Ulysses Poem Critical Appreciation and Analysis by Alfred Lord TennysonUlysses Poem Critical Appreciation and Analysis by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Like other poets, Tennyson has also been known as a good representative poet of his era. We, being students of literature, know him because of his remarkable contribution to English poetry. Alfred Lord Tennyson is especially remembered due to portrayal of Victorian age in his poetry as evident from critical analysis as well as appreciation of his dramatic monologue “Ulysses”.
The poem is about a Greek hero also the king of Ithaca. He was also mentioned in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. Odyssey is also the second name of Ulysses; therefore, we can use both these names interchangeably.

Certain qualities of the aforementioned hero are obvious in this poem. The poem is a dramatic monologue; therefore, there is no other dialogue of any second character. Ulysses starts discussion of his life in descending order. He knows that he is going to die and death is approaching him, hence, he is very much displeased because of unpleasant days. He does not wish for this kind of life; thus, he talks about the good old days. All in all, critical analysis of this poem reveals that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote memories of Ulysses as an appreciation of the courage and bravery of the Trojan hero. In short, in this poem the poet has revoked Greek mythology like most of the poets of Victorian age.

Critical analysis and appreciation of the poem Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson

As mentioned earlier, the poem is a dramatic monologue. Ulysses is the speaker and he directly talks to the audience/readers and starts his discussion:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Idle is a word usually used for a person, who has nothing to do and mostly for one who is lazy. The king of Ithaca uses this for himself. It seems that he is no more interested in machine-like kingship. The speaker’s frustration is very much transparent. It seems from the very first line of the poem the king does not want a robotic life. Second line of the poem strengthens this stance. In depth if we do analysis of “barren crags” then it seems a clear-cut critical situation of the speaker and seems that it is a metaphor that Alfred Lord Tennyson uses for appreciation of the adventurous life of Ulysses in this poem as he feels himself in a prison. It seems to the audience/readers that the king is a warrior too and not limited only to the king’s chair.

Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto s a v a g e race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The warrior, whom we talked about previously, has been retired. Now, he has to sit on the king’s chair and make laws for the welfare of his people, whom he thinks are very uncivilized. If we compare these lines with history then we realize that once a king/general captured a settlement, it was much necessary for him to stay there to avoid restlessness among the people to stop a revolt.

It seems the case with the speaker/warrior, who has gained so much in his life but he now has to stay there to civilize his people whom he calls “s a v a g e”. In his eyes, his people have nothing else to do except eat, sleep, drink and be merry. He doesn’t like sitting and wearing a crown as he is not a king by birth but a war hero and explorer. He is of the view that his people do not know him; therefore, he considers his introduction very much necessary for the public.

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.

All these lines are required to be discussed at once as they are all dependent on each other. Ulysses is among those adventurer heroes, who explored the world. He wants to continue doing so but he is unable to do so. Life has no worth if it is not full of hardships and opportunities. People like Ulysses want to flee from their daily routine and boring life. He shows his will to travel the world again.
The speaker tells us more about himself and his journeys. He says that although he alone travelled different continents yet he enjoyed and he was never worried going alone even on difficult journeys. This poem thus seems an analysis and critical appreciation of the Greek epic poem the Udysses’ in which Ulysses was a war hero and Alfred Lord Tennyson beautifully interpreted it.
The speaker further elaborates his journeys while saying that he visited different settlements with his favorite crew members, friends and soldiers; however, he never felt himself trapped. Even when he fought with an enemy in a war, he fought with passion. He has seen different voyages, different cities, sailed many seas, gained knowledge and learnt a lot of terms. In short, wherever he went, he was honored and accepted by every government.
The speaker proceeds further and shows his lust to see the world more. Like Alexander the Great, he wishes to conquer and see the whole world. He is of the considered view that there are still places in the world that are worth visiting and he wants to see each and every place with his own eyes before death approaches him.

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.

He discusses his past life and suddenly returns to his present life. He compares it with the previous one. It seems to the readers that the speaker compares his previous life with the life which is currently passing. There is a lot of difference in his lifestyle. In fact, both these lives are much different from each other. He is depressed because he cannot travel anymore due to his age. The speaker does not like living the life of a convict. Earning and living just a few more years of life is no more interesting for him. In the previous section of the poem, he tells us a story of a warrior. He wants that life again.

In depth analysis of this critical situation is that Ulysses cannot regain that back, no matter how much he appreciates his wonderful times and Alfred Lord Tennyson tried to portray this idea in this dramatic monologue. Nonetheless, the speaker is very much frustrated because of the life that he has right now. Use of “sinking star” as a simile in these lines shows the desire of the speaker to go beyond the limits and gain more and more knowledge.

