Tennyson's Poem Ulysses Summary Analysis Questions Answers

Tennyson's Poem Ulysses Summary Analysis Questions Answers 

The poem, "Ulysses" by Lord Tennyson is typical of some aspects of the Victorian Age represents the energy and curiosity. It symbolized the Victorian conception of the ideal heroic spirit. It is a dramatic monologue based on the life and adventures of Ulysses, a legendary Greek warrior who fought the battle of Troy. 

Lord Tennyson's Ulysses Summary Analysis Questions Answers

Lord Tennyson 

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
Vexed 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 for ever 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 breath 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 grey 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 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 offfices 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,
'Tis 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.

Occasion of the poem Ulysses:

Ulysses, or, as the Greek called him, "Odysseus", was the king of Ithaca, a small rocky island - its extreme length is only seventeen miles - lying on the West of Greece, a little to the North of the Gulf of Corinth. He was the craftiest of all the Greeks who joined in the Trojan war and is constantly distinguished in Homer by the epithet, 'the man of many wiles'. He is said to have been the contriver of the stratagem of the wooden horse, by which Troy was taken after a ten years' siege, and to have been one of those who engaged in the perilous enterprise of concealing themselves within it. After the capture of the city he wandered for ten more years in his attempt to return home, and met with the thrilling adventures recounted in the "Odyssey".

Tennyson had not only the reference from "Odyssey " but another from Dante's "Inferno" in mind when he wrote this poem. How much Tennyson's poem owes to the passage in Dante is obvious, but the poet's own life gave it a deeper sense than it would have had if he had been thinking only of the king of Ithaca. Ulysses trying to settle down in his little kingdom, with his strength unimpaired by twenty years of fighting and travel, and his mind still eager for fresh adventure, must inevitably feel restless and know that for him there was no possibility of enjoying what others would call his well-earned repose. He was a man of action; and so long as his strength remained it was in action that his life must be spent. If he could not always feel 'the glory of going on', he could at least escape the utter weariness of sitting still. 

And so in Tennyson's life life : the sudden death at the age of twenty-two of his dearest friend Arthur Hallam, his love and regret for whom find such tender expression in "In Memoriam", made him feel for a time that his whole life was at a standstill. But as his grief grew less poignant, he saw that for hin, as for the wandering king of old, there could be no sitting still. It was in this mood that he wrote the poem, " Ulysses".

Summary of the poem Ulysses:

Ulysses finds no use in living a quiet and idle life in his hilly kingdom in the company of his old wife, and ruling over a savage people who do not even him. The thought of taking rest is hateful to him. He has enjoyed and suffered much and has become a well-known figure. Ha has seen many towns and known the manners, customs and governments of different countries. Everywhere ha has been honoured and respected. Ha has fought bravely and joyfully along with his fellow warriors on the battlefields of Troy. He has had much knowledge indeed. But knowledge is limitless. The knowledge a man has at his command is like a lense that lets him have a view of the fields of knowledge which have not yet been explored. So more he knows, the more he yearns to know. 

Ulysses thinks it foolish to bid a goodbye to a life of activity and to idle away the rest of his life. Lives piled on lives are not sufficient for acquiring all the knowledge of the world; he has only one life and only a few years of his life remain to be lived. So ha can not rest from activity. He must spend every hour of his life in activity,  because the hour spent in activity is something saved from the jaws of death - something that brings him new experience. 

He wishes to leave the charge of his kingdom to his own son Telemachus who has the intelligence enough to rule the kingdom well. Telemachus is dutiful respectful to his mother and he properly worships his household gods in his absence. 

Ulysses and his sailors are old. But there is honour to be won and work to be done even in old age. Death is a must. But before they die they can do some work that does not unbecome them who fought with the gods in Troy. 

The sun has set. The moon is rising. The roar of the sea is heard in the distance. Ulysses calls upon his mariners to come out of their comfortable homes. He is determined to sail beyond the seas or that they will reach the earthly Paradise and there will meet the great Achilles. Though their youth and energy are gone, yet their indomitable spirit remains. They are all brave and have the strength of will to go out exploring new lands without yielding.

Analysis of the poem Ulysses 

Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses" is one of the finest blossoms of his poetic genius. It charms one and all. The poem is unique in both artistic qualities and lofty thoughts.

The poem, "Ulysses" is a grand dramatic monologue. It is generally opined that Browing is the master poet of dramatic monologue, but here we may observe that Tennyson has also shown a rare skill in writing dramatic monologue.  In the creation of dramatic situation, in the art of Characterisation, in subtle psycho-analysis of Ulysses and Telemachus and in appropriate expression of thought, the poem "Ulysses" is superb.

