Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is about a character who features prominently in two other great works of Western European literature: Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey and Dante's Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Italian epic the Divine Comedy. Tennyson adds layers of meaning to his poem by alluding to what the reader may already know and expect about the character of Ulysses. Sometimes the poem reinforces the reader’s existing impression of Ulysses, sometimes it goes against it.
Tennyson’s Ulysses has certain key features in common with Homer’s Ulysses (called “Odysseus” in the Greek poem). Both are clever, adventurous men who are defined by their travels around the world. At the opening of Homer’s Odyssey, the narrator says, “Many cities of men [Odysseus] saw and learned their minds” (Book I, trans. Robert Fagles). Tennyson seems to allude to this line when he has his Ulysses say, “Much have I seen and known; cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments.”
But the two stories differ about what Ulysses/Odysseus most desires. In Homer’s story, Odysseus has been gone from home for 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War and then getting lost at sea, and his greatest desire is to return home to Ithaca, to his wife and his son. At one point, the goddess Calypso holds Odysseus captive on her island and offers to make Odysseus immortal and allow him to stay with her as her lover, saying that Odysseus’s wife cannot be nearly as beautiful as she is. Odysseus replies, "All that you say is true … Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you, / your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all / and you, you never age or die ... / Nevertheless I long—I pine, all my days— / to travel home and see the dawn of my return.” Odysseus shows affection and loyalty to his wife; he doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that she will have aged. He rejects Calypso's offer because his greatest desire is to return home.
In Tennyson’s poem, by contrast, Ulysses dismisses Penelope as “an aged wife” and Ithaca as “barren crags.” Far from desiring to be home, he declares, “I cannot rest from travel.” He even misses the days of the Trojan War, when he “drunk delight of battle.” Readers most familiar with Homer’s version of Ulysses will be surprised at these changes in Tennyson’s version.
Readers might be less surprised, however, if they are most familiar with the version of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno. In this poem, Dante and his guide Virgil travel through the nine circles of Hell. In Canto XXVI, they come to the Eighth Circle, where fraud is punished, and find Ulysses. Ulysses’s soul has been condemned for the fraud that he perpetrated during the Trojan War. But Ulysses may also have been condemned for wishing to have knowledge beyond what is appropriate for human beings. In explaining how he died, Dante’s Ulysses says, “not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty / toward my agèd father, nor the love I owed / Penelope that would have made her glad, / could overcome the fervor that was mine / to gain experience of the world / and learn about man's vices, and his worth” (trans. Robert Hollander). These lines reflect the sentiments of Tennyson’s Ulysses, who wishes “[t]o follow knowledge like a sinking star.”
In Dante’s story, as in Tennyson’s, Ulysses then urges his former crewmates to join him on another voyage, telling them, “do not deny yourselves the chance to know — / following the sun — the world where no one lives … you were not made to live like brutes or beasts, / but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Tennyson’s Ulysses also rejects the beast-like lifestyle of the Ithacans who do nothing but “hoard, and sleep, and feed.” He urges his crewmates in similar terms to accompany him to “untravell’d world,” sailing “beyond the sunset,” in his quest for knowledge.
But just as Tennyson’s Ulysses wishes to follow knowledge “[b]eyond the utmost bound of human thought,” Dante’s Ulysses also trespasses past the pillars of Hercules, a landmark at the Strait of Gibraltar which was understood in antiquity to “mark off the limits, / warning all men to go no farther.” Both men want to test the limits of human possibility. In Dante’s version, this leads to disaster: after sailing past the pillars, Ulysses and his men encounter a storm, and the sea sucks their ship down. In Tennyson’s version, the reader does not see the outcome of Ulysses’s voyage, but Ulysses does say, “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down.”
For a reader familiar with Dante’s story, this line is an ominous foreshadowing of the death that Ulysses and his men may very well encounter on this voyage. The reader may also wonder if Ulysses will end up condemned, as in Dante, for his recklessness, or whether he will be honored in “the Happy Isles” (a realm like heaven in Greek mythology) for his courage and daring.
These allusions add layers of meaning and interest as readers question Ulysses’s values: is it better to cherish home and family, or to seek glory and adventure abroad? Is it admirable or pridefully ambitious to test human limits? Is it reckless or heroic to risk your life and others’ in a quest to test those limits? The different stories of Ulysses suggest different answers, and so Tennyson’s allusions force readers to struggle with these questions for themselves.
The entire poem constitutes an extended allusion to other works of literature, in that the character of the speaker is drawn from those other works. We have highlighted those portions of the poem discussed here, which provide particularly important parallels to the source texts.