Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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.
- The poem begins by telling us that a king gains nothing from just sitting around by the fire with his wife and making laws for people who don't even know him.
- The speaker at first seems at to be some kind of observer or impersonal figure who knows a lot about how to be a king, but in line 3 we learn that the king himself, Ulysses, is speaking.
- The phrase "it little profits" is another way of saying, "it is useless" or "it isn't beneficial."
- "Mete" means "to allot" or "measure out." Here it refers to the king's allotment of rewards and punishments to his subjects.
- "Unequal" doesn't mean that the rewards and punishments are unjust or unfair, but rather variable.
- "Match'd" doesn't refer to a tennis match or other sporting event; it means something like "paired" or "partnered with."
- Ulysses' subjects are presented to us as a large group of drones who do nothing but eat and sleep.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea:
- After his moralistic opening, Ulysses tells us more about why sitting around doling out rewards and punishments bores him.
- We learn that he is a restless spirit who doesn't want to take a break from roaming the ocean in search of adventure. He will not let life pass him by.
- The word "lees" originally referred to the sediment accumulated at the bottom of a bottle of wine; to "drink life to the lees" means to drink to the very last drop. Nowadays we might say something like "live life to the fullest."
- Ulysses tells us that he has had a lot of good times and a lot of bad times, sometimes with his best friends, and sometimes alone, both on dry land and while sailing through potentially destructive storms.
- "Scudding drifts" are pounding showers of rain that one might encounter at sea during a storm or while crab fishing off the coast of Alaska.
- The "Hyades" are a group of stars in the constellation Taurus often associated with rain; their rising in the sky generally coincides with the rainy season. Here they are presented as agitators of the ocean.