Alfred Lord Tennyson – ULYSSES Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Aug 28th, 2019


Ulysses is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson expressing dramatic soliloquy. In this poem, Ulysses, addressing himself, declares that he cannot afford to stay at home for it is of little profit. He says that, “I cannot rest from travel” (Tennyson Line 6). He feels obliged to get out and face the world maximizing every moment. This paper looks into the structure and form of this poem from a critical point of view.


This poem consists of four sections-like paragraphs and each section contains a discrete theme. The lines are unrhymed probably to enable flow of the speech. Most of the lines end midway in what Shapiro calls “enjambment” (20). “Once the structure of this epic is revealed, the meaning of the episodes become intelligible as part of the narrative structure” (Shapiro 23). For instance, lying to the natural divinities amounts to lying to the “civilized traveler.” Each section as aforementioned tackles a different idea.

Lines 1 – 5

The poem opens with Ulysses coming back home from after a thirty-year adventure which saw him take part in the Trojan War. The narrator comes out clearly with his discontent towards everything around him. It starts by “It little profits that an idle king /By this still hearth, among these barren crags” (Tennyson Line 1-2). This king rules “barren crags” the wife is old and nothing seems positive around this place.

The description here fits animal behavior. “The only thing they do that might require human thought, the capacity to see beyond the immediate moment, is the greedy act of hoarding (Shapiro 25). Towards the end however, it becomes apparent that neither the king nor his subjects are responsible for these shortcomings. On contrary, this emanates from the fact that these two parties cannot match mentally, because “they know not me” (Tennyson Line 5).

Lines 6 – 21

The enjambment of this poem comes out clearly in this section. Here Ulysses idolizes his travels condemning the act of staying in one place for a long time. He says, “I cannot rest from travel” (Tennyson Line 6). This travel; as aforementioned, included fighting in the Trojan War.

This experience seems to have shaped Ulysses’ character greatly for he says, “I am a part of all that I have met” (Tennyson Line 8). Going back to line 6, the semicolon in “…travel; “, is a structure that shows that Ulysses has more to say. This form of structure is repeated in lines 11, 15, 17 and 18. In line 7, the “lees’ refer to deposits found in the bottom of a wine glass. “Drink life to the lees” (Tennyson Line 7).

The implication here is Ulysses is ready to “experience all things, good and bad” (Shapiro 26). There is unusual diction in line eleven when he says, “I am become a name” (Tennyson Line 11). To this, Shapiro posits that, “it grants Ulysses the glory of the legend that is associated with his name but it also reduces his existence to just one word” (26).

Line 22 – 32

To this point, Ulysses decides to leave Ithaca and resume his adventures. Life is ‘dull’ as per line 22; however, in line 23 there is imagery of unpolished sword. The implication here is that Ulysses’ life is not only boring, but also useless as unsharpened sword. Therefore, staying in this place will only add pity to his useless and unproductive life. Ulysses cannot afford to just “breathe’ and pass through life quietly, he will, “follow knowledge like a sinking star / Beyond the utmost bond of human thought” (Tennyson Line 32).

Line 33 – 53

Ulysses starts addressing some audience concerning his son Telemachus. He says, “This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the scepter and the isle” (Tennyson Line 33-34). There is no compromise here and Ulysses has to leave his throne and hand it over to his son. He praises his son’s qualities of leadership. After all, Telemachus has to lead the island, while on the other side, Ulysses sojourn in the seas, “He works his work, I mine” (Tennyson Line 43).

However, ambiguity sets in this poem. Ulysses uses words like “gloom’ in line 45 and he does not address a particular audience. “Some critics have identified his apparent inconsistency in the narrative voice as a flaw in Tennyson’s presentation” (Shapiro 27). However, this is unrhymed iambic pentameter full of blank verses makes Tennyson’s writings peculiar.

Line 54 – 70

Ulysses finally leaves the island to “seek a newer world” (Tennyson Line 61). Going nowhere in particular, they head west, “beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars” (Tennyson Line 65).

This reverberates with line 31 where Ulysses is ready to pursue knowledge to the end. Finally, Ulysses reaches Happy Isles, the destiny of all the blessed after they die. Ulysses “feels he is a victim of his fate that he and the mariners who sail with him must go through” (Shapiro 29). This poem is about “Braving the struggle of life” (SparkNotes Para. 23).

Form of the Poem

The entire 70 lines are a dramatic soliloquy whereby Ulysses addresses himself. It is hard to tell the location of the narration and to what audience. However, ambiguity of the poem sets in when in section three; Ulysses introduces his son Telemachus. The way he puts the first line, “this is…” indicates clearly that he is not addressing himself there has to be an audience; however, Tennyson does not come out clearly to state the audience.

The issue of audience arises again when Ulysses moves to the seashore and starts addressing his fellow mariners. “In this interpretation, the comparatively direct and honest language of the first movement is set against the more politically minded tone of the last two movements. For example, the second paragraph (33–43) about Telemachus, in which Ulysses muses again about domestic life, is a revised version [of lines 1–5] for public consumption’ a ‘savage race’ is revised to a “rugged people” (Shapiro 31).

However, other critics think otherwise. “Ulysses is a dialectic in which the speaker weighs the virtues of a contemplative and an active approach to life…beginning with his rejection of the barren life to which he has returned in Ithaca, he then fondly recalls his heroic past, recognizes the validity of Telemachus’ method of governing, and with these thoughts plans another journey” (Culler 277).


Ulysses is a dramatic soliloquy where the narrator starts by addressing himself. However, as the events unfold, there appears to be an audience. The structure of this poem entails four sections with enjambment in every line.

Most of lines terminate midway as opposed to general poems where lines terminate at the end to rhyme with each other. This explains the form of the poem, which is unrhymed verse, composed of sections that cannot qualify to be stanzas. However, there are different opinions about this poem with some people suggesting that it is a soliloquy while others say it is dialectic.

Works Cited

Culler, Dwight. “The Poetry of Tennyson.” London: Yale University Press, 1977.

Shapiro, Michael. “Politicizing Ulysses: Rationalistic, Critical, and Genealogical Commentaries.” Political Theory. 17(1); 9-32, 1989. Web.

Spark Notes. “Tennyson’s Poetry.” 2010. Web.

Tennyson, Alfred. “Ulysses.” The Victorian Web.


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