#36 “Ulysses” (Alfred Tennyson)

Like several other poems on the Countdown, Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses” [hideous website alert, but the best text I could Google up] requires a little backstory. Fortunately the backstory is Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, frequently taught and read to this day. This bestseller of ancient Greece recounts how Odysseus (or as the Romans spelled him, Ulysses) made his way home from the Trojan War. Ulysses was the original guy who went out for a pack of cigarettes and stayed out for 20 years. He kept talking the whole time about how he wanted to get back and spend more time with his family (wife Penelope and baby son Telemachus), but Telemachus was finishing college by the time Dad wandered in the door with a load of likely stories about the Cyclops and the Sirens and his buddies getting turned into pigs.

The Odyssey ends with Ulysses being told by some Gods that he needs to go out on a further adventure. Typical sequel hook; but if Homer even wrote the sequel, it was lost during the Dark Ages. Tennyson imagines Ulysses embarking on that “lost” final adventure. Ulysses addresses his men and tries to talk them into getting back on those ships and exploring the unknown once more.

But here’s where the poem breaks free from its backstory and becomes – I won’t avoid the word – noble: in the sense that Victorian writers like Tennyson could bring off, unashamedly; a sense that we’ve lost, perhaps, in a more cynical and self-conscious era. As soon as Ulysses starts his speech, the setting fades into lower profile. This could be anyone encouraging people to embark on a project without huge immediate Return On Investment, without “cost certainty,” without well-defined outcomes measures – and I suspect that Ulysses is yet another of these guides “who only has at heart your getting lost.”

Why do we keep looking after we should be satisfied with what we’ve found? Why do we get up in the morning?

Most poignant of the many themes in Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is that of age. Ulysses’ last voyage is magnificent to contemplate because he’s so old, yet so driven to continue seeking for whatever’s out there to be sought. Mandatory retirement is not in his vocabulary. Telemachus, who plays it safe, comes in for some damning by faint praise, but not much. “He works his work, I mine.” And “mine” – Ulysses’ – is the work of living itself.

9 responses to “#36 “Ulysses” (Alfred Tennyson)

  1. firewaterboi321

    This poem seemed to be a type of “pep talk” from Ulysses to his men. Granted, of course, that in the original Odyssey Ulysses ended up returning home alone. Is Tennyson attempting to use Ulysses in this poem to inspire a sense of noble purpose to his men? I felt a desire from Ulysses of keeping a steady heart when the realization that old age and death were looming on the horizon. This feeling of unwavering defiance against anything that would inspire defeat is strong throughout this piece. The pursuit of knowledge from living and the resistance to acquiesce to defeat/death seem to be Tennyson’s strongest points (through the voice of Ulysses). I felt a sense of inspiration from this poem in the sense that I would like to think that in my later years I would be able to face the challenges of late life and not give in to the ‘acceptance’ of my mortality. I would hope that I would be able to “…rage against the dying of the light.” I hope that the fire of my soul would be able to burn brightly with a sense of continuing purpose, and a sense of adventure.

  2. Alfred Tennyson’s poem, “Ulysses,” embodies my personal philosophy about life. It’s all about drinking “life to the lees,” to the very last drop. The poem reminds me of my childhood when my brothers and I use to play for hours in the forests of Arkansas. We would make bows and arrows out of sticks and strings and pretend we were Robin Hood and his Merry Men in Sherwood Forest. The forest in Arkansas had towering pine trees that looked like giants, and the trees were so populous until they created a thick canopy that virtually blocked out the sun. There we would lose ourselves in hours of imaginary play, fighting to the death. It was then that I adopted the attitude of “Ulysses” and that attitude has carried me my entire life. That same attitude is in one of my favorite songs, “Viva la Vida,” by the English alternative rock band Coldplay where he describes the “the thrill of the roll of the dice, the fear in his enemies eyes, the crowd chanting “long live the king”, and knowing that St. Peter won’t call his name.” It’s about enjoying success and bouncing back from defeat. The attitude was the trademark of my generation, “the baby boomers.” We were always ready for the next protest, the next walkout, the next march whatever exemplified boldness and attitude. I also see the same attitude in Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “a song in the front yard,” and in Robert Frost’s poem, “Directives.” It’s the attitude of the Nike commercials, “Just Do It!” This poem embraces so many of my deepest and innermost thoughts about life, especially when the speaker says, “Tho’ 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.” Hopefully, it will be the same attitude that will carry and sustain me in the final chapter of my life like it did Ulysses because the personal gratification in the end far surpasses the scars of the battle. Then, you can say like Frank Sinatra, “I Did It My Way!” It’s all about ATTITUDE baby!

