Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

UlyssesAnd this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


Much of Tennyson’s finest poetry is informed by grief.

Devastated by the sudden death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam, he tried to come to terms with his loss in the only way he knew how:  through his poetry.  The result was a handful of the most poignant, personal and lyrical poems in the English language, many of which were finally gathered together as one work and published in 1850 as In Memoriam: A.H.H.

It was, however, in the painfully raw days immediately following Hallam’s death in 1833 that Tennyson wrote Ulysses.

It takes the form of a dramatic monologue.  The voice is that of Ulysses (known to the Greeks as Odysseus).  He  is an old man – an “idle king” – presiding over his kingdom.  His heroic, youthful exploits are no more than a distant memory:

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.

He is famous.  He  has, in his own words, “become a name”;  but that fame has brought him no contentment, and he is yearning to return once more to his old life:

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.

He remembers his youth:  the people he has known, the places he has seen, the things he has done –  and then, the poem changes tone and pace and we realize that he has decided to head out to sea once more, leaving his son Telemachus to rule in his place.  With that intent, he rallies his surviving shipmates:

Old age has 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.

And so, in search of that ‘work of noble note’, they set sail one last time,  on a one-way voyage from which he has no intention of returning . . .

Tennyson learned of Arthur Hallam’s death on October the 1st, 1833.  By the 19th, he had completed Ulysses.  Many years later he was to write:

There is more about myself in ‘Ulysses’, written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of [Hallam’s] loss upon me than many poems in ‘In Memoriam’.

The poem was finally published in 1842 and unusually for Tennyson, who frequently reworked his poems before  publication, it was published as he had originally written it, with no amendments.   Over the years it has passed into the canon of 19th Century classics;  its famous closing words  adopted as a motto by numerous schools and other organizations from Victorian times onwards – most notably (in a slightly altered form) by the Outward Bound Trust.

In common with many people of my age I was force-fed Tennyson and Wordsworth at school.  I first encountered Ulysses when I was about 13 or 14 and I thought it was stuffy, incomprehensible and b-o-r-i-n-g …  It was only some 20 years later that I stumbled upon the poem again by accident whilst verifying the source of  a quotation for a quiz.  I found the quotation (that famous closing line, of course) … and then my eye was drawn to the body of the poem.  A poem I’d always cordially loathed.

I felt rather as St Paul must have done on the road to Damascus.

In his incisive introduction to Oxford University Press’s excellent new edition of Tennyson –  Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works – Adam Roberts refers to the ‘aching precision’ of Ulysses, and I couldn’t come up with a more accurate phrase  if  (in the words of Dorothy L Sayers) I worked it out on both hands for a fortnight.  Here is an intensely shy and private young man (he was just 24 when he wrote the poem) shattered by his friend’s sudden and premature death, trying to find his way through the fog of grief.  His medium is a man three times his own age who is stubbornly refusing to go gentle into that good night, and what’s more he’s doing it in some of the most beautiful and concise blank verse ever written:

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 …

It’s in startling contrast to the modern taste in mourning poems, which favours the ‘I’m not really dead, I’ve just popped next door for a cuppa’ approach.

Viewed with cynical 21st Century eyes Ulysses is an old man about to desert his elderly wife, dump all his responsibilities  on his son and head off into the sunset with the lads;  and it has indeed been read that way – but taking poems, or indeed any literary works,  out of the period and context in which they were written in order to slap a modern interpretation on them is at best  a dubious exercise and at worst a fatuous one.

As a 30-something I was so struck by the sheer elegiac beauty of Ulysses (utterly lost on me for two decades) that I photocopied it and kept it in my bag.  It was there as a reminder that nothing, especially not my own  taste in literature, was immutable – but it was also there because I was beginning to understand, even  if only vaguely, what it truly meant.

As I’ve grown older it seems as if the poem has  grown with me and with every passing year, it becomes more and more relevant.   When my original photocopy fell apart about 10 years ago, I typed it out again (and yes – that’s it, in the photograph), even though I had long since committed it to memory.  It’s now an organic part of me and, with  its closing lines – so very upright and Victorian and unfashionable – it travels with me everywhere, stowed away safely at the back of my wallet and my mind, ready for whenever I have need of it:

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.

Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works.  Edited and with an introduction and notes by Adam Roberts.  Oxford University Press.  2009. ISBN: 978-0-19-957276-2.  626pp.

7 comments on “Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  1. annebrooke
    May 26, 2010

    So very heartening to see this, Moira. I fell in love with Tennyson when I was 21 and first opened the pages of In Memoriam at University, and that’s remained one of my favourite poems ever since. My affection for his work has only grown over the last 25 years. I was beginning to think I was the only one who loves him these days, so wonderful to know I’m not! The precision and the grief of his best poetry is, I believe, unparalleled.

    Thank you for starting off my day so very well!


  2. Moira
    May 26, 2010

    Ah Anne, you’re very welcome. We are plainly two old-fashioned souls, left behind by the tide of the 21st Century.

    I wonder if he’s even TAUGHT in schools anymore? Or whether, being a Dead, White Male he’s been given the old heave-ho?

    Interestingly enough, he – or this poem, to be more precise – featured prominently in the TV SF saga “Babylon 5” – it was the favourite work of the central character, Commander Sinclair – he drove his girlfriend nuts with it.

    There’s a bit of trivia for you!

  3. Nikki
    May 26, 2010

    I’ve got a copy of his selected works, which I dip in and out of. But this was my first Tennyson. I still remember the day I first read it, in a pretty uninspiring college anthology in a class for unseen poetry. Everyone in the class had a line to read. It was my A-level year, uni and all that was just ahead of me and this just really struck a cord, in a way that only poetry really can. I thought I was mad to carry a copy around with me (along with William Ernest Henley’s Invictus), so I’m glad I’m not the only one, Moira. I think this is one of the most stirring and inspiring poems ever written. I just adore it. Thanks for this.

  4. Moira
    May 26, 2010

    Good grief. You too?! How weirdly wonderful ….!

    I can thoroughly recommend the OUP Tennyson, which I really must review properly, and soon. The introduction and notes are just terrific …

  5. Jackie
    May 26, 2010

    Though I’m familiar with Tennyson’s other works, I must’ve passed this one by, though some of the lines you quote sound familiar. As you said, excerpts have been appropriated by all sorts of places.
    It’s a mark of genius to create something like this from so much pain.

  6. annebrooke
    May 26, 2010

    Ah, Moira, I always knew I liked Bab 5 for a reason …



  7. Lynne
    May 28, 2010

    My great-grandfather loved Tennyson. I have his set of collected Tennyson. He passed taht love to his daughter, and through her to his grandson (my father), who in turn passed it on to myself and my brother. Poetry is genetic in my family.

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