Ulysses' character

Categories: CharacterOdyssey

A later poet said ‘Old men ought to be explorers’. What do you think he meant by that? Do you think he would have approved of the Ulysses who speaks in this poem? What would be your own assessment of Ulysses’ character? Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses was written in 1833, which although was actually before the Victorian era began (in 1851 with the year of the Great Exhibition), still contains many of the changes in thought that were common during the time. For the first time publicly, the idea that God created man was essentially questioned through the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

He explored in depth, the revolutionary theory of ‘evolution’ and the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’. Not only were there these scientific explorations, but the Victorian era was also a time of huge industrial development, detailed exploration into technology allowing this to be possible. ‘Well-educated women’ were beginning to go to University (though not yet to be awarded degrees) and were demanding the vote.

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There is no doubt that these profound changes and discoveries had an influence on the writers and poets of the time, Lord Tennyson included.

However, this later poet has made a profound statement about being an ‘explorer’, where firstly one needs to establish what he may have meant by this word. It seems to me that he may have implied it in the broadest sense; someone who researches or investigates anything, whether it be a scientific thesis, a philosophical question, areas of the world, or even one’s own personality.

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Also the poet specifically chose ‘ought’ as though there is an obligation, or a duty, to become one of these explorers, or perhaps that one might be seen as foolish or failed if one does not spend time in one’s final years exploring something.

Being a ‘later’ poet, he would have been able to look back and see the revolutionary ways that peoples’ every day lives had changed due to the discoveries made during the Victorian era. Although there were of course destructive or depressing sides to the Industrial Revolution, for example the poverty in the slums, if so many positive things could be brought about through the good work of these explorers, then surely this exploration should continue, surely everyone should be exploring for constructive reasons, s/he might have argued.

Yet, there is also the fact that the poet says ‘Old men’. I think s/he is trying to make a point that the older one gets, the sooner one needs to get on and discover one’s interests in life, search deeper into existing interests, to see the sights and places that one has always wanted to see, and to search deeper into life’s meaning, purely as death is increasingly more likely. As one ages therefore, coming back to the obligatory nature of the statement, one ought to be fulfilling these things and exploring for personal benefit, self-rewarding reasons or to have yet more new experiences.

However, on the other hand, the poet may well also have been referring to it as an obligation for old men, for the benefit of others. S/he might think that age give all sorts of qualities to a person that are often not fully appreciated. John Burroughs certainly praises the aged, in his Psychology of Age says, ‘The old man reasons well, the judgment is clear, the mind active, the conscience alert, the interest in life unabated’. He explains how although one may be physically more ‘sluggish’, and although the memory can often fail you, mentally one may still be very fit ‘old age may reason well but old age does not remember well’.

Past experience, both mental and physical, allow the aged to reflect on life in a philosophical way that is simply impossible of the young. A younger person may happen to have experienced in some way, far more than an older person, but the understanding that an older person acquires with the extra years, although not always, often constitutes to an indefinable wise ness in character. ‘As men grow old,’ said Rochefoucauld, ‘they grow more foolish and more wise- wise in counsel, but foolish in conduct’. Lord Tennyson also said, ‘There is no fool like an old fool, but it is equally true that there is no fool like the young fool.

If you want calm and ripe wisdom, go to middle age’. So, although they may have their physical hindrances, forgetfulness and foolishness sometimes, these faults can also be found in youth and there are many qualities that can usually only be found in the aged. The poet might therefore feel that this should be used to the advantage of others rather and that the aged should be using the knowledge through experience that they have by exploring in some way. After all, knowledge can only be passed on from one generation to the next, by each passing it down.

Indeed these assets can certainly also be applicable for the benefits of personal exploration as older people have generally endured more hardship and perhaps fear what might happen to them less, therefore allowing them to take more risks. It is clear that it is not a completely clear issue though, Burroughs says, ‘but the psychology of old age is not so easily described’. Having established what this later poet could have meant by his statement, whether the poet would have approved of Ulysses, can be considered if the character of Ulysses is now observed, which, as he is narrating in a dramatic monologue is quite clear to decipher.

The poem is one of many allusions to Odysseus (Ulysses) from The Odyssey by Homer. This one involves an incident subsequent to the end of the Odyssey, when Ulysses decides to give up the quiet life and go off adventuring again. The first thing that comes across about Ulysses’ character from what he says is the fact that he seems aware of his own inaction; ‘It little profits that an idle King.. ‘ He seems to realise that living the way he used to is not doing any good to anyone and that through calling himself ‘idle’, and with ‘matched with an aged wife’, he is aware of his age, but realises that he ought to change.

This is of course exactly what I think the later poet meant by ‘Old men ought to be explorers’. Although he has not actually acted upon it yet, Ulysses’ awareness of his idleness is the first step in the right direction. ‘I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees’. This quote suggests that Ulysses is an explorer in the way of travelling as he says he does much of this. As discussed before, this could certainly be what the poet meant, and they would probably approve of so much travelling.

However, one might suggest from ‘I will drink life to the lees’ and it continues ‘All times I have enjoyed greatly’ that Ulysses is simply out to have a good time for himself, indulging in alcohol and so forth. The poet’s statement suggests that he might have disapproved of this due to the obligatory nature of ‘ought’. Perhaps he would have meant that old men ought to explore for the good of others, although others may well argue that he would not have disapproved at all as Ulysses was simply enjoying himself and this is precisely what one should do in one’s old age. It depends how one interprets the statement.

