logo

26 pages 52 minutes read

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ulysses

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1842

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Ulysses, the eponymous speaker of Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem, is originally a figure from Homer’s epics. (Ulysses is known as “Odysseus” in Homer’s ancient Greek poems, but this name is translated into Latin and English as “Ulysses.”) In Homer’s Iliad, Ulysses is the clever Greek who comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse and wins the war with subterfuge; and in Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses encounters many trials and tribulations on his long journey home after the Trojan War. Tennyson’s poem begins where Homer’s Odyssey ends, with Ulysses back home in Ithaca. Ulysses is reunited with his wife, Penelope, and his now grown son, Telemachus, and he’s resumed running his kingdom, but rather than being overjoyed, Ulysses is restless and bored. As Ulysses says in the poem’s opening lines,

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 (Lines 1-5).

Ulysses yearns to travel again, to discover new places, and above all “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought” (Lines 31-31). Ulysses announces he’ll leave his kingdom in his son’s capable hands (Lines 33-43). Then Ulysses makes a rousing call to the men who accompanied him on his protracted and treacherous journey from Troy home to Ithaca:

My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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 (Lines 45-53).

Ulysses asks these old seamen to board a ship with him, push off, and sail “until I die” (Line 61).

Since Ulysses is speaking to his mariners, not to himself, the poem is a dramatic monologue—in other words, a poem where only one person speaks, but they speak to another person (or multiple people) present with the speaker. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” vies with Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” also published in 1842, for the distinction of the most famous dramatic monologue of the Victorian era. Additionally, both “Ulysses” and “My Last Duchess” are among the most famous dramatic monologues of any era.

Poet Biography

Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809 in England, the fourth of 12 children. Both Tennyson’s father and one of his brothers suffered from epilepsy and both made their conditions worse by drinking too much. Tennyson escaped his chaotic and unhappy family life when he enrolled at Cambridge University in 1827.

At Cambridge, Tennyson joined a group of promising undergraduates called The Apostles and became best friends with the most gifted and promising of all the apostles, Arthur Henry Hallam. After Tennyson introduced Hallam to his sister Emily, Hallam and Emily got engaged, and it seemed as if Tennyson and Hallam would be, not just friends for life, but brothers-in-law.

In 1833, however, Hallam died unexpectedly. Tennyson was 24 at the time, Hallam was only 22, and Hallam’s death became the defining event of Tennyson’s life. In response to this loss, Tennyson spent 17 years composing the 133 sections that comprise In Memoriam A. H. H., his elegy for Hallam. (In Memoriam consists of an opening Prologue, 131 sections, and an Epilogue. It has more than 700 stanzas and nearly 3,000 lines.) Tennyson finally published In Memoriam, his most ambitious and formally inventive work, in 1850. Shortly after this publication, Tennyson was named Poet Laureate of England. In that role, he succeeded William Wordsworth, who had died earlier that year.

Tennyson’s era was largely defined by grief. In 1861, Queen Victoria lost her husband, Prince Albert. Victoria famously wore mourning attire for the rest of her life. She also kept a copy of In Memoriam by her bedside, and the Queen told Tennyson, “Next to the Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort.” Victoria also lost a son in 1884. Following this death, Victoria wrote to Tennyson and told him that his elegy had given her additional comfort.

As a result, the elegy Tennyson wrote for Hallam is largely considered the most important poem of the Victorian era, and it made Tennyson the most famous poet of the Victorian era and one of the most famous poets of any era. Yet “Ulysses,” according to Tennyson, “gave my feeling about Hallam’s death perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam” (Landow, George. “Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses.’” The Victorian Web). Although it wasn’t published until 1842, Tennyson wrote “Ulysses” in the weeks following Hallam’s death; and the manic, melancholic Ulysses readers encounter in the poem is, in part, a self-portrait of Tennyson’s state of mind shortly after the loss of his friend.

Tennyson married his wife, Emily, in 1850, the same year he was named Poet Laureate. The couple had two sons and named the first Hallam.

