‘Ulysses’ is Tennyson’s finest dramatic monologue. It was written soon after his intimate friend Arthur Hallam’s death in 1833 and was published in the poems of 1842.
To put it in the words of the poet himself, in this poem Tennyson gave his feelings about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life, perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam.
Tennyson has borrowed the theme of this poem from Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy. It owed more to the latter where Ulysses is shown enduring the punishment for his guilefulness, wrath, and his inordinate zeal for knowledge “to explore the world and search new ways of life, man’s evil and his virtue”.
Tennyson has, however, turned the medieval legend into a modern poem by infusing it into the scientific and heroic spirit of his age.
After leading a hectic life, king Ulysses has been living in Ithaca for quite some time. He is an aged man but because he is used to a life of travel and adventure he is dissatisfied with his present life of dullness and inactivity. He yearns to set sail again and have fresh experiences.
Ulysses has traveled far and wide and has had many adventures. But the more he has traveled and experienced, the greater has been his thirst for more knowledge and experience. Though he has only a few years to live, he will use every minute of his time and will follow knowledge like a sinking star.
As regards the duties of kinship, he has made up his mind to hand it over to his son. Telemachus whose wisdom and abilities he has full confidence.
He tells his trusted sailors who have shared the joys and sorrows of life with him all along his life, to set sail with him. He and his friends don’t have their previous strength but they are still brave and heroic at heart.
Ulysses is determined to travel and have adventures till the last breath of his life. He is determined to go in quest of knowledge, to explore and discover new lands, to struggle but never to bend or surrender to fate.
‘Ulysses’ may be given several interpretations. Ulysses is none but Tennyson himself who, after a period of despair through the death of his friend Hallam prepares to face life boldly.
The new world towards which Ulysses sets his sail is but a symbol of changing England of the nineteenth century which opened up new vistas. Above all, Ulysses represents the modern man with his passion for limitless knowledge.
Poem of 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.
‘Ulysses’ is in the form of a dramatic monologue. The entire poem is put into the mouth of Ulysses. Ulysses is a man of action who talks little but does a lot. His speech or the language of this poem is, therefore, terse, laconic, and almost epigrammatic.
‘For visible grandeur’, writes Stedman, and astonishingly. compact expression, there is no blank-verse poem, equally restricted as to length, that approaches Ulysses.
To conclude, ‘Ulysses’ is a modern poem on a classical theme. It aims at presenting a type of character, and not a narrative of action. It is severe in style and unadorned in language. It is remarkable for its healthy tone and masculine vigor.
The style of the poem accords with its subject. In the words of Sir Alfred Lyall, “Ulysses is perhaps the finest, in the purity of composition and in the drawing of character, among Tennyson’s dramatic monologues.”