I would like to start out by saying that I had to memorize this in high school and did not like this poem one bit. Now, having stepped back from that horrific experience, I think this poem presents a very honest and in-depth view of yearning for something that cannot ever be reached. Tennyson’s "Ulysses" portrays a man past his prime longing for adventures like he had in his youth. It presents the story of a man who moves constantly from one thing to another but is never satisfied.
Some of Ulysses' comments are grounded firmly in reality. For example, he describes himself as “Match’d with an aged wife” (line 3)—suggesting he is aware that he is equally old. Unfortunately, he also feels that he is surrounded by people who do not understand him. Ulysses describes his countrymen as people who “know not me” (line 5). To me, it seems as if he also does not completely know himself.
Ulysses believes that although he is an old man, he still has the power to do good and honorable things. He states, “Old age hath yet his honor and his toil; / Death closes all: but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done” (lines 50-53). This belief that he has talents and strengths yet to be used combines with his strong yearning for adventure. This combination leads to him rationalizing away the barriers to his departure. For instance, he knows he cannot leave his kingdom without a leader but states that Telemachus would provide better leadership. Ulysses notes, “This is my son, mine own Telemachus, / To whom I leave the scepter and the isle / . . . by slow prudence to make mild / A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees / Subdue them to the useful and the good. / . . . He works his work, I mine” (lines 32-44). Ulysses sees his son’s strength as a leader and believes his own strength to be in pursuing noble adventures.
And yet, he seems always restless, never satisfied. Assuming this poem is meant to follow the adventures in tales like the Odyssey, Ulysses is never fully content with his position. In the Odyssey, much of his time is spent yearning to get home. Now that he is home, he yearns to return to the sea. He even describes himself in line 12 as “always roaming with a hungry heart”. Ulysses states, “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move” (lines 18-21). He sees the world as if there is always something better just a little beyond his reach. He seems to acknowledge this in some ways—he ends by describing himself as “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (lines 69-70). But Ulysses seems to feel that his journeys and determination “to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until [he dies]” (lines 60-61) will be satisfactory.
I don’t think that will ever be enough. Ulysses is too restless and too intent on pursuing further adventures to ever be satisfied with the life he has. What drives this point home to me is the fact that he is finally united with his wife and son after years of longing for home—and he wants to leave again. Never mind that he missed out on raising his son. Forget that his wife was absolutely loyal and faithful in protecting his legacy while he was away. Ulysses will leave it all behind to chase a shadow on the horizon—and he doesn’t seem to realize it will never quench his yearning.