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Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)


Ulysses (1833)


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[1]

[2]Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.


I cannot rest from travel[3]; I will drink

Life to the lees[4]. 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 honor'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

[5] when I move.

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

To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use![6]

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,[7]

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 fulfill

This labor, 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.[8]


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 honor and his toil[10].

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.[11] 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,[12]

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.[13]


  1. Instead of using terms such as "command" or "mandate," the author has chosen to use the words "mete" and "dole." These terms display Ulysses' indifference to his routine duties as king. Doling out "unequal laws" underwhelms Ulysses, as he is looking for a more lively and meaningful kingship.
  2. Odysseus does not appear to be a benevolent and nurturing king in this poem when he describes his people as savages. His condescending tone equates his own people with hoarding, sleeping, and gorging themselves. Their simple daily life does not appeal to Odysseus, who rather enjoys the "drunk delight of battle." This idea is interesting because for most people, the prospect of enduring the horrors of war and battle are often traumatizing and scarring.
  3. From early in the poem, one can identify the speaker to be a king -Ulysses. By the beginning of the second stanza, the speaker establishes his need to travel. In this monologue the speaker reveals details of how his experiences/travels have shaped his life and develops his persona.
  4. This is the first phrase in the poem that directly expresses Ulysses' future desire to explore the "untravelle'd world" of the broad seas. It is also a transitory sentence that links his present listless life to past glorious, adventurous days. It is almost as if Ulysses sees "lees" as his only source of escape from lifeless life, as the word can mean a protective shelter, that will ultimately give him the "Life" that he seeks.
  5. The abstract imagery employed by Tennyson as he speaks from Ulysses' standpoint reveals the psychological tendencies behind his wanderlust. His description of eternity stretching hazily before him as long as he remains in motion suggests that his constant need for flight has become a type of addiction. The untravelled world is unclear to him; he longs not for quests, itineraries, or any deliberation in his journeys, but merely to be where he has not been before. Motion itself is his "narcotic," "gleaming" with hazy borders as each of his travels pushes the border of the unknown farther, beckoning him along. This luminescence is contrasted with the dullness of the slightest pause, indicating that Ulysses has lost any sense of purpose and belonging and that his wanderflust, due to the infinity he senses while he propagates it in his travels, is in fact insatiable.
  6. Here Ulysses states that he does not want to end his life as an "idle king", never leaving his kingdom. In this metaphor the words "rust", "unburnish'd", and "shine" relate to metal and can also make one think of a sword that will rust if left unpolished and without regular use. By comparing Ulysses to a weapon, the imagery here helps to further portray him as a man who enjoys (and perhaps even needs) action and combat.
  7. The enjambment used in the poem allows for specific phrases to stand out in the poem. Although these phrases are part of a longer sentence, by dividing up the lines, Tennyson was able to make these phrases more important in the poem. Some of these specific lines aid in the readers knowledge of why Ulysses' wants to travel and explore. This lines is just one example.
  8. This stanza shows the contrast of work and play Ulysses faces in the historical period. The previous stanza shows his love for traveling, and builds up to restlessness towards governing his kingdom. He is definitely happy to pass the thrown to his son, and knows that he is capable, yet almost does not care. “He works his work, I mine” provides an abrupt conclusion to his conflicting ideas. All the lines seem to have no rhythm, which adds to the contrasting, yet dynamic moods expressed by Ulysses with a stream of consciousness.
  9. It seems as though Tennyson is carrying the reader through the life of Ulysees, As old age is arriving quickly his description of the port gives the feeling of death looming as an inevitable fate. However, the description of the sails "puffed out" leads to the belief that maybe Ulysees realizes to live his life under his own terms.
  10. Ulysses speaks of the men who have "toil'd" happily at his side and how his youth was honored with happiness and success. Ulysses painfully concludes "you and I are old" and realizes that being old has "honor" and "toil". This is not an easy realization for Ulysses to make. In the poem we get a feeling that Ulysses has come home and realized that he's old, his land is old, his wife is old, and his son is of an age and ability to rule. Ulysses' solution is to run away; to sail off into the sunset, so to speak, and thus escape the last monster he will ever battle "Old age".
  11. Here, Tennyson utilizes metaphor as well as personification to illustrate the shift from day to night. The metaphor of the day “waning” depicts to the reader a clear visual image of daylight fading and sun diminishing. Additionally personification, the attribution of human qualities to objects or abstract notions, is employed at this juncture in the poem. The moon is personified, for it “climbs”, to the sky as night approaches. It is also interesting to note that as darkness takes over the sky the tone of the poem becomes darker as well, as Ulysses says his last words to the whining people surrounding him.
  12. The comments that Ulysses makes about wanting to sail "beyond the gulfs" or possibly "touch the Happy Isles" is very symbolic of Ulysses desires. Not only do these two places places represent the far ends/boundaries of the earth, but they are also both places that have affiliation with the afterlife. Thus, this shows not just the fact that Ulysses wants to sail for the sake of "the thrill" of such a distant, mysterious adventure but in addition reveals his intention to die doing so as his last act before death.
  13. This last line seems to resonate after finishing the poem because of the use of repetition. Because each verb is followed by "to," the poet sets up a list-like structure. The pattern creates a poetic rhythm when read aloud and makes the line stand out from others. The first three verbs are affirmative, but the last verb stands out because it emphasizes NOT to yield, a quality necessary for strong and heroic hearts.

Comments (1)

nomeaku@... said

at 1:09 am on Sep 8, 2008

During the poem, it seems that Ulysses is having an inner conflict with himself. Although his body is telling him one particular idea, his subconcious refuses to believe that his physical demeanor must determine what he is able to do. However, by the conclusion of the poem, it appears that his subconcious was victorious. Nonetheless, we can nver really say if his body agreed. So, these could simply be the thoughts of an old man refusing to let the past remain in the past.

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