In 1884, Tennyson accepted a peerage and became Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He died in 1892 and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Poem Text

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.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “Ulysses.” 1842. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

Ulysses, also known as Odysseus in ancient Greek, is a figure from Homer’s epics. In Homer’s Iliad, Ulysses is the clever Greek who comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse and wins the war with subterfuge; and in Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses encounters many trials and tribulations on his long journey home after the Trojan War. Tennyson’s poem begins where Homer’s Odyssey ends, with Ulysses back home in Ithaca. Ulysses is reunited with his wife, Penelope, and his now grown son, Telemachus, and he’s resumed running his kingdom, but rather than being overjoyed, Ulysses is restless and bored.

In the opening lines of Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses describes his dull surroundings, including a “still hearth,” “barren crags,” and “an aged wife” (Lines 1-3). He also describes being king as dull and unsatisfying. With “little profits,” Ulysses says, “I mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me” (Lines 3-5).

Ulysses decides he can’t stay put, he must set sail again, and he compares travel to drinking “[l]ife to the lees,” or dregs (Lines 6-7). Next, Ulysses reminisces about his journey home after the Trojan War:

. . . 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 . . . (Lines 7-11)

This leads him to a realization: “I am become a name; / For always roaming with a hungry heart” (Lines 11-12). Ulysses is known for traveling bravely and passionately, his name is synonymous with his long, meandering journey home, described in Homer’s Odyssey. This leads Ulysses to more reminiscing:

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 (Lines 13-17).

Ulysses says, though he is “a part of all that I have met” (Line 18), there is still something he hasn’t grasped: “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world” (Lines 19-20). There’s no way for Ulysses to catch up to the horizon of this “untravell’d world” (Line 20) because it’s always just out of reach. This tantalizing “margin fades / For ever and forever when I move” (Lines 20-21).

Ulysses reiterates how bored he is not to be traveling and compares himself to a sword rusting in its sheath “unburnish’d” and doesn’t “shine in use” (Lines 22-23). Ulysses says, “As tho’ to breathe were life!” and compares taking breath after breath to “[l]ife piled on life” (Line 24). This is not, however, enough action for Ulysses. He wants to travel and experience “new things” (Line 28). Ulysses calls it “vile” that for three years, or “three suns,” he has stayed put (Lines 28-29). His old heart, or “gray spirit,” desires to keep roaming (Line 30). He longs, he says, “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought” (Lines 31-32).

In the second stanza, Ulysses turns to his son, Telemachus, and tells his audience he is leaving his kingdom in his son’s capable hands (Lines 33-34). Telemachus, is “[w]ell-loved of me” and will by “slow prudence” and “soft degrees” transform the island’s “rugged people” to work and manners that are “useful and good” (Lines 35-38). Ulysses says his son is “[m]ost blameless” and “decent” and will pay the proper amount of “admiration” to the “household gods” (Lines 39-42). Ulysses has no interest in the slow, careful, and judicious management of his kingdom, so Telemachus will take care of it while Ulysses goes off on another adventure. As Ulysses says, “He works his work, I mine” (Line 43).

Ulysses points to the “port,” the large ship he will take (which already has wind puffing in her sails), and the wide, dangerous sea (Lines 44-45). Then he addresses the crew he wants to come with him. These are men who accompanied Ulysses on his long journey home after the Trojan War. “My mariners,” Ulysses says,

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 (Lines 45-49)

Like himself, these sailors are “old,” yet “[o]ld age hath yet his honour and his toil” (Line 50). They are going to die whether they leave Ithaca again or not, but Ulysses says, “Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods” (Lines 52-53).

Finally, Ulysses describes the parting scene. Ulysses addresses his old mariners as “friends” and tells them it’s “not too late” to discover new lands. He orders them to “[p]ush off” vigorously from the land and “smite” the shallows, or “sounding furrows,” until the ship is in deep water (Lines 56-59). Then Ulysses says he’s determined to sail as far as he can until he dies (Lines 59-61). He says it’s possible the “gulfs” will sink the ship. If that happens, they’ll reach the afterlife, or “Happy Isles,” where they’ll be reunited with Achilles, who died during the Trojan War (Lines 62-64).

Finally, Ulysses tells his men that, even though they’re old and not as physically strong as they once were, they still have “heroic hearts” and are “strong” in their determination to keep trying, keep traveling, keep exploring, and not to stop (Lines 65-70).

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
Unlock IconUnlock all 26 pages of this Study Guide
Plus, gain access to 8,000+ more expert-written Study Guides.
Including features:
+ Mobile App
+ Printable PDF
+ Literary AI Tools