When a person sees his past in his old age, he realizes that he achieved nothing except the knowledge he had. He remembers the occasions in which he enjoyed life. Living life and going through life are two different things. Alfred Lord Tennyson differentiates both these two things in this poem through the character of Ulysses as critics have made clear analysis of it through its critical appreciation.
Theme of “Adventure and Knowledge” in this section of the poem shows the distinguished concept of the poet from his fellow poets. Lust for knowledge and adventure shows elements of renaissance in the poetry of Tennyson, which is one of the major characteristics of his poetry.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ 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.

Ulysses speaks about his son named “Telemachus”. He thinks that his son is a good successor and he will continue civilizing the people after his death. He considers him a responsible personality just like his father. Telemachus has a judgmental personality; therefore, he best fits to rule the people. Ulysses on the other hand was born for some other purposes. He should be described as an explorer instead of a king. In these lines there is a comparison between a father and a son: “Telemachus” and “Ulysses”. At the end, the readers realize two distinguished personalities: a father and a son.
Alfred Lord Tennyson portrays the theme of “young vs. old” in these lines of poem and makes the comparison between the two. It is the law of nature that every living thing has to die one day but life does not end with it. Something overtakes it. A real world example of it is that, there was once a Troy and there was once a roman empire. Today, both of them are no more but still hustle bustle is there. The good and bad part of nature is that it continues. Graveyards are full of people who thought that nothing could be done without their help. Still life is almost same as it was in their era. This section of the poem, hence, also focuses on the theme of continuation as well as the replacement of the old order (Ulysses) with the new one (Telemachus’).

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, 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 ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.

Blowing winds and ships, ready to be sailed, diverts the speaker’s attention. He gracefully thanks his fellow men who supported him in the field of war as well as the persons who accompanied him when he explored the world. He addresses them and says that they have earned good respect. The speaker is not hopeless at all even at this age of life and expects that they can still do more. In the second part of this section, there is a beautiful painting of imagery. Night is about to overpower the day, people have fired up their lights and the moon is shining in the sky.
Alfred Lord Tennyson ‘s use of poetic device “symbolism” is there in this part of the poem, analysis of which transpires that Ulysses has lived a good life and now is the time of its end. The day symbolizes life whereas the poet uses night as a symbol of death. Day has passed and night is to come, which means that it is the end of Ulysses’s life.
Critical appreciation and analysis of these lines make us believe that Alfred Lord Tennyson illustrates the theme of mortality through “Ulysses”. Even the strong men have to die one day. Life is mortal and only gods are immortal, which the poet beautifully exhibits in this section of the poem.

Come, my friends,
‘T is 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.
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.

There was a bit of a gloomy atmosphere in the last section of the poem but suddenly there is a change in the speaker’s thinking. He orders his friends to come with him to explore a new world. Ulysses thinks that it is not too late to enhance their experiences. He refers to Achilles for the purpose of motivation, who was the hero of the Trojan war and helped the people to conquer Troy. However, the speaker believes that he does not have such a strength that Achilles had in this age. Even then, his inner strength and his mind is capable of doing the impossible. The poem ends with a motivational message that if one has a good desire of achieving his goals then age never becomes a hurdle in his way.

Critical in depth analysis of the poem Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson manifests that there is an appreciation of heroism. The speaker is a heroic figure, who spent 10 years of his age fighting in the Trojan War. He also contributed to explore the world as he remained an explorer for 10 years. He is among those heroes, who do not like sitting at home and retirement is not an option for them, hence, he still seeks to find something new.


The analysis of the whole poem is that Alfred Lord Tennyson has done appreciation of the critical history of Ulysses. A lot of themes are there in this poem; some of them are: old vs. young, mortality, adventure, heroism, motivation, love for nature, recklessness, fellowmen support, continuation of life, caution, replacement of old order with new one and also the limitations of a person. The poem does not follow a consistent lyric form; however, it is based on iambic pentameter with an addition of free verse.
So far as use of poetic devices is concerned, the poet uses allusion (Ulysses, Achilles, Trojan War). Best imagery is also there in one of the sections of the poem. The poet uses similes and metaphors freely. In a nutshell, the poem is a masterpiece and is not limited to only one single theme. Perhaps it is the poem “Ulysses “, in response to critical analysis of which, one of the eminent critics showed appreciation of Alfred Lord Tennyson poetry while saying that:-

“His [Alfred Lord Tennyson] poetry, with its clearness of conception and noble simplicity of expression, its discernment of the beautiful and its power of shaping it with mingled strength and harmony, has become an integral part of the literature of the world and so long a s purity and loftiness of thought expressed in perfect form have power to charm, will remain a passion for ever.”


Related Question:

Write in depth critical analysis of Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson along to show appreciation of the poet.