Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson was written in the aftermath of a close friend’s death (Arthur Hallam). In this poem, Tennyson attempted to come to terms with the loss. Taking one of the most famous characters from one of the most famous stories ever told – “Ulysses” (otherwise known as Odysseus) from Homer’s epics, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” – and repurposes the story to fit Tennyson’s themes. The story of Ulysses is perhaps most famous for the kidnapping of Helen of Troy and the efforts of Ulysses and his men to take her back from the Trojans. Homer’s story involves the Trojan horse, the Cyclops, and Ulysses’s efforts to make it back home to reach his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Summary of Ulysses

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson presents the indomitable courage and adventurous zeal of old Ulysses.

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson attempts to imagine life from the perspective of the title character, Ulysses. After ten years away from home, the Greek is now faced with the prospect of one final voyage. But, after a decade of adventures, the character dwells on whether he wants to remain with the mundanity and boredom of life at home, as well as whether he is the same man who left all those years ago.

Put simply, Ulysses is a man of adventure. The poem focuses on whether he could ever tolerate a simple, traditional home life. Instead, he imagines life on the open seas, the perils of his adventures, and the chances to demonstrate his bravery. But he is growing old. Looking back over his life, as well as his present and potential future, Ulysses considers how he feels about his mortality.


Structure and Form

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson contains an important poetic form. The text takes the form of a dramatic monologue, delivered directly to the audience. There is not exactly an intended target – not the protagonist’s son or wife – but more, the world at large. In fact, in the 49th line, Ulysses does make one indication of who his audience might be, suggesting that both ‘you and I are old,’ indicating the aged nature of the world around him, hoping to elicit some sympathy from the reader.

This form is slightly different from a soliloquy (such as the Soliloquies in one of Shakespeare’s plays) in that it is not spoken to a theatrical audience, but rather to the wider readership. Readers can think of it as one half of a conversation. Such a narrative technique in poetry is referred to as dramatic monologue.


Meter and Sound

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson uses a very specific meter. An incredibly talented poet, Tennyson knew exactly how to fit his words into the exact structural templates he selected. In this instance, he chose iambic pentameter, a traditional form used in the English language. This choice means that every line has ten syllables, split into five groups of two (known as ‘iambs’ or ‘feet.’) Each one of these two-syllable features first an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one. For example: “It little profits that an idle king”. Breaking this down, we can see the unstressed/stressed syllables as:

It lit/tle pro/fits that/ an id/le king

The bolded words are the stressed syllables, each one following the first, unstressed syllable of the iamb. Let’s look at another line: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. Becomes:

To strive,/ to seek,/ to find,/ and not/ to yield

Perhaps the most famous line in the poem, the closing line demonstrates how iambic pentameter most obviously adds a pounding rhythm, formally imposed by the meter. Having resolved to turn his attentions back to the adventure, Ulysses’ thoughts beat with the definitive pounding of a war drum and this is reflected in the poet’s arrangement of the words.

But occasionally, Tennyson throws in a slight variation. In the 69th line, for example, the words ‘made weak’ are both stressed, implying the revulsion and disgust the speaker feels about such a subject, almost as though he is spitting them out. When there are two stressed syllables in a meter such as this, we refer to it as a spondee.

Another variation is a trochee, which refers to swapping around the stressed and unstressed parts of the syllables. In the 7th line, for example, “Life to” places the stress very much on the first word of the line, emphasizing its importance. Little variations such as these can help to add a more natural feel to language, seeing as no one really speaks in iambic pentameter at all times.


Literary Devices

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson contains significant literary devices that make the speaker’s voice forceful and appealing in the poem. Likewise, the speaker of the poem Ulysses uses “still hearth” and “barren crags” as metaphors. These two metaphors refer to a single idea of immobility and idleness. The line, “That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”, is an anticlimax. Here, the ideas get arranged in descending order of importance. It heightens the verbal effect of the speaker on the audience. “I will drink Life to the lees.” Who does not know this line? It is a beautiful example of a metaphor. Here, life is compared to water or wine. However, the idea is simple. The poet as well as his persona wants to dive deep into life and drink its essence to the end. There is an antithesis in the phrases in juxtaposition, “enjoy’d greatly” and “suffer’d greatly”.

