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In this poem, Tennyson tells us the tale of the great hero Ulysses who sets out for a final journey before his death. Ulysses is not happy with his boring life as king of Ithaca. He wants to go out and travel again for he believes that to be the purpose of his life. So, he hands over his kingdom to his son, and along with his old companions, sets out on a final journey in his old age. The poem is a dramatic monologue written in unrhymed iambic pentameter.
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
Ulysses talks about his dull and boring life as king of Ithaca. He says that it is not very useful to be an idle king who sits by his fire at home among the barren rocky shores of Ithaca. He has an old wife and he enforces unequal laws unto a savage race. He feels that it is useless to spend his time enforcing imperfect laws to govern uncivilized people. We get to know about the reasons for Ulysses’ frustration at home.
All that the savage people of his kingdom do is hoard and sleep and eat. They do not know anything about Ulysses or his life. Ulysses says he cannot rest from travel because he wants to drink life to the lees, or live life to the fullest. So, Ulysses still desires to travel the world like he used to.
He says that he greatly enjoyed as well as greatly suffered every moment that he spent travelling; whether it was with people that loved him like his crew members, or all alone by himself; whether he was on shore, or stuck in a rainstorm that the constellation Hyades had cursed the dim sea with. He has become a famous name throughout the world for always roaming with a hungry heart that wishes to travel and see more.
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
Ulysses says that he has seen and known much. This includes all kinds of cities of men and manners, climates, councils and governments. He was honoured everywhere he went. He remembers the drunk delight of battle that he experienced fighting alongside his fellow soldiers during the Trojan war in the ringing plains of windy Troy.
He says that he is a part of all that he has experienced and everyone that he has met. This means that his experiences and encounters have shaped him as a person, just as he has shaped them. Yet, all this travelling has not fully satisfied him and has only left him yearning for more.
The untraveled world’s boundaries are constantly expanding, and he wishes to see these unseen places. He says that it is dull to pause and make an end, or give up travelling and settle down. He compares such a life to a sword that rusts from unuse rather than shining in use. Just breathing or merely being alive is not life, according to Ulysses.
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.
One lifetime piled on another would still be all too little time for Ulysses to travel like he wishes to, and little remains of the life he is currently living. Ulysses does not have much time left until he dies. But every hour that he has left before death, which he calls eternal silence, can become a bringer of new things.
He still has the potential to do new things before he dies. So, he feels that it would be horrible to just sit at home and eat and do nothing for the three years or so he has left. Even as a gray spirit, or an old man, he desires to follow knowledge like a sinking star. This means that he wants to pursue knowledge to the ends of the earth. He wants to know things 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:
Ulysses introduces his son Telemachus. He says he is leaving the sceptre and the island to him. The sceptre is the symbol of a king’s sovereignty. Thus, Ulysses is making his son the king of the island of Ithaca so he can go travelling like he desires. Ulysses loves his son and believes he will fulfill his duty well.
Slowly, through his wisdom, he will civilize or make mild the rugged people of Ithaca. Through soft degrees he will subdue them to make them do useful and good activities. He cannot find any faults with his son, he is blameless. He carries out his duties properly, does not fail in offices of tenderness and pay, and will continue to properly worship his father’s household gods when he is gone.
Telemachus is well suited to the work of a king, while Ulysses is suited to be an explorer and traveler. Ulysses points towards the port and says that the vessel puffs her sail. The ship is ready to go sailing.
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,
The dark, broad seas gloom beyond the port. Ulysses now addresses his crew of mariners, souls who have toiled and laboured and thought with him. They cheerfully welcomed the thunder and the sunshine that they encountered during their travels with Ulysses. They have been through both good and bad situations, but they faced them all bravely.
As men with free hearts and free foreheads, or men with a lot of confidence, these mariners opposed every obstacle that came their way. Ulysses says that they are old now but they can still achieve honour in their old age by working hard. Death closes in on old age but something of noble note can still be done before the end, something that is fitting for men that battled with the Gods.
Lights begin to twinkle from the homes on the rocks of Ithaca as the long day ends and the moon rises. The waves make it seem like the deep sea is speaking with many voices.
‘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 tells the mariners, his friends, that it is not too late to seek a newer world. He tells them to push off the ship from the shore and sit well in order to man the oars and control the waves made by the ship. Ulysses’ purpose is to sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars.
Here, the baths of all the stars refers to the outer ocean that the Greeks believed surrounded the flat earth where all the stars descended. Ulysses wishes to travel until he dies. He says that their ship might sink in the mighty waves, and they might find their way to the Happy Isles where great heroes go after their death.
Here they might even meet the great Achilles who used to be their friend. Though much has been taken away from them by old age, much still remains. Although now they do not have the strength that in the old days moved earth and heaven, they still are the men they have always been on the inside.
Their heroic hearts still have the same temper even if their bodies have been made weak by time and fate. They have the strong will to fight, to seek, to find, and not to give up.
In this poem, we get to know about the last days of the great hero Ulysses. He gives up his comfortable life as king to set sail for unknown territories. His determination to make the best use of his last days by travelling and exploring teaches us to live life to the fullest.