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 speaker opens the poem with these lines (1–5), in which he expresses his frustration with the life he’s lived since returning home to Ithaca. He frames his frustration in part through the language of stillness. As an island-dweller, he’s been forced to be “idle” and to live in a domestic setting that he refers to as “this still hearth.” Ulysses also hints at his frustration with aging. Although he doesn’t reference his own age here, he does mention his “aged wife.” The dismissive nature of this phrase suggests that Ulysses sees in his wife’s age a mirror image of his own physical deterioration. Ulysses seems equally dismissive of his community, to which he refers with the caustic phrase, “savage race.” The people he rules are the very image of greed and idleness, as he suggests when he characterizes their main activities as hoarding, sleeping, and feeding. Yet what’s perhaps most frustrating of all isn’t the people who surround him, but the role he plays among them. As king, he’s charged with enforcing “unequal laws” he had no hand in establishing, and which places him at a distance from his subjects—isolated and misunderstood.

                     Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; 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.

These lines (24–32) close the first stanza. They immediately follow a passage in which Ulysses recollects exciting moments from his past, including his time in the Trojan War. Coming after these moments of nostalgia, this passage marks the moment where Ulysses first indicates his plan to leave his post as king and return to the sea. Although he doesn’t yet spell this plan out explicitly, his impulse to act shows through clearly enough when he references his dwindling years. Even if he had “life piled on life” available to him, it wouldn’t be enough for all he wants to accomplish. And since “little remains” of the one life he actually has, he must devote “every hour” of what remains to seeking out “new things,” thereby putting off “that eternal silence” of death. Given this newfound urgency, Ulysses considers it “vile” for him to have wasted three years (“three suns”) in idleness. Meanwhile, his “gray spirit” has nourished a desire to pursue knowledge “beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Clearly, Ulysses is fed up and ready to break from his everyday reality—a plan he’ll announce explicitly in the second stanza.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

In lines 39–43, Ulysses offers a bit of lukewarm praise for his son, Telemachus, to whom, as Ulysses says in line 34, “I leave the sceptre and the isle.” These lines close the second stanza, where Ulysses has been addressing the community of Ithaca, at once announcing his plan to leave the island and insisting they’ll be in good hands. Here, he assures his people that Telemachus possesses all the necessary virtues to be a good leader. He is “blameless,” “centred,” “decent,” and responsible enough to attend to the “household gods.” Yet for all this praise, it’s quite clear how little Ulysses values the virtues he celebrates in his son. After all, Ulysses has hated the “common duties” associated with being king, whose feminizing “offices of tenderness” and “adoration” offer no opportunities for true, masculine achievement. Given his own emphasis on the lure of the unknown and the pursuit of personal accomplishment, it’s hard to believe that Ulysses thinks that highly of his son. He obliquely confirms his disappointment in what otherwise seems like a diplomatic statement about their equality: “He works his work, I mine.”

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The speaker closes the poem with these rousing lines (62–70), which he directs to the mariners who will embark with him on his final voyage. What’s most remarkable about these concluding lines is less their overall message than the range of rhetorical techniques on display. First, the repeating use of “it may be” is an example of anaphora (ann-AF-uh-ruh), which refers to the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of sequential clauses. This use of anaphora creates a rhetorically effective parallel structure, one that gains additional force through the unusual metrical inversion in the second foot. Here, Tennyson departs from strict iambic rhythm (unstressed–stressed) by making the second foot a trochee (stressed–unstressed): “It may / be that . . .” In the following lines, Tennyson uses another type of parallelism, this time defined by a two-part structure that follows the basic form, “Though ____, ____.” Tennyson uses this structure to great effect by following a compressed version of it—

     Tho’ much is taken, much abides;

—with a much-expanded version:

                               and tho’
     We are not now that strength which in old days
     Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are

Note, too, the lovely repetition “we are” that punctuates the parallelism. Finally, Tennyson closes the poem with a powerful example of rhetorical climax, which involves arranging lists in order of increasing importance: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”