There is no doubt that Tennyson has borrowed the name of his hero from. But in other charactetistics, Tennyson's "Ulysses" is quite different from Homer's Ulysses who does not think of an adventurous life again after coming back home from the Trojan War. But Tennyson's Ulysses feels an irresistible urge to go out for adventures even in old age. He can not rest from travel, he will drink life to the lees.  He will not sit idle at home with an aged wife to mete and dale unequal laws into a savage race, that hoard and sleep and know not him. He sends a clarion call to his fellow sailors who are also grown old with him to set sail again. Old age hath yet its honour, and as long as they live, they will voyage to see the unseen, to know the unknown and to explore the unexplored. 

Ulysses has an insatiable thirst for knowledge so he says:

"To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost boynd of human thought"

Though much he has seen, known and gathered varied experiences of life, yet his aim of life is: 

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

So he proposes to leave his kingdom to his own son Telemachus and to set sail again. 

From the above analysis of Ulysses's character, we see that Tennyson has infused his own spirit to know all the unknown in the character of Ulysses. The analysis of Ulysses's character is subtle, psychological and exhilarating to all seekness of knowledge and adventure. According to Prof. Halem, "Ulysses" is an embodiment of the modern passion for knowledge for the exploration of its limitless field. 

The poem is very remarkable for dramatic expressions. Ulysses grows intensely dissatisfied with the humdrum life in Ithaca after a life of long adventures abroad and so he speaks:

"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 into a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me."

There are such dramatic expression throughout the poem. But not only expressions are dramatic, they are also forceful, vigorous, exhilarating and aptly befit the heroic spirit of Ulysses. The poem is also notable for appropriate imagery and happy style. Blank verse has been deftly used to illustrate various manly thoughts and deeds of Ulysses. 

To conclude, the poem brings out Tennyson's artistic excellence and profundity of thought and idealism. 

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Explanation of the Lines of the Poem Ulysses 

Explanation of the lines 1 - 5

" It little profits ...... know not me."

Tennyson, in the poem "Ulysses" opines that life is meant for ceaseless work and sloth is comparable to death. Life is a long winding journey from the realm of the unknown to the kingdom of knowledge and awarness. So every hour of life should be spent in search of new experience. Ulysses, the king of Ithaca is a man of action. He does not like to remain satisfied with the limited life of a king. He will not sit idle with an aged wife and confine himself in maintaining the customary unequal laws into a savage race. Here 'unequal laws' is the reference to the then Greek administration which had two sets of laws for any crime. While the upper aristocratic class had lenient and convenient laws, the laws were very discriminatory and oppressive for the lower class. The then Greeks were termed as 'savage race' by none other than their ruler, Ulysses. 

Explanation of the lines 6 - 7

"I cannot rest from travel .....life to the lees"

Ulysses says this in Tennyson's poem "Ulysses". Through this line Ulysses reveals that he is man of action and he will drink every drop from the cup of life. Here life has been compared to a cup of wine which leaves a substance at the bottom and should not be wasted, just like the precious moments that life is made of and it should be experienced to the fullest. 

Explanation of the lines 7 - 11

"All times I have enjoy'd...... vext the dim sea"

Ulysses has travelled extensively both  on land and sea to such an extent that himself stands for travel and adventure. During his voyage, the sea becomes disturbed and troublesome. But then Ulysses led his voyage courageously through those conditions. He becomes famous for his spirit. According to Greek mythology, Hyades are the seven nymph-daughters of Atlas, who are placed in the sky by Zeusas a cluster of stars to bring rainy weather, especially when their rising coincided with that of sun. In Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" to describe his past adventures, Ulysses says that he and his comrades led an adventurous life both on land and on sea tossed up by the tempest.

Explanation of the lines 11 - 18

"I am become a name ...... all that I have met"

The quoted lines taken from Tennyson's "Ulysses" is redolent the fact that the hero Ulysses has become famous for his extensive travel on land and sea. His indomitable spirit to know the unknown and to see the unseen provokes him to be engaged in relentless travel, which brings for him honour and fame. But a slight tone of pride and boast muffled in the quoted expression is a bit incongruous to the calm, reserve and moderation of the Victorian Age.

Explanation of the lines 19 - 21

"Yet all experience is an arch ...... when I move"

Through the quoted lines taken from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses", the hero Ulysses tries to explain the justification of his being engaged in a relentless travel. He says that in his pursuit of experience, it seems to be the arch of the horizon that entices him to reach there. He comes near it, but it recedes back and further back, and again entices him to proceed further. Thus experience enables him to have a vision of the unknown world and foces him to be engaged in the unending pursuit of new knowledge and experience. 

Explanation of the line 23

"To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use"

In the quoted line, the hero Ulysses expresses his intense apathy about a life of slothful and ignoble in action. He thinks that mere breathing is not life. A life without action only stores rust of ignoble sloth and leisure on itself and looks dull due to lack of use.

Explanation of the lines 24 - 28

"Life piled on life ...... a bringer of new things"

In these lines, Ulysses tries to express that knowledge is infinite and limitless one. Life that is sum of few hours is not enough to acquire knowledge even it is spent completely in pursuit of knowledge. Even lives piled on lives are not sufficient to know and see all in this world. 

