Explication Of Ulysses
In this poem, Tennyson reworks the figure of Ulysses by drawing on the ancient hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Homer’s Ulysses learns from a prophecy that he will take a final sea voyage after killing the suitors of his wife Penelope. Ulysses finds himself restless in Ithaca and driven by “the longing I had to gain experience of the world”.
Ulysses says that there is little point in his staying home “by this still hearth” with his old wife, handing out rewards and punishments for all of his subjects who live in his kingdom.
Still speaking to himself he proclaims that he “cannot rest from travel” but feels required to live to the fullest and swallow every last drop of life. He has enjoyed all his experiences as a sailor who travels the seas, and he considers himself a model for everyone who wanders and roams the earth. His travels have exposed him to many different types of people and ways of living. They have also exposed him to the “delight of battle” while fighting the Trojan War with his men. Ulysses declares that his travels and encounters have shaped who he is: “I am a part of all that I have met,” he says. And it is only when he is traveling that the “margin” of the world that he has not yet traveled shrink and fade, and stop to push him.
Ulysses declares that it is boring to stay in one place, and that to remain at a standstill is to waste rather than to flourish; to stay in one place is to pretend that all there is to life is the simple act of breathing, whereas he knows that in fact life contains much freshness, and he longs to encounter this. His spirit yearns constantly for new experiences that will broaden his life; he wishes “to follow knowledge like a sinking star” and forever grow in knowledge and in learning.
Ulysses now speaks to an unidentified audience concerning his son, Telemachus, who will act as his successor while the great hero goes on with his travels: he says, “This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the scepter and the isle.” He speaks highly but also arrogantly of his son’s capabilities as a ruler, praising his care, dedication, and devotion to the gods. Telemachus will do his work of governing the island while Ulysses will do his work of traveling the seas: “He works his work, I mine.”
In the final stanza, Ulysses addresses the mariners with whom he has worked, traveled, and weathered life’s storms over many years. He declares that although they are both old, they still have the potential to do something good and honorable before “the long day wanes.” He encourages them to make use of their old age because “’tis not too late to seek a newer world.” He declares that his goal is to sail onward “beyond the sunset” until his death. Maybe, he suggests, they may even reach the “Happy Isles,” or the paradise of eternal summer described in Greek mythology where great heroes like the warrior Achilles were believed to have been taken after their deaths. Although Ulysses and his mariners are not as strong as they were in youth, they are “strong in will” and are sustained by their resolve to push onward persistently: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
This poem deals with the desires to go beyond the limits of one’s self and the boredom of everyday life. He cares really of only himself and his will to go on.
Bell, Robert E. Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Reid, Jane Davidson, Chris Robinson. The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990s, 2 vols. New York and Oxford UP, 1993.
Tennyson. The Poems of Tennyson. 3 vols. Edited by Christopher Ricks. Second Edition. Berkley: U of California P, 1987