Tennyson with his wife Emily and his sons Hallam and Lionel
Maybe the key to the meaning of life is not in our answers, our hopes, or our wishes, but in our struggles. This is a salient theme in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, which tells the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and his ten-year journey home after the end of the long Trojan War. Odysseus’ tribulations on his homeward journey are legendary, as he battles giants, monsters, storms, and the sirens of beautiful women who call sailors to their death. After finally reaching home, reunited with his wife and his kingdom, Homer suggests that Odysseus desired to leave again, an idea picked up centuries later by Dante.
In the nineteenth century, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892) expanded on this theme. Tennyson was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, and one of the most popular poets in the English language. His poem Ulysses, Odysseus’ name in Latin, famously captured Ulysses’ dissatisfaction with life in Ithaca after his return, and his subsequent desire to set sail again. Perhaps nothing in Western literature conveys the feeling of going forward and braving the struggle of life more movingly than this poem.
Tennyson begins by describing the boredom and restlessness Ulysses experiences after finally returning to rule his kingdom.
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.
Contrast these sentiments with his excitement that his memories elicit.
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.
He’s nostalgic about his past, but he also longs for new experiences. He describes those feelings with this powerful imagery:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever 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.
For there is more to do in life than wait to die.
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.
The lure of the sea, of another journey, is calling again.
There gloom the dark broad 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 ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Finally, he gathers his fellow sailors and leaves the safety of the harbor for the thrill of new adventures. Tennyson describes the scene and the sentiment with some of the most beautiful and moving lines in the English language.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: 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.
Ulysses found joy and meaning, not in port, but in his journeys, in the dark troubled sea of life against which we wrestle. There we can find the meaning of our lives as we battle without hope of ever finding a home.
2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Tennyson’s “Ulysses””
Thanks for this reference. I just bought a new book of poetry and Lord Tennyson was dedicated a chapter—and I rather enjoy. I have expressed a similar sentiment offered by Kurt Russell in the first movie I ever watched on a VCR (yep, I’m dating myself) titled “Escape from New York”. This gem was discovered at about the age of eight long before I knew books “really” existed—but I can still appreciate good writing regardless. To offer a little context, he was helping, under duress, the President escape from a city in a dystopian future. He offered one simple statement in a time of crisis, “keep moving”. This is a sentiment I have lived by and also offered to family, friend, and also foe. It is very similar to Ulysses’ plight and something I would suspect the he and I would have readily agreed. To breathe is not to live, as I interpret Tennyson, is no place of true “being”. Movement drives experience, innovation, science, and all-things-good, and it thwarts solitude, stagnation, submission, and moss—to quote Dylan.
thanks as always Jason. Ulysses is my favorite poem and I can recite my of it from memory. Glad you like it.