Ulysses: Poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

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It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched 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 enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through 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 honoured 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 ache wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished not to shine in use!
As though 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 board 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 about, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through 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 vessal puffs her sail.
There gloom the dark brod seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, 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 are the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that stove with Gods
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks ;
The long day wanes ; the slow moon climbes : 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.
Though much is taken, much abides ; and though
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.

It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags, Matched 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 enjoyed Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
Ulysses (poem)

Critical Analysis

      The poem Ulysses seems to be based not on Homer, but on Dante. The source of the poem, Ulysses can be traced to Dante's Inferno (Canto 26) where Ulysses set out with a band to trusted companions and reached the farthest point in the west where Hercules inscribed on the rocks "Beyond this bound, let no man bend his mast". But Ulysses persuaded his men to go beyond. This speech is the occasion of the poem. Here Ulysses gives a stirring call to his mariners to go in search of the unknown regions, although they are old. He indicates his philosophy of life which consists in unceasing efforts to know the unknown and to see the unseen. He represents the modern passion for knowledge, for the exploration of its limitless fields, for the annexation of new kingdoms of science and thought. It is not merely knowledge that is his ideal. He is also a stem lover of action. He grows impatient of the petty duties that bind him to the rocky isle of Ithaca.

      The memory of the heroic doings on the windy plains of Troy and of the perilous voyagings over the seas haunts his mind like dreams of joy, and this thirst for adventure grows keener. In spite of the infirmity of old age, he longs ardently to go forth on a new voyage with his own companions in search of unexplored shores and fresh adventures. He knows too well that life is short and the urge of activity becomes more imperious within him. A definite contrast is intended between the character of Ulysses and that of his son Telemachus Telemachus represents the type of dull practical mediocrity. He is a successful man of the world, but he is completely lacking in passionate idealism or enthusiastic urge for action. He is centered 'in the sphere of common duties'.

      In this poem, there is a robust vigorousness both about the subject - matter and the treatment that is more characteristic of Browning than of Tennyson. Like Browning Tennyson also believes in the necessity of struggle and strife for the strengthening of human mind and soul, but there is a simplicity and naivete about the attitude of the poet which, though eminently suited to the subject matter, yet points to a curious but characteristic limitation of the 19th century mind. The poet seems to have little understanding of the subtle complexities of life. He realizes the necessity of strife and struggle, but does not know the true nature of the odds against which human endeavors are to be directed. Here he falls short of Browning.

      The poem is a dramatic monologue. It is Ulysses who speaks out his mind and reveals his character and philosophy. The dramatic detachment is understood by a comparison with The Lotas-Eaters which represents a philosophy of life opposite to that given in Ulysses. The Lotos-Eaters may be described as a plea for inaction and idleness Thus the poet gives here the philosophy of the character created by him. The poet is in the background. Yet it has not been possible for Tennyson to conceal his mind altogether. The vigorous treatment of the philosophy of Ulysses and the half-ironical description of Telemachus's philosophy of life indicate the attitude of the poet. The poem also does not possess the dramatic qualities of Browning's monologue. It does not have that abruptness of beginning, that subtle description of the background and nuances of characterization and individuality of the situation and that rugged tone which gives dramatic vividness to the monologues of Browning. There is, however a suggestion of the presence of the second character - the group of mariners whom Ulysses address. The responses of the mariners are suggested in such lines as "push off and sitting well in order smite..."

      Browning finds the technique of dramatic monologue to be extremely suitable for studying the incidents that go to compose the development of the soul. Browning is a psychologist who probes deep into the intricacies and nuances of human hearts. His purpose is to throw light into the realm of consciousness, and for this reason he frees himself from all the shackles which impede analysis. He finds fullest freedom in direct and individual expression making each personality reveal his inner state. His "My Last Duchess" is a study in cold systematic torture of a warm human soul by an icy-hearted tyrant. The Last Ride Together reveals the many-sidedness of the mind of the rejected lover his acceptance of the rejection, his mental state, his philosophy of life. The Laboratory is a study in jealousy: The Porphyria's Lover is the study of a mad lover who saves the soul of his beloved by murdering her. Thus Browning's dramatic monologue is an eminently suitable poetic vehicle for psychological analysis. He is essentially a poet of characters and situations which are made vivid in his dramatic pieces. Tennyson, on the other hand, is essentially a lyric poet. He is a poet of moods and melody. His dramatic monologues are also mood pieces. Ulysses expresses the mood of action while the Lotos-Eaters gives the mood of sensuous languor. Subtle analysis which is a forte with Browning is absent in his monologues. Browning has drawn a variety of characters under a variety of situations. But Tennyson's portrayals are neither varied, nor subtle and penetrating. Ulysses is just a statement of Ulysses's philosophy of life and an inspiring rhetorical exhortation. The Lotos Eaters catches the mood of dreamy languor. These poems are essentially lyrics with their mood, imagery and melody. The melody is however made dramatic by making it vigorous and robust in Ulysses and sensuous and dreamy in The Lotos-Eaters.

      The poem is written in blank verse. The style displays intense compression joined to masculine strength. The blank verse is stirring and at the sametime in its simplicity borders on the sublime. Instead of the dreamy languor and the soft sentimentality of the lines of 'The Lotos-Eaters', we find here the vigor and gusto and freshness befitting the robust philosophy of Ulysses.

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