3 agèd wife: Penelope.
mete: measure, organize.
4 unequal: variable (it does not mean “unjust” here)
5 hoard, and sleep: an echo of Hamlet, IV. 4. 33-9.
7 lees: i.e. to the very bottom. Lees are the sediment at the bottom of some drinks.
9-11 and when … sea: and when through fast-moving clouds (“scudding drifts”) the stars that provoke storms (the Hyades) whipped up (vext) the pale sea. The rising of the Hyades was thought to create storms. Ulysses means “and when I was in the roughest seas”. This is an epic circumlocution, a grand way of saying something simple.
13-14 these lines echo the beginning of Homer’s Odyssey.
17 ringing plains: they were “ringing” because of the huge sound of the battles between Trojans and Greeks.
23 rust unburnished: rust like an unused sword. This echoes one of Tennyson’s favourite speeches in Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida, III. 3. 150-53.
29 three suns: i.e. three years.
34 the sceptre: i.e. the symbol of rule.
42 Meet: proper, appropriate.
53 men that strove with Gods : i.e. when they battled with the Gods (as well as men) during the siege of Troy.
60-61 and the baths / Of all the western stars: to sail beyond the horizon (i.e. the place where the stars appear to sink into the sea).
63 the Happy Isles: i.e. Paradise or Elysium.
64 Achilles: the great Greek warrior, Ulysses’ companion in the siege of Troy.
This is a dramatic monologue: i.e. Tennyson speaks in the voice of Ulysses (or Odysseus), the great hero of Homer’s poem The Odyssey, the story of the aftermath of the siege of Troy.
This poem has been a favourite of explorers and mountaineers, and other people who have pushed themselves to extremes. Ulysses has fought his way through the ten years’ Trojan war, and experienced huge adventures on the way to his island home of Ithaca. But now, he is already bored. He wants new adventures. Seemingly, he wants to set off on a voyage that will take him to the edge or to beyond the edge of the known world.
At the beginning of the poem, Ulysses feels that, as ruler of Ithaca, his life is useless. His people are rough and ready, only interested in a simple life of eating and sleeping: they have no aspirations (8). Then (lines 6-17) Ulysses remembers his great adventures in the past, particularly the time when he fought in the great battles at the siege of Troy (“the ringing plains of windy Troy”, 17). Yet, he yearns for something more: “that untravelled world” (20) – the world he hasn’t yet seen or explored. He hates the shortness of life, and wants to use up every precious second in adventure: “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought” (31-32).
So, he will leave his son, Telemachus, to take over the rule of his kingdom, gradually to turn his savage people into decent citizens (33-38). He intends to set off once more; indeed his ship and some of his old companions are waiting ready in the port (44-49). Now he intends to sail to the edge of the known world, through the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and then on into the Atlantic Ocean. (Remember that Ulysses, as an ancient Greek, knew nothing of America. He is, as it were, sailing off into the unknown.) Ulysses wonders if he will manage to find “the Happy Isles” (63), the Greek equivalent of Paradise, a sort of heaven. He doesn’t really care: he is just determined to set sail for new adventures once more.
In terms of style, the poem reflects Tennyson’s love of the classics, particularly Homer’s epics and Virgil’s Aeneid, both of which are alluded to. He has created a deliberately grand or elevated poetic style to echo (as much as he can) the style and atmosphere of Homer, though really his own unique style shines through, and he writes in a very different way from Homer or Virgil (even taking into account the differences of language). Tennyson loved to create sonorous, high-sounding verse, particularly by setting different vowel sounds closely against each other. The style is often intensely slow moving and languorous, and parts of the poem need to be read in a slow or chanting voice: “The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices” (55-56).
To get yourself in the mood to appreciate the poem perhaps you should watch the recent film of Troy, with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, imagining those epic battles on “the ringing plains of windy Troy” (17). After being in such a huge and epic struggle, perhaps we can understand how bored Ulysses must now feel.
But there is another, more sensitive, side to this work. At first glance, it looks like a poem that doesn’t have much to do with reality, but some biographical knowledge can help set it in context. For Tennyson, only twenty-four when he wrote it, it was a very personal poem. At university a few years before, Tennyson had meet Arthur Hallam, who became his best friend. In September 1833, Hallam died suddenly and unexpectedly when on a trip to Vienna, and Tennyson, who heard the news of his death on 1 October, was devastated. He wrote this poem shortly afterwards. It was partly his attempt to come to terms with his grief, to speak about the need to keep going with the struggle of life. As he said himself: “The poem was written soon after Arthur Hallam’s death, and it gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life …”
“Ulysses”, however, shows a tension between responsibility and the desire for adventure. Perhaps you could set up a debate on this. When mountaineers set off on their adventures, girlfriends and boyfriends, wives and husbands, are often left at home, worried and unsure: Will their partner die trying to climb some huge peak, or far in some lonely jungle? So, here: What does Ulysses’ old wife Penelope think about her husband’s desire for adventure? One critic puts it like this: “It is a poem carefully balanced between the heroic and the morally questionable. Ulysses is at once a courageous figure, and also foolhardy and irresponsible” (Francis O’Gorman). Do you agree with this view? In other words: Is this old man setting off on a last great adventure someone we should admire? Or is he foolish to be setting off at his time of life? Tennyson got the story of the old Ulysses setting off on one last huge adventure from Dante’s Inferno, canto 26. In Dante, Ulysses’ adventure proves fatal!