‘Ulysses’ by Alfred 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
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;
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.
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:
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.
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

The “Ulysses” poem raises a number of profound philosophical questions. The very first stanza is written from the behalf of a senescent sovereign, who is bored and not interested in what surrounds him. For him, life is dull and senseless.

His only business is to reign: he teaches his people to respect law, thus preserving order and peace. Yet, his people are not interested in anything other than sleeping and eating. His hearth is still and cold, his wife is old. Everyone who was interested in him personally, are dead.

The poem’s style is close to that of William Shakespeare, but it is characterized by low mood. In its turn, the mood can be explained by the philosophical message the poem conveys: that a person is alive not just when his body is alive, but when his soul seeks, strives, hungers for something. This idea can be compared with the ancient philosophers’ belief that the more you learn about the world around you, the more you become aware of the fact that the universe is beyond recognition.

However, although the author emphasizes the transience of life in every stanza, he doesn’t seem to be overpowered by sadness. The first stanza introduces the hero as a king and an offspring of kings, while the third one is devoted to his son, who promises to be a wise reign. In this way Ulysses emphasizes not only the horizontal dimension of his life, but its vertical dimension, too, within the context of several centuries. Being worthy of his antecedents and raising a worthy successor capable of dealing with the most challenging tasks is the most important goal a sovereign may have. By the way, the author mentions more than once, that this is the most important goal not only for a monarch, but for any person who is interested in something more than just a set of biological processes, like eating or sleeping.

The main charater grieves his old age. Yet, he doesn’t want to stay at the shore just getting feebler and feebler in the course of time. His last journey is still ahead, and his brave sailors already have the ship ready for a long voyage. What is the aim of the journey the old king is about to take? Does he want to discover and conquer new lands? Is he going to find a treasure? Or is his ship just a border between his glorious past and the looming death? All these explanations are possible. In any case, both the author and the main character of the poem summarize their life with the following credo:

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk