The word quest is defined as “a journey of inquest, an act or instance of seeking, or a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance usually involving an adventurous journey”. (Merriam-Webster Online) It is obvious that those who go on a quest are simply unhappy with what they have, but the reasoning behind that is not so clear-cut. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is a perfect example of a text that depicts a person on a quest, but there is more to Ulysses. He is not just looking for something; rather he is on a mission and being on a quest is the only thing he can do.
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According to the poem “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, there are two types of people in the world. The first type is the Mariner, and the second it the wedding guest. A Mariner is an explorer or someone who need to be in constant motion while a wedding guest is happy to settle down and live an ordinary life. Ulysses would be categorized as a Mariner. He is the type of person that cannot be idle. In fact it may seem that he is scared to do just that. Ulysses wants to be a legend, and that is not achievable if one is idle.
It is qualities like these that make Ulysses not only a man on a quest, but a questing hero. In “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” the term Mariner refers to an agent who is better suited for the exciting life of new experiences and is looking to find their own happiness in comparison to a wedding guest who is content to just enjoy what comes their way. Ulysses is without a doubt a Mariner. He wants to look beyond what he has and what he knows in order to find more. In order for him to be happy with his life he needs to be in motion, constantly looking for something new and extraordinary.
Ulysses would much rather “drink life to the lees” than to live an ordinary life. He is not a man who can simply “hoard, and sleep, and feed” without any type of adventure or excitement. Still, beyond only wanting excitement, Ulysses also seeks knowledge. “Ulysses insists upon following beyond the utmost bound of human thought” (Joseph) in order to feed his “hungry heart” and fill his “free forehead”. (6-32) Clearly Ulysses is a man who wants to set out and find his own happiness.
His “Itineracy is always driving (him) to leave the place at which he has arrived or where he finds himself; exploration is always causing him to seek to arrive at the place of which he has heard the doubtful report”. (Nohrnber) This goes back to the idea of Kubla Khan’s “pleasure domes” in which the questing hero, who seeks knowledge and happiness, must go out and find it for themselves. Hearing about what can be found is not enough to satisfy the questing hero, he wants to be the one to tell the stories. It is evident that Ulysses wants this for himself.
He wants to live an exciting life, the life of a Mariner. It is obvious that Ulysses fits the mold of a Mariner but it can also be said that he is a person who is afraid to be idle. This could be a contributing factor to why he is on this eternal quest. Common people, like Ulysses’ son Telemachus, are content with being idle. They are “centered in the sphere of common duties”. While Ulysses’ “Mariners (are) souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with (him). There is nothing wrong with being either type of man, Ulysses even says “he works his work, I mine”.
Still, for Ulysses the thought of being a man who does common things and settles down is frightening. He is not suited to be “matched with and aged wife”. He would much rather rebel against all boundaries. He is “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. For Ulysses the idea of being a hero is contradictory with the thought of being idle. The second line of the poem reads “By this still hearth, among these barren crags”. This addresses Ulysses belief that a hero cannot be still. (2-70) “Tennyson’s questers “move,” like Ulysses, through space and time in order that they may” find what they seek. Tucker) Ulysses sees the value of the two different types of people, meaning those who are happy with being idle and those who are not, but knows that he must not be idle.
This variety needs to exist for civilization to thrive. However, normality is something that is simply unacceptable and boring when one has experienced all that life has to offer, like Ulysses has. He fears that if he stops questing he will miss out on opportunities and become a man who is happy with the common things in life. This type of man is no hero, which is what Ulysses strives to be.
Ulysses, more than anything else, wanted to be a legend. It is important for him to leave some kind of legacy behind. He wants to be remembered for the great things that he did over the course of his life. This notion is addressed repeatedly throughout the poem. Multiple references are made to the fact that Ulysses is getting older, which could make his want for a legacy even greater. The most apparent reference to this idea is at the beginning of the poem. The speaker says “I am become a name”. In hindsight, Ulysses’ assertion “I am become a name” seems to boldly predict the title and prevalence of
Tennyson’s poem: “I am become the name of this famous poem,” or even “the name of a quintessentially British poem attaching to an epic Irish novel. ” Or Tennyson’s speaker may refer to his Greek name’s extension into the title of Homer’s return-epic, or its translation into the Latin Ulixes. (Nohrnberg)In any case, it is clear that being a legend is important to him. Ulysses knows he is changing and that “though much is taken, much abides”. He is a questing hero and he will not let his “gray spirit yearning in desire” stop him from searching for “knowledge like a sinking star”.
He knows that “death closes all” and so he cannot leave any rock unturned. Ulysses says “tis not too late to seek a newer world”. This seems to be the mantra that he lives by. Ulysses wants to make the most of life by experiencing all it has to offer. He doesn’t see any time as being too late to do what one wants. He knows he is getting older and is not happy about it. “Resolved “not to yield,” Ulysses resists the blandishments of retirement, or the incapacitations of old age”. (Nohmberg) He does this by not changing the way he lives.
Rather, he presses on with his quest. It is easy to think that a person who is on a quest as simply running away from things; someone who cannot handle their life for whatever reason. Ulysses, however, possesses qualities that make him much more than a man on a quest. He is a questing hero. He is a Mariner; an explorer. He is someone who is in search for knowledge and true happiness. He sees the value is looking beyond the ordinary and wants the extraordinary. Ulysses knows that if one is idle he will not be able to experience all that life has to offer.
Although he appreciates the value of those who are content with settling down, this life is not for him. In fact, it scares him. One does not become a hero or a legend by settling down. Being a legend is something that Ulysses yearns for. He wants to leave a legacy behind because he knows his time is limited as is getting older. If everyone were to know his name he would live forever. Ulysses seeks his immorality by continuing to quest, despite his age. He is a person who will not settle for mediocracy. He wants the most out of life and is not afraid to look for it, which is what makes him a questing hero.