In the poem, there is a personal metaphor in the phrase “hungry heart”. Here, the poet associates desire with spiritual hunger. The poet makes use of sound effects by employing the device called onomatopoeia in the line, “Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.” There are several epigrams in the poem like “To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”, Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”, and “It is not too late to seek a newer world.” There are other literary devices too in the poem that are important concerning the overall idea and essence of the poem. The poet ends his poem with a climax and the line is also a famous one in English Literature. It is, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The poet, Tennyson never yielded to the circumstances like Ulysses.


Themes and Symbolism

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson encompasses many important themes. The first and foremost theme of the poem is optimism. The poet presents the spirit of hope by using the character of Ulysses. Ulysses was old enough for continuing his lifelong voyage. Still, he was persistent. For an optimistic attitude towards life, he started for the sea again. Another important theme of the poem is brotherhood. Ulysses is the greatest example of brotherhood. He never left his companions even if they were old and dropping. He injected the power inside his heart in theirs and harked for a new beginning. Ulysses was never lonely on his voyage. He might have left his family behind, but his true family was his companions. They were his soulmates who “toil’d”, “wrought”, and most importantly “thought” with him.

Tennyson uses different symbols for referring to the greater structure. The poetic persona uses “still hearth” and “barren crags” as a symbol of an idle life. There are two important symbols in the poem. The first one is “sea”. In the poem, the sea has a different symbolic meaning. It refers to adventure, mystery, and mobility. Likewise, the poet uses the symbol of land to signify the opposites. It depicts love, care, relationship, immobility, and idleness. Such a symbolic use of the words in the poem is not appropriate concerning the modern scenario. In the poem, Ulysses belonged to ancient Greece. The poet also belonged to an age when immobility was compared to death. The sea and the land reflected a similar kind of symbolic meaning in Ulysses’ time as well as in the Victorian era.


Detailed Analysis

Section One

Lines 1–15

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;

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson presents the only speaker of the poem, Ulysses saying about his present state of affairs. It also reflects his mental condition. He might be old but his spirit is still of the young Ulysses. Ulysses does not want to pass his time in stately affairs, correcting the “savage race” of his nation. He has a long way in front of him. To stop for a moment equals death for him. Ulysses wants to drink the wine of life to the finale.

Ulysses is an embodiment of indomitable courage. There is a satisfaction for him while he struggles. For his desire to seek beyond the capacity of men, he has become famous in other nations. He says, “Myself not least, but honour’d of them all”.


Lines 16–32

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.

In the second section of the first stanza, Ulysses puts light on his past. Previously, he along with his peers has fought bravely and gathered experience. It seems to him that the more he knows the more his hunger for knowledge grows. He can see the “Gleams” of the “untravell’d world” before him. It makes him remind of the endless sea of knowledge of which he is fond of. It is dull to stop and end this voyage of life when the sea of knowledge constantly calls Ulysses to start again.

Ulysses is well aware of the fact that he is old. Yet, in his heart, he knows being old is just a thought of mind. He is like a “sinking star” that still has its light left in him. Ulysses wants to make use of the light of his soul to seek knowledge which is “Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” This old man has a long way to go!


Section Two

Lines 33–43

         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.

In the second stanza of the poem, Ulysses talks about his mortal duty. After reading this section, it becomes clear, although he has a spiritual urge to undertake an adventure, he never forgets about the things left behind. Ulysses has given his duties in the right hands. His son, Telemachus is “Most blameless” and does his “common duties” decently. So, there is no way of judging Ulysses as a romantic hero. He had a “Greek zeal” burning inside his “Victorian” embodiment.

Before leaving for the endless and the last voyage of his life, Ulysses in this way leaves everything in order. He never wants to be an example of an irresponsible king in his nation. The poetic persona wants to be a name that will be a source of courage to the world.