  3. andreamcginley

    If he was selling something I’m sure I would buy it! This poem was so inspirational. The tone was so strong and compelling, even after knowing the back story of how bad a leader, husband, and person that Ulysses was it all seemed to fade into non-importance. In this poem it showed a man who was willing to die for his cause. He did not care that he was old and weak, he did not care that he was tired, he cared about his mission. And the question of why do people over achieve is a testament in this poem. It is like in school, why strive for A’s when a C will still allow you to walk to stage. It is all about pride and self worth. We were all born with choice. We can choose to go above and beyond, or ride the train until it stops. Our own thought decides who we are and why we do things. The best advice I had ever heard was from my grandfather and he had asked me why settle when you can have so much more if you just see it. As people we know what we want and we may not always have the tools to grasp it but we are always able to improvise to get as close as possible. This is exactly what this poem is saying in the last few lines, “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 doesn’t matter if they actually win but they are heroes anyway for trying as hard as they could without any restraint. Each day we are a little bit older and more tired than before but we still get up and go on with our day. We are programmed to move and get things done. I know personally if I sleep all day I feel worse than if I would have stayed up all night. We get up and do what we do so that we are able to make something of ourselves. Children always want to grow up to be something heroic, like firemen, or police officers and though they aren’t necessarily the heroes of their childhood any person who makes something of their life is a hero in a different stature.

  4. kursteilnehmur

    How quick people are to trust the smooth talking salesman… This poem to me was a great example of how humans are quick and foolhardy to trust a good sales pitch, even if they would’ve been perfectly content to go about their lives without whatever was being promoted. The idea of leaving home to search for knowledge is extremely admirable; however the track record of Ulysses leaves something to be desired. Good public speakers can entrance a crowd into doing whatever they want, whenever they want. Someone who really wants their idea sold to the public is going to use the characteristics of human emotion to beat your logical thinking process. Abraham Maslow, a famous psychologist, identified 5 groups of needs that people have and that emerge one after another, after each need is meet.
    Hierarchy of Needs
    • Basic Physiological needs,
    • Safety and security needs,
    • Belongingness and love needs,
    • Esteem needs, and
    • Self-actualization needs.
    Success of any promotion largely depends on in which stage we are and what our main needs are. The best way to persuade someone is to analyze the audience and influence them based on their needs at the time. Ulysses used their need to strive for knowledge in order to get them to follow him. Some people are naturally gifted at this sort of thing, and others (like me) need a chart to figure out how to promote an idea. This poem entraps the mind and ensnares the senses to go out and do something to improve the pool of society’s knowledge. How will society know of the improvements since Ulysses doesn’t make it back? Will you see through the hype the next time you see something “Amazing!” for sale? I get up in the morning to achieve my own goals, and aspirations. Some days I am in a different phase than the last, but we all are somewhere in the Hierarchy of Needs. The trick to casting your own dice and avoid the snares of the sirens is to remember the hierarchy and to know where you are.

  5. Tennyson passes on a message to all who read this poem that if one has a will to do something; it can be done regardless of age or circumstance. Life is about finding a reason why a person wakes up in the morning and do those things that he/she might not want to do; the reason why one chooses a certain path. At the beginning of the poem, I was actually kind of saddened by the fact that when Ulysses came back home he was a stranger to those who used to be closest to him. After I read the rest of the poem, I realized that Ulysses has a peculiar strength and attitude that doesn’t make me feel sorry for him at all, but admires him. Ulysses’ attitude is shown throughout the poem, the attitude of not giving up. To him, every hour becomes more precious, and even though he is getting older, he will not give up. He seems to be quite the risk taker since he is willing to sail forth again and never come back. “Death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done” uncovers that feeling of nobility that professor Morris was talking about. It is never too late to show a noble act. Once they were young and ready to take on just about anything, but they remain heroes who will continue to “strive, seek, to find, and not to yield”.

