Study Guide

Ulysses Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Greek Mythology

Because the poem is spoken by a famous Greek hero it's no surprise that references to Greek mythology abound. Ulysses refers several times to the Trojan War and mentions several mythological landmarks in order to convey just how hungry he is for new adventures. More specifically, Ulysses' references to Greek mythology remind us of his heroic past while also giving us a sense of the (very large) scope of his future ambitions.

  • Lines 16-17: Ulysses describes how he enjoyed fighting on the "plains" of Troy, an ancient city located in what is now Northwestern Turkey.
  • Line 33: Ulysses introduces us to his son, Telémakhos, a figure who appears in Homer's Odyssey, an epic poem that describes Ulysses' (Odysseus') long journey home.
  • Line 53: Ulysses refers to himself and his fellow mariners as men that "strove with Gods." During the Trojan War, the gods – Athena, Ares, Venus, etc. – frequently took part in battle.
  • Lines 63-4: Ulysses suggests that if he and his friends die, they might visit the "Happy Isles," a sort of Elysium for heroes and others who lived virtuous lives. He implies that Achilles – the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought at Troy – resides there.

Traveling and Sailing

Ulysses has done a lot of traveling; it took him ten years to get home from Troy, which means he's had an entire decade to visit a whole lot of places. Apparently, those ten years weren't enough because all he talks about is leaving home again. It's not entirely clear whether Ulysses wants to visit any specific place or if he just wants to travel for its own sake. Maybe he just likes the smell of the ocean air. Either way, he wants to get out of Dodge.

  • Line 6: Ulysses explains that he can't stop traveling because he wants to get the most out of life.
  • Lines 9-11: Ulysses describes storms at as resulting from the Hyades "vexing the sea." "Vex" means to upset, stir up, trouble; attributing human actions to a non-living thing (the Hyades) is called personification.
  • Lines 12-15: Ulysses tells us that he's visited a lot of different places with different governments, people, foods, and the like. He portrays himself as some kind of predatory animal, "roaming with a hungry heart." Because he doesn't say "I was like a lion" or "I roamed just as a lion might," this is a metaphor.
  • Lines 19-21: Ulysses compares life to an arch – that's a metaphor again – and explains that the "untravelled world" (death; places he hasn't experienced) gleams through it. The "untravelled world" is likened to some kind of planet or luminous world, which means this is also a metaphor.
  • Lines 44-45: Ulysses directs our attention to the "port," where the mariners are preparing the ship. The ship can't "puff" its own sail; the wind is probably doing it. Attributing human characteristics to non-living objects is personification.
  • Line 46: Ulysses refers to his "mariners" as "souls." The "soul" is part of the body; using a part (the soul) to stand in for the whole (the mariners) is called synecdoche.
  • Lines 56-7: Ulysses tells his companions that even though they're old, they still have time to visit places they haven't already seen. Ulysses probably doesn't have any specific place in mind so "a newer world" is standing in for a host of potential places he might visit; this is another example of synecdoche.
  • Lines 58-9: Ulysses exhorts his mariners to set sail; the phrase "smite / the sounding furrows" compares the act of rowing to hitting or striking something; hitting something that makes a sound is here a metaphor for rowing.
  • Lines 60-61: Ulysses says he intends to sail "beyond the sunset," which is another way of saying he intends to sail beyond the known universe. "Beyond the sunset" is a metaphor.

Eating and Drinking

As the king of Ithaca, Ulysses doesn't have a lot do besides eat and sleep and act as a judge every once and a while. In fact, he's not too happy about just sitting around eating and drinking all day. He's hungry, sure, but for something else. He sees the people who just sit around eating food and sleeping – his subjects – as more like animals than people. This is partly why Ulysses has lost his appetite for ease, tranquility, and regular food.

  • Line 5: Ulysses refers to his subjects as a "savage race," who do nothing but eat and sleep, which makes them more like brutes or "savages," than civilized people.
  • Lines 6-7: Ulysses says he will "drink / Life to the lees," an old version of "live life to the fullest." Living life is here compared to drinking a bottle of something; because "like" or "as" do not appear, it's a metaphor, not a simile.
  • Line 12: Ulysses explains that he's seen so many places because he's like a predatory animal with a "hungry heart." He tacitly compares himself to a lion or tiger, which makes this a metaphor.
  • Line 16: Ulysses refers to his enjoyment of battle as a kind of consumption, a "drinking" of "delight." Enjoying the delight of battle is compared to the drinking of some kind of beverage, which means this is a metaphor.

Stars

Before the compass was invented, sailors used the stars to guide them. Ulysses has done a lot of sailing, so it's no surprise that stars come up several times in the poem. The stars in this poem, however, are always doing more than looking pretty; they have the power to affect things on earth, and they're also handy as metaphors for Ulysses' experiences and desires.

  • Lines 10-11: Ulysses describes how the "rainy Hyades," a group of stars in the constellation Taurus, caused storms at sea. Of course, the stars didn't literally "vex" the sea; Ulysses gives a human attribute to a non-human object, which is called personification.
  • Line 20: Ulysses compares the "untravelled world" to a gleaming object. Though he doesn't call it a star, the fact that it's compared to some kind of celestial object "gleaming" out in space kind of makes one think of a star. Oh, and since the "untravelled world" isn't really a star, the gleaming object or planet is a metaphor for that world.
  • Line 29: Ulysses says it would be "vile" if he were to spend three years hoarding supplies and basically doing nothing. He says "three suns" (the sun is technically a star), by which he presumably means three complete revolutions of the earth around the sun.
  • Line 31: Ulysses here refers to a "sinking star," only it's not clear if that star is the knowledge he's seeking, or himself. Either way, he says "like a sinking star," which means this is a simile.
  • Line 54-5: Ulysses describes the onset of night and the appearance of the stars. Here, the description of night doubles as Ulysses' reflection on his own approaching "night," his own death. The end of a day is a metaphor for death in this passage.
  • Lines 60-1: Ulysses describes how the stars rest in a body of water that the Greeks believed surrounded the earth. He mentions the "baths" of the stars in order to convey how far beyond the known world he wants to travel.

Animals

There are a lot of sly references to animals in this poem, and we're not talking about Ulysses' poodle either. The residents of Ithaca are described as uncultivated people that just eat and sleep and need to be tamed like a bunch of wild animals. Ulysses doesn't want to end up like them, which he sees as a very real possibility if he stays in Ithaca. He wants to be a different kind of animal, a predatory one that wanders around, consuming different places as if they were exotic prey.

  • Line 5: Ulysses describes his subjects like animals; they don't eat, they "feed" like pigs out of a trough. Oh, and they "hoard" too, as if they were getting ready to hibernate. Some unspecified animal is here a metaphor for the citizens of Ithaca.
  • Line 12: Ulysses compares himself to a lion or tiger, "roaming" the seas with a "hungry heart." One of those animals, or a similar animal, is a metaphor for Ulysses.
  • Lines 28-9: Ulysses remarks that if he stays in Ithaca he'll end up just like his subjects, sitting around "storing and hoarding" things as if preparing for hibernation and an unproductive life. Again, some unspecified animal is here a metaphor for Ulysses.
  • Lines 37-8: Here again some kind of animal is a metaphor for the people of Ithaca. They are "rugged" – almost like a stallion that hasn't learned how to wear a saddle yet – and have to be "subdued." Some unspecified, savage animal is here a metaphor for the citizens of Ithaca.