ulysses introduces his son Telemachus in an act of abdication. He outlines the qualities that will make his son a successful leader, through slow prudence and soft degrees to transform a rugged people (no longer a savage race) useful citizens.

That last line contains the essential difference between the two:

He works his work, I mine.

Telemachus knows nothing of adventure and battle but will duly rule the kingdom because he is dutiful and ready to take over the household gods.

Ulysses Line by Line Analysis

Lines 44 - 61

Ulysses addresses the mariners that have been with him throughout. The sea is calling, a ship awaits.

They may be old, death may be around the corner but before they succumb there will be one last voyage beyond the sunset and no return. It is crystal clear that Ulysses intends to go out with a bang and not a whimper.

He is saying with some conviction that old age is no excuse to sit and do nothing; life can still be lived, useful work can be done.

Lines 62 - 70

They might sink, drown, end up on the Happy Isles (Islands of the Blessed in Greek mythology, Elysium, abode of the gods for heroes and patriots, located beyond the western horizon) where they'll meet Achilles (greatest of Greek warriors, killer of Hector at Troy and lead figure in Homer's Iliad).

We are what we are Ulysses says, that is, older now but still full of yearning for new things. He will never give in.

So even though time wears us down as we age, even though we may find ourselves depressed and weakened by circumstance, there is always something to strive for.

Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam died young. It was this tragic event that brought the poet initial grief and sadness and caused him to question his own existence and purpose.

Ulysses was written to exorcise demons and transform an individual. Change for the better is always possible...out of the darkness and into new light.

Ulysses, the Olympics and the James Bond Movie Skyfall

Ulysses is a poem that has inspired and given people hope - it is still a popular choice for many to recite as a monologue, was used to promote the Olympic Games in London 2012 and the end lines were quoted by M in the James Bond movie Skyfall.

Meaning In Ulysses

I mete and dole - I weigh and measure, distribute.

drink life to the lees - live life to the full. lees are the dead yeast deposits at the bottom of a barrel or vat. ('The wine of life is drawn and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of' ...Shakepeare, Macbeth III, iii 101-102)

the rainy Hyades - Hyades is a star cluster in the constellation of Taurus, said to bring rain when it rises with the sun.

Troy - ancient city, now in modern Turkey, setting for Trojan War, recorded in the Iliad.

What is The Metre (Meter in American English) of Ulysses?

Ulysses is a blank verse poem which means it has in theory iambic pentameter as its base metre, the steady daDUM metric foot (x5), per line. The first syllable is unstressed, the second stressed, so giving emphasis to the latter.

  • However, a purely iambic pentameter poem would become monotony itself, so Tennyson altered the stresses from time to time, mixing up the beat so to speak, combining with grammar and punctuation to produce a more challenging and interesting poem.

Let's take a closer look at the first five lines for example:

It lit / tle pro / fits that / an id / le king,
By this / still hearth, / among / these bar / ren crags,
Match'd with / an a / ged wife, / I mete / and dole
Uneq / ual laws / unto / a sav / age race,
That hoard, / and sleep, / and feed, / and know / not me.

So line 1 is pure iambic pentameter, five equal feet.

Line 2 has a spondee in the second foot, both stressed syllables bringing emphasis.

Line 3 starts with a trochee, an inverted iamb, stress on the first syllable.

Line 4 is pure iambic pentameter.

Line 5 is also pure.

As the poem progresses Tennyson keeps the tight ten syllable lines, only rarely altering the pure iambic. Further on in lines 18 - 23 he chooses to use an eleven syllable line (19), the only one in the whole poem. That word experience alone has four syllables:

I am / a part / of all / that I / have met;
Yet all / exper / ience is / an arch / wherethro'
Gleams that / untrav / ell'd world / whose mar / gin fades
For ev / er and / forev / er when / I move.
How dull / it is / to pause, / to make / an end,
To rust / unburn / ish'd, not / to shine / in use!

So line 18 is pure iambic pentameter.

Line 19 has eleven syllables which makes the third foot an unstressed tribrach, a rarity indeed. The remaining feet are iambs.

Line 20 starts with a trochee (DUMda) then falls into iambic mode.

Line 21 is pure iambic pentameter.

Line 22 is pure iambic pentameter.

Line 23 is pure iambic pentameter.

Tennyson's syntax - the way clauses and grammar combine - is sufficiently complex to break up the steady iambic beat.

What Are The Literary/Poetic Devices Used in Ulysses?

There are several literary/poetic devices used in Ulysses; some bring texture and phonetic variation (alliteration and assonance, internal rhyme), others alter the pace (caesura and enjambment) or help deepen meaning (simile and metaphor) :

Alliteration

When two or more words start with the same consonant and are close together in a line:

life to the lees...hungry heart...climates,councils...drunk delight...sinking star...noble note...sail beyond the sunset...for some three suns to store..

Assonance

When two or more words contain similar sounding vowels and are close together in a line. For example:

little profit/king...sleep/feed...ringing plains of windy...rust unburnished

Caesura

This is a pause midway through a line, caused by a comma or other punctuation. As in lines 39,40,41:

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Enjambment

When a line runs on into the next with no punctuation. Momentum gathers as the pause is reduced. Lines 58,59,60 are enjambed:

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Internal Rhyme

Words in lines that are close together, either full or slant rhymed, bringing echo and connection:

mete/sleep/feed/lees...me/rainy/sea...port/wrought/thought...

Metaphor

When something becomes something else to deepen understanding for the reader and bring extra imagery into play:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades

Simile

When a comparison is made, as in line 31:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Homer's Odyssey And Tennyson's Ulysses

Ulysses is the latinised name of Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca, hero of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. The poem is mainly about the journey home of Odysseus following the fall of Troy.

Tennyson took this classical story and altered it to suit his aims in Ulysses. Below is an extract from the Odyssey (5) which clearly shows that Odysseus gives up the chance to become immortal to be at home with his wife Penelope, who he pines for.

The talking was begun by the shining goddess Kalypso: 'Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus, are you still all so eager to go back to your own house and the land of your fathers? I wish you well, however you do it, but if you only knew in your heart how many hardships you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country, you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household and be an immortal, for all your longing once more to look on that wife for whom you are pining all your days here. And yet I think I can claim that I am not her inferior either in build or stature, since it is not likely that mortal the shining goddess Kalypso women can challenge the goddesses for build and beauty: Then resourceful Odysseus spoke in turn and answered her: 'Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me. I myself know that all you say is true and that circumspect Penelope can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature. She is mortal after all, and you are immortal and ageless. But even so, what I want and all my days I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming

Sources

The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

www.poetryfoundation.org

www.bl.uk

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      5 days ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Vext means in this case agitated (it can also be written vexed).

    • profile image

      John Newcomb 

      5 days ago

      What does the term "Vext" mean in Ulysses line 11:

      Vext the dim sea?

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