  6. Everyday we strive for more and more each day. We go for more even though we achieve something everyday. I think it is in our human nature to want more and more everyday out of life. Life is all about excellence and trying to live a better life for ourselves. I believe this is our motivation to wake up everyday and start our day. Many people who do not have anything going for themselves may not have motivation to wake up and start there day. I like this poem because it shows why we keep striving to achieve a goal everyday in life and why we wake up. Our goals in life are our motivation to wake up.

  7. I think it’s kind of sad how all of Uylsses’ men would probably actually fall for this speech. His way of public speaking and strong influence would lead them all directly to their death. He makes no reference to the fact that last time he went on a voyage none of his men came back. He tells them to believe him when they say they are going to do a noble deed for the world by going and gaining knowledge, but he does not take into account the fact that when they do not return this knowledge will not have helped anyone because they will not be able to share it. He is almost brainwashing his audience of men by telling them, in the most convincing way possible, that they must go on this voyage, when in fact, they don’t. If I were in that crowd, I would turn around and walk out. I would find my own way to really contribute to the world; not by dying, not by gaining knowledge that won’t be shared, and not by following a man who is basically throwing himself off a cliff, but by some other means that actually involve living. People gain power by preying off other people’s vulnerability and that is exactly what Odysseus is doing, whether he knows it or not.

  8. some one in class said that it reminded him of a speech from the movie bravehert. I was thinking the exact thing when i first heard it read. i can see jimmy johnson giving a speech along these same lines in 1993 when they were gearing up to win superbowl XXVIII. he was rallying the troops to go back into the abyss one more time even though they had just conqured the evil beast of buffalo the year prior. albiet its not like the cowboys were faced with death if they themselves were conqured. as for why we as humans seem to never be satasfied. i think its because many times the hunt turns out to be a greater satasfaction than the end result. why do some people cheat on the ones closest to them?? and why can’t they be satasfied with the prize they’ve already won?? its because its dangerous. they get a thrill from the chase. Just look at the world of the physics community right now every single one of the top theroetical physicists in the world right now are searching for a theroy that will explain everything. kinda like E=MC2 but on steroids. it will link the world of the crazy big like galaxies with the world of the super small, like atoms and smaller. currently we have 2 different physics models for both, and we cant combine them. the problem is that if and when this theroy , we (currently) will have no way to prove that this theroy is actually correct. which means that they will have dedicated years of there physical and professional lives to work, that for all practical porposes could be proven wrong the day after they die. the hunt for that one golden ring is there sole motivation.

  9. spontaneous12

    Ulysses thinks that little profits that an idle king stay at home with an aged wife creating unequal laws unto a savage race who don’t know him. He declares that he cannot rest from travel. Instead he will drink life until there is no more as he has enjoyed every bit of the suffering and the love that he has received from his sailors aboard shore. Ulysses claims that much has he known while roaming, searching swiftly because of his stature as a sailor. He has not just honored himself during his voyages but manners, climates, councils, governments as well. He also found time to drink to the delight of battle with his peers. Ulysses felt that he was a part of all in which he has met. He knows that one day; he will not have the same edge in the untraveled world. Yet when Alfred Tennyson writes, forever and forever when I move, it’s like his legacy lives on and his voyages will be for an eternity. He is yet to pass it on to his beloved son Telemachus, who is discerning to fulfill this labor. Telemachus is described by his father as decent not to fail but he is to pay his dues with adoration for Ulysses’ household gods when Ulysses is no more. Telemachus is to do his work and Ulysses his. So there lies the vessel eager to sail, and Ulysses’ mariners who have been diligent in their thoughts. Then he proclaims that it is not too late to seek a new world. His purpose is to sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars until he is no more. He doesn’t know how he will die because he suggests that “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down.” He envisions once again seeing the great Achilles who he had known before. He claims that his men don’t have equal strength as in the old days, yet they are still men of equal heroic hearts. They all have been made weak by time and fate which suggests that age had done its deed for them to try hard, to search, to discover and not to surrender.

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