The speaker of Tennyson’s poem is Ulysses, a man who’s perhaps better known among modern readers by his Greek name, Odysseus. Tennyson uses the Romanized name of this legendary figure, whose story is most famously told in Homer’s great epic, the Odyssey. That work recounts the harrowing ten years it took Ulysses to sail home after the end of the Trojan War, thwarted and tricked at every turn by cunning gods and demigods. Tennyson picks up after Homer’s story ends, returning to Ulysses about three years after his return to his home on the island of Ithaca. Now aging and restless, Ulysses has grown disenchanted with his life as Ithaca’s king. This role has reduced him to little more than an administrator, presiding over a complacent community. His work consists mainly of enforcing laws that he had no hand in creating, and which he personally believes to be insufficient and unequal. Even worse, his position places him at a remove from those around him, making him feel distant and disconnected. Unable to live this way any longer, Ulysses decides to hand the reigns over to his son, Telemachus, and embark on one last sea voyage.

Ulysses speaks in the first person throughout the poem, but it isn’t always perfectly clear whom he’s addressing. In the first stanza it seems like he’s speaking to himself, ruminating on what brought him to this point in his life and working out what to do next. As the poem progresses, however, his address appears to shift outward, first to his subjects and later to his mariners. This shifting address is unique for a dramatic monologue, most examples of which imply a single, consistent addressee. That said, the poem is very similar to other dramatic monologues in the way the speaker’s words unintentionally reveal important aspects of his character. For instance, despite his ennobling message about the need to pursue knowledge and experience, it’s clear how little Ulysses values his family and community. He offers eleven lines of lukewarm praise for his son, and he all but dismisses Penelope, his “aged wife” (line 3). He’s similarly dismissive of his community, which he deems “a savage race” (line 4). Meanwhile, he spends twenty-seven lines waxing poetic about the adventurous life, and another twenty-six lines exhorting his mariners to action. For all his nobility of spirit, Ulysses also reveals a fundamental egotism.