Ulysses (poem)

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Ulysses is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written in 1833 but not published until 1842. It is narrated by an aged Ulysses who has become dissatisfied with his life as king of Ithaca. Ulysses has spent years fighting the Trojans (as described in the Iliad) and trying to return home (which is the subject of The Odyssey), but now that his journey is complete he feels restless and yearns to get back out into the world. He is an "idle king" who is not satisfied with his duties in Ithaca:

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.

He declares his intent to leave the throne to Telemachus ("He works his work, I mine") and gather up all of his old sailors for one final voyage:

... 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.

Tennyson is questioning what becomes of the hero after the quest. The man who could outwit the Fates could not grow old. Although many readers have accepted the last lines of the poem as inspirational, it is not clear that Tennyson intended them as such. Ulysses's call to action is suicidal and proud. He intends to die contending, rather than in peace.

The figure of Ulysses was not particularly praised in the Victorian era. While he was a hero, Tennyson's Ulysses is prideful. As with the Byronic hero, Ulysses allows his personal pride to endanger lives. It has been theorized (by Dorothy L. Sayers among others) that Tennyson's conception of Ulysses is based more on Dante's depiction of him in the Divine Comedy (Canto XXVI of the Inferno) than on the character presented by Homer.

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