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Ulysses’ Take on Seeking Fulfillment: Alfred, Lord Tennyson Poetry Analysis

[Written for Claremont McKenna College Literature department]

Excerpt from “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (lines 6 – 26):

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.
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…

Pervading the work of numerous Victorian age poets and writers is the question of how best to live – a topic not excluded by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  In his poem Ulysses, Tennyson illustrates an aging Ulysses at home in Ithaca, who, far from reveling in his well-earned comfort, is ill at ease with his now comparatively stagnant life. In the section of his poem where Ulysses directly addresses the reasons why he should not and cannot remain in Ithaca, Tennyson draws on a variety of literary tools to enhance his argument.  Through his portrayal of Ulysses, Tennyson entertains the notion that a meaningful life is achieved through actively pursuing experience, suggesting that greater virtue for Ulysses lies not within the continuation of his responsibilities at home, but rather in the knowledge he will gain from further exploration.  

Tennyson begins by presenting Ulysses’ desire to extend his travels as more of a necessity than a yearning, portraying travel and experience not as a luxury, but rather the only means of seeking fulfillment in life.  Ulysses’ opening statement to this passage is powerful in its concision, as Ulysses states simply that he “cannot rest from travel” (Tennyson, line 6).  In this way, he immediately introduces his disquiet as inevitable and unavoidable.  It is not that he merely prefers to travel, or that he feels that he should not rest – he cannot rest.  Simple assertion follows simple assertion, as this first line is preceded by the succinct “I will drink/Life to the lees” (6 – 7).  Similarly, Ulysses discusses his desire to travel not as one possible option of many, but the only option he will consider.  Through this wine metaphor, he asserts that there is no reason in drinking a bottle of wine only halfway.  As he will only ever be presented with one life – one bottle of wine – he is inflexible in his decision to consume and consume until just the dregs (the “lees”) are left, and then consume those as well.   

As one of the more prominent figures of Greek mythology, Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) is able to maintain a certain level of credibility in the next few lines with the grand statements he makes regarding his past.  It is this reminder of the scope of his past accomplishments which justifies his high hopes to seek more experience in his remaining time on earth.  In his former years, Ulysses has “drunk[en] delight of battle with [his] peers” (16), spent years of his life “Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy” (17), and “seen and known…cities of men/And manners, climates, councils, [and] governments” (13 – 14) of distant places.  By drawing on the breadth of Ulysses’ previous experiences recounted in other myths and legends, Tennyson emphasizes both the integrity and the gravity of Ulysses’ belief in experience as the ideal life path.  The preconceived legends of Ulysses coupled with the direct and authoritative statements of Tennyson’s Ulysses paint the portrait of a man who has seen and experienced much of life – certainly much more than the average man.  By citing his previous experience, Tennyson validates Ulysses conclusions on how best to live.       

Still from the perspective of Ulysses, Tennyson continues to attribute virtue and praise to seeking out experience and adventure.  Ulysses, who has “enjoy’d…[and] suffer’d greatly” (7 – 8) on his travels for a significant portion of his life, rejects his stagnant lifestyle at his home in Ithaca.  Though a ruler of Ithaca with a wife and son, Ulysses longs only to leave this domestic stability and embark on yet another journey –one that would ideally span the rest of his life.  While it might seem selfish or ignoble to ignore his familial and legislative duties, Tennyson implies a higher virtue in seeking knowledge.  Indeed, he presents Ulysses as a sort of tool for the advancement of mankind, lamenting the fact that, when not traveling and making discoveries, he is confined to “rust[ing] unburnish’d,” unable to “shine in use” (23).  Thus, his stasis in Ithaca neuters his ability to make great contributions of knowledge for the world, ultimately depriving him of his greatest use.  Though technically his home, the domesticity and sedentary living of Ithaca is unnatural for the well-traveled and restless Ulysses.  He believes he belongs not to Ithaca, but to the world.  He asserts this notion in stating that he is “a part of all that [he has] met” (18).  While a more common traveler might normally claim that all that he has met is now a part of him, Ulysses does not presume nearly so much.  He, a mortal man, cannot take places and experiences as his own; rather the places he goes take parts of him.  This essentially reaffirms his discomfort with his stasis at home, as well as the wrongness of this stasis.  Ulysses does not belong in Ithaca, or to his wife or his son – he belongs to the world, different bits of him in different places.  He can never fully be at home in one place if so much of him is elsewhere.  In this statement, he seems to attribute seeking experience and knowledge as the highest virtue he can hope for – one that overwhelms the ordinary duties of a king, husband, and father.

Though great in numerous facets, Ulysses is still mortal, and Tennyson dedicates the last few lines of this passage to conveying the urgency of Ulysses’ desire, and the immediacy with which he feels he must act on it.  He claims that “all experience is an arch wherethro’/Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades/For ever and forever when I move” (19 – 21).  It seems that Ulysses acknowledges both that the best means to life fulfillment is seeking knowledge, and that the entirety of this knowledge is unattainable.  He can spend his entire life pursuing the “untravll’d world,” yet never quite reach it in its entirety.  The closer he comes, the more the “margin fades;” he is a man constantly on the brink of fulfillment, yet never quite able to cross the margin.  This unattainable quality of all the experience the world has to offer, along with the waning timeline of Ulysses’ life, creates a sense of urgency in the poem.  Had he time unlimited to pursue experience, he might one day attain all that there is to know, but Ulysses is ultimately limited by his mortality.  In the twilight of his life, Ulysses concludes that there is something lacking in living passively.  He implies that simply “to breathe” is not “life” (24), as experience (and thus the meaning and fulfillment it could hold) will not be thrust upon the passive man.  Rather, it must be actively pursued.  In all that the world has to offer, Ulysses could spend “Life piled on life” exploring the world, and even that would be “all too little” to discover all that there is to know (24 – 25).  

After almost a full life of terror and delight and adventure, Ulysses is left with the conclusion that stasis begets stasis, and that virtue lies within movement and pursuit.  Though he recognizes the unattainable quality of all that there is to know and experience, he too recognizes the idea that simply because all knowledge is unattainable, does not make the efforts to attain it futile.  In his future journeys throughout the last of his life, the Greek hero will inevitably encounter new knowledge and experiences, which, to Ulysses, is a virtue in itself.