In A Nutshell
In October of 1833, Alfred Tennyson learned of the untimely death of his close friend and Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam's death devastated Tennyson; seventeen years later he wrote a long poem about it called In Memoriam. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, however, he wrote "Ulysses."
You might have heard of Ulysses, or Odysseus, as he is called in Homer's Odyssey, the epic poem that narrates his long (10 years!) journey home from the the Trojan War. According to Homer, once Odysseus made it home he still had to take one more voyage, though that voyage is only mentioned, never made. Dante's Inferno, a much later work about a poet's journey through Hell, actually describes this voyage, though in a slightly different way; in Dante's account, Ulysses never returns home to Ithaca and instead chooses to continue sailing, as he does in Tennyson's poem. But unlike Tennyson, Dante condemns Ulysses for irresponsible adventure-seeking.
Tennyson's poem fuses both Homer and Dante's versions of the story; in the poem, Ulysses has made it home (Homer), but he wants to go sailing around the world again (Dante). The poem is a long monologue spoken by Ulysses detailing how bored he is in Ithaca (an island off the coast of Greece) and how he wants to get as much out of life as he can.
Tennyson's presentation of the Ulysses myth reflects to some degree his own desire to get over Hallam's death and keep living; it wasn't enough for Tennyson to achieve a state of ease and tranquility (like Ulysses did when he got back to Ithaca). He also wanted to keep living life, taking both its ups and downs in stride in the same way as Ulysses. Indeed, Tennyson famously claimed that the poem described in part his own "need of going forward and braving the struggle of life" after his friend's death.
Why Should I Care?
You know that feeling you get about three weeks into summer vacation, where you start to run out of things to do? You've been to the water park, you've slept in for the last 21 days, you haven't thought about school at all, and finally you ask yourself, now what? That feeling escalates until, come August, you're so bored you're almost glad school is starting again, even though after two weeks you'll wish it were still summer.
Well that's exactly how Ulysses feels, only he doesn't want to get back to school; he wants to get back out on the ocean, where he could die or, barring that, spend the rest of his life wandering around, never to return home again. His unwillingness to sit around – to enjoy a summer vacation that will last the rest of his life – coupled with his intense desire to be out doing something speaks to our own need for action, for activity, and for something that makes us feel more alive than do eating and sleeping.
Ulysses, however, might be just a bit crazier than the rest of us; he doesn't want to get back to school, he wants to go back to sea, where he is almost sure to encounter all kinds of monsters and mythical creatures that would make even the boldest of us cringe. He's a lot like that guy who's not content with running a marathon and swimming the English Channel; he's got to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and after surviving that he wants to climb Mount Everest without oxygen.
So, even though Ulysses is more adventurous than most of us, his experiences and desires are applicable to an entire range of scenarios. In some ways he resembles a retired athlete like Michael Jordan, or anyone else who has suddenly found his opportunities to do things curtailed, if not entirely eliminated. Despite the fact that Ulysses is a sailor with Christopher Columbus -style boldness, what he has to say speaks to something in all of us, whether we're retirees or students on vacation.