Study Guide

Ulysses Exploration

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Exploration

For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known – cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments (12-14)

It's strange that Ulysses describes himself like a predatory animal, especially when we recall that he criticizes his subjects for being like animals (5). To "roam with a hungry heart" implies that he is attempting to satisfy a bodily desire; in the poem such desires or necessities are often likened to a kind of death, as in the line "as though to breathe were life" (24).

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move (19-21).

"Untravelled world" suggests a land to be explored or conquered; in one reading, that world is death, and Ulysses wants to leave it unconquered, so he keeps moving, prolonging his eventual visit there. In another reading, the "untravelled world" represents all the places he hasn't yet visited; all those places and death are conflated in a way that makes us wonder about the consequences of Ulysses' exploratory urge.

Life piled on life
Were all too little (24-25).

Ulysses' desire is insatiable, and he says that several lifetimes wouldn't be enough for all the things he wants to do and places he wants to go. The well-known sentiment expressed here, however, gives way to a larger critique about the order of the universe. Indeed, Ulysses implies that the boundaries nature has set – the terms of a lifetime, even of many lifetimes – are much too narrow for man's desire. It is almost as if man's desire is out of place in this world, too big for it.

But every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; (26-28).

Earlier in the poem (20-21) Ulysses described the ways in which he could forestall death by continually moving; here he again refers to being "saved / From that eternal silence," but he doesn't tell us how it happens. Each "hour" that Ulysses is spared from death brings him "new things," new adventures, etc. He implies that the possibility for exploration is in the nature of life; whenever one doesn't die, "new adventures" or "something more" appear of their own accord.

And vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought (28-32)

In the same way that death and all the places that Ulysses wants to visit are conflated, so here the knowledge Ulysses seeks is combined with his own aspiration. "Like a sinking star" could refer to some fleeting knowledge Ulysses wants, or to himself! The suggestion is that the desire to explore "beyond the utmost bound of human thought" leads to death and makes one a "sinking star."

Come my friends
Tis not too late to seek a newer world (56-7)

"Newer world" is an interesting world; Ulysses might mean a world that is "new" to him, but there's also the suggestion that he's looking for a world that isn't as "old" as his is. Perhaps he means a world that isn't as primitive as Ithaca, where the citizens are no better than beasts; in this reading, Ulysses is attempting to find a more evolved place, one where he might feel more at home.

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