A later poet said 'Old men ought to be explorers'. What do you think he meant by that? Do you think he would have approved of the Ulysses who speaks in this poem? What would be your own assessment of Ulysses' character?

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Naomi Burrell

Year 12

4th March 03

A later poet said ‘Old men ought to be explorers’.  What do you think he meant by that?  Do you think he would have approved of the Ulysses who speaks in this poem?  What would be your own assessment of Ulysses’ character?

Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses was written in 1833, which although was actually before the Victorian era began (in 1851 with the year of the Great Exhibition), still contains many of the changes in thought that were common during the time.  For the first time publicly, the idea that God created man was essentially questioned through the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species.  He explored in depth, the revolutionary theory of ‘evolution’ and the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’.  Not only were there these scientific explorations, but the Victorian era was also a time of huge industrial development, detailed exploration into technology allowing this to be possible.  ‘Well-educated women’ were beginning to go to University (though not yet to be awarded degrees) and were demanding the vote.  There is no doubt that these profound changes and discoveries had an influence on the writers and poets of the time, Lord Tennyson included.  

However, this later poet has made a profound statement about being an ‘explorer’, where firstly one needs to establish what he may have meant by this word.  It seems to me that he may have implied it in the broadest sense; someone who researches or investigates anything, whether it be a scientific thesis, a philosophical question, areas of the world, or even one’s own personality.  Also the poet specifically chose ‘ought’ as though there is an obligation, or a duty, to become one of these explorers, or perhaps that one might be seen as foolish or failed if one does not spend time in one’s final years exploring something.  Being a ‘later’ poet, he would have been able to look back and see the revolutionary ways that peoples’ every day lives had changed due to the discoveries made during the Victorian era.  Although there were of course destructive or depressing sides to the Industrial Revolution, for example the poverty in the slums, if so many positive things could be brought about through the good work of these explorers, then surely this exploration should continue, surely everyone should be exploring for constructive reasons, s/he might have argued.  

Yet, there is also the fact that the poet says ‘Old men’.  I think s/he is trying to make a point that the older one gets, the sooner one needs to get on and discover one’s interests in life, search deeper into existing interests, to see the sights and places that one has always wanted to see, and to search deeper into life’s meaning, purely as death is increasingly more likely.  As one ages therefore, coming back to the obligatory nature of the statement, one ought to be fulfilling these things and exploring for personal benefit, self-rewarding reasons or to have yet more new experiences.  

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However, on the other hand, the poet may well also have been referring to it as an obligation for old men, for the benefit of others.  S/he might think that age give all sorts of qualities to a person that are often not fully appreciated.  John Burroughs certainly praises the aged, in his Psychology of Age says, ‘The old man reasons well, the judgment is clear, the mind active, the conscience alert, the interest in life unabated’.  He explains how although one may be physically more ‘sluggish’, and although the memory can often fail you, mentally one may still be ...

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Approximately half of the essay consists of generally thoughtful and sensitive comments on old age. Unfortunately this cannot be rewarded in terms of marks - only detailed and perceptive analysis of the poem can be credited. The wording of the question was not helpful in that it seems to encourage 'approval' for Ulysses when what is really required is a balanced consideration of the positive and negative aspects of his character as revealed by the dramatic monologue form and the language choices the poet has made.