Section Three

Lines 44–57

         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.

In this section, Ulysses directly addresses his comrades. He is about to leave his country with his friends. It is clear from the speaker’s tone that his friends cannot overcome their fear of leaving the country at this sensitive age. Ulysses does not want to go alone on the journey. Like before, he needs his friends. They were always there whenever there was any difficulty. Being a single unit with a common heart, they thought and fought the odds together. Ulysses reminds them of their present situation and tells them that being old does not make everything look still. Movement is life, immobility is death. No matter, they are young or old. If they choose to be ashore, they are dead already.

The poetic persona tells his companions, they have a long way in front of them. He is unaware of the future. But Ulysses’ heart knows it is never “too late to seek a newer world”. This world is nothing but a metaphorical reference to the vast sea of knowledge.


Lines 58–70

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.

This section begins with the words “Push off”. So, the mood here is not an idle one. Ulysses rather infuses the energy of his soul in this section. They have to overcome their manifold fears to continue this journey of life. The sea is in their blood. Ulysses knows they cannot live without it. He thinks the way in front of them can be perilous. There can be a threat to their lives. But they had overcome all their fears in the past. In the old days, their vigor has shaken every kingdom. The repetition of the phrase “we are” in this section refers to their indomitable courage and will force.

They are weak and old for the natural process of aging. But, they are “strong in will”. At last, Ulysses says they are starting their endless spiritual quest “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


Character Analysis

‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson has an innovative character named Ulysses. In his current state, he is a king and a soldier, a man approaching retirement with one journey left to make. He’s an old man, one who has seen the world and battled against the worst of it. Most of the time, he won. Nowadays, he is ruling his kingdom of Ithaca, doling out “unequal laws unto a savage race.”

But now, as he looks back over his life spent “always roaming with a hungry heart,” Ulysses begins to take stock of what his adventuring has done to him. As he works through his memories and considers his current position, he gets more and more agitated, more and more passionate. By the finale, he has convinced himself that he still has enough fight left in him, that he is not yet ready to become just another “idle king.”

From the domestic memories of the opening, Ulysses convinces himself of the value of battle. Throughout the piece, readers learn that his character will never be truly satisfied unless he is facing off against a foe. He hopes, in earnest, “to strive” and never “to yield.” If he never gave up in battle, why should he give up and settle for a simple home life now?


Historical Context

Tennyson makes use of literary works that came long before him. Both Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey are used, as well as Dante’s Inferno, in which Ulysses makes an appearance. As we learn in Homer’s work, before Ulysses can return home after his epic voyage, he will undertake one last voyage. While readers don’t know exactly what Homer had in mind (it’s not been passed down) readers do know what Dante thought the voyage might entail. In Dante’s Inferno, Ulysses discovers that he has a strong urge to see the world after growing restless at home in Ithaca. Dante paints Ulysses as a tragic figure, one who dies when sailing out too far, perishing while trying to satiate his desire for adventure. Tennyson builds on this, picturing Ulysses at home in Ithaca, having become the “idle king” he loathes, yearning to return to the sea.

By taking the legend of Ulysses, Tennyson explores feelings from his own life. Just after the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833, Tennyson found himself thrust into the role of Ulysses. Confronted by the death of his friend, Tennyson noticed a sudden urge to drive forwards in life and not settle for the commonplace. As stated in the poem, “Death closes all,” enlightening the poet to the need to make the most of his life before it escapes him.

The poem’s final lines are the most famous. The need “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” fits into the Victorian urge to escape the tedious nature of day-to-day life, to achieve a level of mythical fame reached by the classical heroes, to travel “beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars.” Tennyson doesn’t want to conform, he wants to challenge himself, and he wants to break new ground before his inevitable death. Just like Ulysses, Tennyson wants to go out adventuring rather than settle for regular life

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Huw Thomas
Huw has a keen eye for poetry after studying English Literature, Creative Writing, and Film up to a post graduate level. He joined the Poem Analysis team back in November 2015 to analyse poetry from the past and present.

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