However, Ulysses goes on to say, ‘All times have I suffered greatly’ which suggests that he has also been through a lot of hardship and does not just live the life of luxury, perhaps justifying this drinking to the sceptics! He says ‘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’, which implies that he is a man of vast experience, therefore a good deal of knowledge. To me this suggests that the poet would therefore think that he ought to use this experience, and this ‘name’ that he has become, to explore further.

Indeed Ulysses describes what he still feels he should explore in an interesting metaphor; ‘Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades For ever and ever when I move. ‘ It seems that the poet would approve of Ulysses as Ulysses realises that the undiscovered world is still out there for him to see, yet the likelihood of him seeing it, grows increasingly slim with age (‘fades for ever and ever’), hence a slight urgency and obligation to act upon this.

Ulysses also goes on to say ‘How dull it is to pause, to make an end. To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! ‘. This implies that if one is still alive, one ought to continue exploring and not stop due to age. The ‘shine in use’ even suggests that one’s life is essentially over and ‘rusting’ if one does not fulfil the purpose in life by investigating the possibilities that await, or perhaps that there is even a kind of glory in exploring.

Indeed he says later in the poem ‘for my purpose holds to… ‘ The poet would approve all of these things that Ulysses says, as they all imply that old men ought to be explorers. The continuous form suggests the way in which Ulysses would have said his soliloquy. Although there is an indentation at the start of the second and third sections, the poem is essentially one stanza, reflecting a long journey but also a passionate outpouring of emotion and thoughts, the theme of which is indeed exploring.

Through this dramatic monologue, the idea is that one should be able to picture Ulysses in a realistic setting and that he should have an influence on the reader. This he does through the form, and through the enthusiastic language chosen, ‘this grey spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star’ and ‘but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’. I think the poet would have approved of Ulysses’ zest and fervent nature as he clearly passionately believes that not only he should be doing this exploring but so should others.

Ulysses uses the imperative with ‘Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off… ‘. Ulysses’ encouragement to be the eternal adventurer is perhaps even stronger than the poet who only makes a suggestion but does not actually tell old men to be explorers. Therefore the poet would have probably approved, although he may have chosen the way he phrased it specifically as it is still the choice of old men to do as they wish but ideally, exploring is what they should do.

Although Ulysses is referring a great deal to travelling as adventures were a common thing during the Greek context, (Ulysses speaks to the mariners, many of whom were killed on the Odyssey adventure; ‘My mariners, souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me’) Ulysses also refers to exploring in terms of knowledge and on a deeper, spiritual level; ‘to follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

‘ Not only does Ulysses want to travel but he also wants to become more knowledgeable as though it is something that he may not be able to do forever (sinking star). He also feels that he should really ‘stretch’ his mind and his thoughts, perhaps suggesting in a spiritual way, but also a suggestion that he does not want his mind to become lazy, but wants to use it to its full potential. The poet would also have thought this is a great idea I would have thought, as anyone would.

Ulysses says; ‘but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things’ which suggests he thinks that he is exploring for the good of others, as these ‘new things’ will be passed down from one generation to the next, perhaps an idea the poet might be implying by his statement. One might argue that this contrasts ‘he works his work, I mine’ when talking about his son as this seems as though Ulysses and Telemachus work very independently of each other, arguably a negative thing as they ought to share ideas and collaborate positively.

Perhaps the poet would have disapproved of Ulysses for keeping himself separate like this. Two key quotes which show the most important characteristic of Ulysses that the poet would have most probably approved of are these; ‘though much is taken, much abide; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are’ and; ‘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’.

Ulysses faces the fact that death will eventually intervene, ‘death closes all’ and the fact that he is certainly not as physically and mentally fit as he used to be, but realises that he might as well make the most of who he is ‘that which we are, we are’. As mentioned earlier, the poet may well have thought that old men ought to be explorers as they have assets that youth does not, and ought to use it. This is exactly what Ulysses is saying here; ‘old age hath yet his honour’ and ‘some work of noble not, may yet be done’. Ulysses also says; ‘It may be that the gulfs will wash us down.

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles’ (these being Elysium, the Greek heaven for philosophy), which suggests that he is prepared for both the worst and the best things that may face him, but realizes he will never know what is to come unless he tries it. This ‘carpe diem’ meaning ‘seize the day’, attitude would most likely have impressed the poet as I think this exactly what the poet means by his attitude. I think this later poet, whoever he was, and from whichever standpoint he meant his statement that ‘Old men ought to be explorers’, would have approved of Ulysses in some way.

I personally agree with the statement and all the things mentioned about growing old that the poet could have meant, and indeed approve of Ulysses. It seems that he wants to explore in every sense of the word which firstly is an amazing and ambitious plan, that he realises that death is looming yet is determined nevertheless despite his weaknesses, and also that he wants to explore not only for himself but encourages others to do so as well. I agree, as I am sure the poet would, that living life to the full ‘were all too little’ if one were simply to breathe and do very little; ‘As though to breathe were life’, even in old age.

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Ulysses' character. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/ulysses-character-2017-new-essay

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