Explanation of the lines 30 - 32

"And this gray spirit ..... utmost bound of human thought."

Through these quoted lines, Ulysses refers himself as the 'gray spirit' because of his old age. He actually wants to say that though he has grown old but his spirit is green enough to pursue new knowledge and experience. He desires to follow the star of knowledge beyond the horizon of known into the region of the unknown which is infinite. He will pursue it till the very end of his life. 

Explanation of the lines 33 - 43

"This is my son ....... He works his work, I mine"

Through the quoted lines, Ulysses brings out the character of his son, Telemachus. Ulysses realizes that Telemachus' dutiful mould of mind is totally different from his adventurous mould of mind. So he accepts the fact that Telemachus is superior to him to rule the kingdom. He thinks that while the regal life suits Telemachus, the adventurous life suits him. But despite the calm acceptance, Ulysses reveals his soul with half-tender, half-contemptuous note of affection which tells us that Telemachus' virtues are of a natural, colourless sort - able to preserve him from great faults, but unable to lead him from to the path of greatness.

Explanation of the lines  56 - 57

"Come, my friends, ...... to seek a newer world"

These lines occurred in Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" uttered by the great Greek hero Ulysses.  Here he addresses to his sailors who have so long been beside in sun and rain. Now at an old age, he has decided that to rest is not suitable and he should set sail once again to discover still undiscovered worlds and live once again the previous life of adventure because it is not too late for them to start again.

Explanation of the lines 63 - 64

"It may be we shall touch ..... great Achilles, whom we knew."

The quoted lines taken from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" brings out the hero Ulysses's firm resolve to be engaged in an unending search for new knowledge and experience. He knows that he and his comrades may meet death in course of their voyaging. But this thought can not deter them from the search because he believes that if they die in course of their voyaging, they will go to the 'Happy Isles' that is the Isles of the blessed and the souls of the heroes- the region of the perpetual peace and sunshine, where lives Achilles  - the greatest and most famous of the Greek heroes who took part in the Trojan War.

Explanation of the line 70

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

The last line of Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" aptly sums up the exploratory mood and unyielding nature of the great Greek hero, Ulysses. Realizing a desire from the past and refusing to enjoy a life of sloth even in his old age, Ulysses once again wants to set sail with his fellow sailors to see the unseen. He requests them to strive and seek, endeavour and find new lands. He wants them to accept the motto of never accepting defeat and discover newer lands.

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Questions Answers from the poem Ulysses 

1. Do you think Tennyson's Ulysses is a dramatic monologue?

Ans: Lord Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" is a dramatic monologue in the sense that in this poem Ulysses speaks out his mind and reveals his character and philosophy in the presence of a silent group of mariners whose presence is indicated in only one place of the poem. But Tennyson's "Ulysses" does not possess the dramatic qualities of Robert Browning's monologue because it does not have the abruptness of beginning, dramatic interaction between the speaker and the listeners and the dramatic detachment that are essential for the success of a dramatic monologue. 

2. Do you consider Tennyson's "Ulysses" represents the Victorian poems?

Ans: Tennyson's "Ulysses" is redolent of the hero Ulysses's inordinate spirit and insatiable thirst for new knowledge, experience and adventure which is typically Victorian. Ulysses also represents the Victorian spirit of daring and restless adventure. Ulysses represents this passion for knowledge, the exploration of its limitless fields, for the annexation of new kingdoms of science and thought. 

3. What is the theme of the poem "Ulysses"?

Ans: The main theme of the poem, "Ulysses" is that life has its fruition in work. Life of insolence is no more than death. Knowledge is endless, so there is no end of pursuit of knowledge. Every hour of life should be spent in search of new experience. 

4. What type of character is Telemachus?

Ans: Telemachus is the son of Ulysses. He is full of regal qualities. He is innocent, prudent, dutiful and religious. He has the ability to rule a kingdom, to tackle a rough mob and to exploit them in good activity. At the same time, he has a soothing tenderness to people and a due devotion to the household gods. For these qualities of Telemachus, Ulysses decides to make him the king of Ithaca while he will sail to gain more knowledge. 

5. What kind of life does Ulysses dislike?

Ans: Ulysses, the great Greek hero and the king of Ithaca dislikes the domestic routine life. The peaceful home-life, the tedious conjugal life and the dutiful regal life repel him to an adventurous life that he can lead only with his faithful comrades.

6. Who is Ulysses and what type of character is Ulysses?

Ans: Ulysses, the son of Laertes was the king of Ithaca. He was a mighty warrior and the hero of the Trojan War. Tennyson's Ulysses stands for restless spirit for infinite knowledge and adventure. He is a man of action who loves the life exploration. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and does not want to confine himself in the tedious household duties.

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