Peter MacNeil Professor Suzanne Stewart

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Peter MacNeil

Professor Suzanne Stewart

English 100.13

March 4th 2013

To Life
A bird from the wild in captivity will ruffle its feathers and sing its song of distress until it is set free to fly. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” the character Ulysses is this metaphorical caged bird trying to escape a prison: his kingdom. He wishes to go explore and to continue on with his travels that breathe the breath of life into him. In the first stanza the reader is introduced to the miserable King Ulysses; who cannot fulfill the role of head of state due to his longing to be at sea, living his life to the fullest. While some critics may view Ulysses as an egocentric man not able to accept his current reality by abandoning his family and kingdom to pursue his own needs.  However, he is also viewed as a hero for his perseverance and determination and not letting his flaws hold him back. Many see Ulysses as a selfish character for his spontaneity to leave his kingdom and family to pursue his desire of reliving his heroic past. Ulysses is a noble character who has a vision of determination and breaking past personal limitations; for man who is a good role model and has strong leadership is a man who should be recognized.

  Having your personal achievements and work go unnoticed can be a frustrating experience. This frustration is very well the case for the main character of the poem Ulysses who has a disconnect with the subjects he reigns over:“That hoard, and sleep and feed and know me not”(5) feeling unappreciated and not fulfilled in his current role. Ulysses declares how unsatisfied he really is not having the ability to explore the world as he had done in the past. The character confesses that “I cannot rest from travel” (6) feeling the urge to continue on with his adventures the memories of which he cherishes and continues on to say “I will drink life /to the lees” (6-7). To put it another way, he wants to enjoy every last drop of the cup of life or to live life to the fullest. Ulysses admits that his voyaging was not always effortless “I have enjoyed Greatly, /have suffered greatly” (7-8) although he still confirms how proud he is of his career “I am become a name” (11) shining a light on how in his prime he held celebrity status and was known by all. “For always roaming with a hungry heart”(12) illustrates that he is a man urging to travel to new places and to try different activities. Ulysses does not want to let his life end in his current vocation as he yearns to live out his final days doing what he adores “Much have I seen and known: cities of men/And manners, climates, councils, government,” (13-14). He is an individual who cannot be chained down but rather must be free to learn and grow from experiences. Ulysses presses on his argument by making this comparison with his experiences “Yet all experience is an arch where through/ Gleams that untraveled world whose margins fade/ For ever and ever when I move” (19-21). The more he travels the more different experiences he has and the world’s margins begin to fade. As a man who has explored the world and “Myself not least, but honoured of them all” (15) conveying that he was honoured by the people he had encountered on his journey. It is understandable after leading such an adventures life that Ulysses would want to return to the excitement which gives him the motivation to live compared to the repetitious position as King.


As the poem continues, the reader can be swayed to believe that the character Ulysses is a selfish man, only worrying about his goals to relive his glory days, deserting his family and kingdom and passing the responsibilities and duties to his son Telemachus, “To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle”(34). Ulysses is ready to hand over full reign to his son thus giving him the opportunity to fulfill his life. The poem “Ulysses” is a monologue hence the audience is only made aware of Ulysses’ thoughts and feelings. There is no indication of how eager Telemachus is on taking over the kingdom from his father In the forth stanza the reader comes to the realization that Ulysses has already thought through these very questions and has determined that Telemachus has the qualities that will help him exceed as a king “Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere/ of common duties, decent not to fail”(39-40). He views his son as an honest and respectable person who will “Meet adoration to my household Gods”(42). Paying the proper respects to the Gods showing that he will be a great leader for “A rugged people”(37). For Ulysses understands that he can never be a proper King with his mind set on leaving his Kingdom “It little profits that an idle king” (1). Ulysses’ mind wants to carry on with its learning “And this grey spirit yearning in desire/ to follow knowledge like a sinking star, /Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”(30-32). Being this grey or aging spirit he realizes that he will not be around for long and his time would be wasted as king while he has this flame for adventure burning. Furthermore he holds a passion to continue chasing knowledge as if it was sinking star indicating that you can never stop learning. The last line in the fourth stanza is a validation that Ulysses can comprehend his decision “When I am gone. He works his work, I mine,”(43). Signing off that his son will manage the kingdom while he sets sail on his adventures. Ulysses passing on his kingdom to his son can be viewed as an act of generosity and trust towards Telemachus. Ulysses is an aware character rather than selfish; he desires for travel, exploring, and learning in his final years as he knows Telemachus will have the determination to run the kingdom with the appropriate leadership.


The ability to see past a challenge rather than stare at it can be associated with the characteristic of determination. Ulysses is a determined character who wants to gain the most from life: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / to rust unburnished, not to shine in use” (22-23). Ulysses does not want to stop living life just because he is aging and fears he will begin to slow down if he is not active. There is such a strong desire for Ulysses to do so much with his life that “Life piled on life/Were all to little,” (24-25). Even multiple lives would not be able to accommodate all the excursions he wishes to do. Ulysses speaks out to his “mariners”(45) and does not view old age as a limitation by contrast as still having responsibility “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”(50). Along with making this statement Ulysses promotes the idea of adventure to the men “Tis not too late to seek a newer world”(57). Additionally Ulysses gives a preview of what may happen on their journey: “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down/It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles”(62-63). He warns his comrades that this may be a voyage of danger but reminds them that it may also lead to bliss. Throughout the final stanzas Ulysses encourages his men by not letting their age be a deterrent “We are not now that strength which in old days/ moved heaven and earth that which we are, we are”(66-67). Ulysses’ final statement is the confirmation of what a strong heroic man he is in the lines “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”(70) with these words he expresses to never give up until you have achieved your goal no matter what the difficulties are. The final ten words of “Ulysses” create a model picture of this noble character Ulysses who will spare no effort to reach his aspirations along with inspiring others to do the same.

Dissatisfaction is prevalent from the beginning of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” with the position Ulysses is in. From this unhappiness is the misinterpretation that Ulysses is selfish man in contrast he is a high-minded noble individual setting out to fulfill his life in a way that suits him best. Ulysses encourages others as well to take control of their life and to not let any barriers get in the way. Which raises the question if a being is not free to peruse what they want in their life are they really living?

Works Cited

  1. Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “Ulysses”. The Norton Anthology of Poetry 5th edition.

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