ULYSSES [Full Text & Notes]
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.
Alfred Lord Tennyson was a poet laureate of Great Britain and Ireland for much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of the most popular British poets and one of the most quoted men of all time. Tennyson was born into a middle class family with a noble ancestry, and began to write poetry in his teens with two of his elder brothers. Lord Tennyson is now recognized as a master of a number of verse forms and a thinker who brooded deeply over the problems of his age, attempting to capture these problems and deal with them in his poetry.
1. Write a summary of this poem.
If one were to look for an extremely short summary of the poem, they would need to look no further than the last line of the text. However, in a more in-depth reading, the poem starts with Ulysses declaring that there is no point in him staying at home and ruling idly with his aging wife, doling out punishments to a group of people that do not know him personally. He claims that he cannot rest from travel; instead he would like to live life to the fullest. He fondly remembers his adventures at sea, both alone and with people that have loved him, and feels he has become a name or symbol for those who wander/travel. He has seen many things: cities of men with manners of all sorts, different climates, councils and governments. He has also been exposed to the delights of battle with his peers during the Trojan War in Troy and his encounters with all these things have shaped the man he has become. Ulysses has a huge thirst for travel and, the only time that thirst to visit places he never has before fades is when he is on the road. He feels that it is boring to stay in one place and he likens remaining stationary to rusting rather than shining. He doesn’t believe life is as simple or boring as just breathing, and he yearns to discover new things. Ulysses wants to continue learning until he passes, to follow knowledge like a sinking star, and to forever grow as a person.
Ulysses then speaks of Telemachus, his son and heir, who will inherit his kingdom. He loves his son well, and praises his son’s qualities to be a ruler. He believes his son to be prudent and devoted to the Gods, and believes he will become a good ruler governing the island. Ulysses says that Telemachus will do his work (governing the island) while he will do his own work (travelling and learning).
Ulysses has traveled to the port where a ship is waiting, addressing the sailors that he has once journeyed with. He states that although both he and the sailors have grown old, they still can do noble and honorable things before their time on earth is up. He declares that it is not too late to find a new world and wants to sail beyond the sunset under the western stars until he dies. It may be that the seas kill them, or perhaps they will even make it to the Happy Isle, a place in Greek Mythology where heroes went after death. They could even see Achilles, the greatest Greek hero of the Trojan War who is thought to have been taken to the Happy Isle. Ulysses states that, although he and the men are not as strong as they once were in their youth, they still have heroic hearts and though made weaker by time, they will remains strong in their souls. They will strive, seek new places, find new adventures, and will not yield to ageing.
2. How old do you think Ulysses is?
Ulysses is obviously an older man – he describes himself as such in the poem and also has a full grown son. However, age in that time was completely different than in modern day, as people got married younger, had children earlier, ruled at younger ages, and certainly died at a far younger age as well. While Ulysses considers himself old, it is clear that he still has a thirst for adventure and is strong enough to still sail and run a ship. If I had to guess, I would assume that he may be in his early 40’s or 50’s.
3. What mood is he in? What is his attitude towards life?
Ulysses is in somewhat of a bored mood at the beginning of the poem, lamenting his duties as a ruler of people he doesn’t know, speaking of the boredom staying with his aging wife. As he reminisces about his time sailing around the world and fighting in wars, he gets riled up and that boredom quickly turns to excitement. His excitement breeds ambition: he wants to learn new things, he wants to see new places, he wants to meet new people, and he wants to continue learning until he dies! He feels that having a fully grown son to whom he can entrust his kingdom is a blessing. He thinks Telemachus is fully capable of running the realm while he travels. He quickly makes his way down to the dock and gives a heroic and passionate speech that would be sure to rile up just about everybody in its presence to come join him on such a grand adventure. By the end of the poem, the mood is very hopeful and excited at the prospect of new adventures and a glorious end to a glorious life.
4. What, according to the poem (lines 33-42) does Tennyson consider to be the duties of a good ruler?
When Ulysses describes the qualities that would lead his son, Telemachus, to be a successful ruler, he mentions his patience: the people of his kingdom are a little rugged, and Telemachus has the patience to make the best decisions for the people without being too hasty. He is also smart and has a gentle side, knowing how to mildly get people to do things for the sake of good, without being too harsh. He is well balanced and bright enough not to fail himself or his people. He is also nice enough and pays proper respect to the Gods, which is important. So, the qualities Ulysses thinks would make a good ruler are: patience, kindness (but not meekness), intelligence, and piety or respect for the Gods.
5. How would you characterize the philosophy of this poem? Does the poem say that life is easy?
The philosophy of this poem is to live life to the fullest. Life is about much more than sitting idly and just breathing. People should strive to learn, to seek adventure, to travel, to see the world and meet people of all cultures. People should thirst for knowledge until they die rather than wither away sitting around doing nothing in their old age. The poem does not say life is easy at all; rather that people need to get up and grab life by the horns so to speak. There’s nothing easy about it: there will be hardships along the way for certain, but the experiences gained through travel, learning, meeting people of all sorts, greatly outweigh the hardships. The poem also says that it’s unrealistic for people with a sense of adventure, who lived a full and exciting life, to resign themselves to a boring existence at the end of their lives. It’s impossible for people who are young at heart to just sit around and wait for death.
6. How may the last line be described as a summary of the entire poem? Do you find the poem’s optimism convincing? Why or why not?
The last line can certainly be described as a summary of the poem. The poem is all about striving for more, due to the fact that much of the poem is about striving for more intelligence, striving for more adventure and striving into the unknown in order to see new things. Ulysses wants to seek, to find; he has a thirst for adventure and knowledge and will not yield just because he is old or because he has had hardships before. The things he is looking for are worth much more than anything he will have to face. I certainly find the optimism in this poem convincing. How could anyone not after the last stanza where he addresses his fellow sailors? It is convincing because he acknowledges that it will be difficult for an old group of sailors, who are weaker than they once were, but still have the iron will, to venture at sea again. He knows that even in their older age, they can still do great things, see new lands, and chase adventure until they drift off into the sunset. He recognizes the complications but believes that they can push forward and get it done anyways. He doesn’t sugarcoat any of the hardships, which makes his optimism convincing because he isn’t trying to hide anything.