It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
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: 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.
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.
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. 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.
In this dramatic monologue Tennyson celebrates men's obstinate attempt to give purpose to their lives even if they're approaching to death.
In the introduction Ulysses has come back to his homeland after several journeys around the world and now reveals his dissatisfaction and contempt for his present life, which is boring and meaningless. He is in Ithaca and he feels regretful, proud and nostalgic for his past adventures and glory. He the declares the fact that he's not suitable to be a ruler and give laws.
Ulysses is speaking to himself expressing his dissatisfaction with his idle life, he states that people in Ithaca don't know him, moreover they're interested only in material goods, therefore he doesn't want to be a king, on the contrary he wants to start a new journey.
In the first stanza the tone is very emphatic and involving: Ulysses states that he can't rest from travel, on the contrary he wants to “drink life to the lees”, therefore his aim is to enjoy his life to the fullest, even if he's aware he's going to die soon. Ulysses' way of feeling is typically romantic since he wants to live greatly and to enjoy every single moment of his life. Ulysses uses many metaphors to explain his way of feeling, such as “drink life to the lees”, “always roaming with an hungry heart”, and “drunk delight of battles with my peers”, this last metaphor also explains his feeling superior to his citizens, but not to his fellow mariners. He compares himself to a sword, which rusts if it's not used, indeed life in Ithaca is simply survival: life void of actions leads to decay, it is not just the accumulation of years but every pleasures' enjoyment. Indeed he defines his experiences as an arch through which one can see the horizon but never reach it, because it always moves far away becoming another horizon; indeed he tried to reach any destination, but the horizon was always enlarged, he was never fed up with his journeys. Lastly he calls himself a grey spirit in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star. This last simile refers to death, indeed when stars die, they fall into nothingness. This image of death, which is also conveyed in its description as “eternal silence” is influenced by Darwin's argument on men's origin from apes, therefore men have no divine origin, or so to say, there is no divine, therefore death is the end of everything.
In the second stanza Ulysses turns to an unidentified listener to talk about his son Telemachus, even if he loves and respects his son, he doesn't feel any kind of sympathy towards him, indeed the tone is very cold and detached. Telemachus is suitable for the role of a ruler, since he's blameless and very balanced. While Ulysses stands for an adventurous life, Telemachus embodies the typical Victorian man, devoted to responsibilities and social duties, he's very prudent and diligent.
In the last stanza Ulysses addresses his mariners with a sympathetic tone and coveys a sense of belonging. The tone is very involving, indeed he is urging them to die in the sea in another journey, Ulysses feels one with them and proposes them a new voyage into the unknown. They are old and they must die, so Ulysses wants to challenge nothingness one last time, which brings up a sense of melancholy.
Ulysses is aware that death will soon put an end to everything, indeed he states “death closes all” conveying again the first stanza's message: he refers back to Darwin's scepticism, according to which there is no more a quest after the divine and no afterlife to be experienced after death. Notwithstanding he doesn't yield to it, as he states in the last line “to strive, to seek, to find, not to yield”: he's restless, so he wants to start a new voyage; this last line is made up of a succession of verbs and sums up Ulysses' unrestrained desire for a life of action, courage and determination.