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Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson: Full Analysis of the Poem

Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson 

Full Analysis by a linguist 

Original Text 

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.

Analysis of the poem 

This poem was written by the great Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson. This poem takes the form of dramatic monologue since it is entirely spoken by a single character, Ulysses or Odysseus, who is reflecting his own reality in his own words. Some critics say that this poem might be considered as halfway between epic and elegy since it discusses the heroic legendary character of Ulysses on the one hand and on the other hand it is a sad narration or an elegy over the past victories and glories of Ulysses which he mourns in this poem.

As for the line-by-line semantic analysis of the poem, it is found that Ulysses is mourning his current state at home. Ulysses who spent almost 20 years away in the far seas is finally home, yet it is not the kind of home nor the kind of welcome he expected from his own people. In the beginning of the poem, Ulysses is stating that there is no use in his staying in his kingdom as an “idle king” in a castle which is nothing but pieces of rocks or “crags”. He is mourning his current state as an old king who is ruling the kingdom beside his old wife. He is no longer Ulysses the conqueror who fought the Trojan War and who brought unprecedented victories and glories. Ulysses is
complaining in line 5 that the people whom he fought for no longer remember his glory. They are nothing but “savage race” who keep money, sleep, feed and have short memories. Yet, Ulysses states that he cannot abandon his glory; he cannot rest from travel. He states that he “will drink life to the lees” which means that he will live his life in a full form for he is a great man, a great sailor who can never surrender neither to an enemy nor to old age.

Then Ulysses recalls his past adventures and glories stating that he has suffered greatly to build his own glory. He has suffered with his loved ones as well as alone in the far seas. He also states that eh has gained a wide experience in life because he is “a part of all that” he has met. He explains that his present situation as a legendary hero, a “name”, is driven from his past heroic actions. In fact, the sentence “I am become a name” has become a very popular saying coined after the glory of Ulysses. Ulysses states that he will never yield or give up his adventure and he compares the knowledge of life to an arched entrance or a gate through which people sees glimpses of others’ lands. The further he goes into that entrance, the more he realises that there are still many lands and many adventures he has not seen. In other words, the knowledge of life is unlimited. Hence, Ulysses is driven by strong desire to continue his way with a “hungry heart”. What is more, in line 23 Ulysses compares his current situation as an idle king who is merely judging and signing punishments and royal orders to his previous life. He is stating that to live a lazy life is to turn into “rust” instead of shining in glory. It is a boring state. He states that life has more to offer and that this is not the end of his glory because life is “piled on life”. Furthermore, he strikes a far-important rule of life which stats that life is not just “breathing” and that man has to conquer life and to prove his worthiness.

He then concludes stating that this life of ours is a short one since it is not sufficient for man to become the master of all knowledge. Life is short; hence, man must make the best use out of it. In the last lines, he states that each hour of activity that man spends will honour his memory and will make people remember him long after he is gone. He will not be dropped from the “human thought”.

As for form and structure, the form of the poem is a dramatic monologue in which Ulysses is speaking to himself and to a unified audience expressing his own feelings. This dramatic monologue is written in blank verse which has been admired by critics for its grandeur. The style of the poem is suitable for the occasion. As for the metre of the poem, it is written in a regular iambic pentameter.

As for figures of speech, it is noticed that the poem is rich in figures of speech. For example, there is a personification is “barren crags” in which Ulysses compares his current life as an idle king and his castle to a woman who is barren or incapable of having children. This metaphor is very symbolic of the current situation of Ulysses. Also, there is a metaphor in “drink life to the lees” in which Ulysses likens life to a bottle of wine which he shall drink till the last drop. That metaphor reflects the personality of Ulysses and that he is a man of adventure despite his old age. Also, a “hungry heart” is an extended personification in which Ulysses compares his heart and his love of adventure to a hungry man who cannot have enough food and he compares adventure to a sweet food which cannot be given up. One of the most significant metaphors of the whole poem is “To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use” in which he likens the lazy man to a dagger who—in his inactivity—is left unburnished, unsharpened instead of being used and shining. All of these metaphors reflect the type of personality of Ulysses since he is a legendary warrior who fought in the far seas.

As for imagery, the poem is rich in vivid images which give the audience a full view into the thoughts and feelings of Ulysses as if we are actually living his own memories. For example, in “barren crags,” “rainy Hyades,” “ dim sea,” “alone,” “Much have I seen,” “plains of windy Troy,” ”three suns” we can see many things and objects before us. Hence, these are all visual images. Also, there is an auditory image in “ringing plains” which appeals to the sense of hearing. Also, there is a kinesthetic image in “travel,” “drifts,” “roaming,” ”battle,” “arch,” “I move,” and “pause” which appeal to the sense of movement and action. All of these images give us—the audience—a complete photographic view of the feelings of Ulysses and the comparison of his current “idle” state with his former “heroic” state. As for sound devices, it is noticed that since the poem is written in blank verse, it has no rhyme or rhyme scheme. Yet, there is alliteration as in “this, these”, Match'd, mete”, “with, wife”, “hungry, heart” and so on and so forth.

In conclusion, the poet has succeeded in conveying the feeling of Ulysses. Ulysses is in a state of conflict; he is torn apart between his new state as an idle king and his previous state as a legendary warrior and conqueror. Yet, Ulysses concludes that man must strive to get the best out of life. It is through the sophisticated employment and interaction of expressive figures of speech along with the vivid images of the poem that we come to see the full picture of Ulysses the man and Ulysses the warrior. Many critics claimed that Ulysses is a mimesis of Homer’s Odysseus. While that may be true, yet, the originality and techniques employed by Tennyson in his poem render it an original and artistic poem. 
All the best,

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