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Monday, September 3, 2012

Number 318: Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "Ulysses"


   It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone on sore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known– cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all–
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! 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 grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

   This is my son, mine own Telemachus
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle–
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered 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.

   There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me–
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads– you and I are old.
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs;
The deep moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulf will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
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.

–Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hap Notes:
   First off, let's get one thing clear: Ulysses is the Latin form of the name Odysseus- this used to flummox me as a kid when reading so I'm telling you something you may know, but Ulysses and Odysseus are the same guy. This is a monologue of the aging Ulysses/Odysseus. So this is the guy who thought up the Trojan Horse in the Iliad (among other things) and on his way home from the Trojan War encountered and blinded the cyclops, ran into Circe, the Sirens, Calypso etc. etc. In other words, this guy had some heart-pounding adventures for some fifteen years of his life. (It helps if you've read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, both of Homer's classics are a constant reference in movies, books, video games, music and more)

Another thing to bear in mind is that although this poem speaks of Ulysses in his older age and seems to be a remarkable and stirring admonition to keep on striving through your retirement years (and can be seen as such) Tennyson wrote this when he was 24 years old. Not exactly an aged old guy. So there's something in this poem for all ages.

I could write a book about this poem (I'm not saying it would be a good book, but certainly chatty) so I'll try to keep this as short as possible since I really want you to read the poem and glean your own gems from it.

In the beginning of the poem, Ulysses is pretty much bored by regular life after having so many adventures. He comes home to rule his people (he was the King of Ithaca) and finds that administrative duties are tiresome and necessary. The "lees" that he wants to drink life to are the dregs in the bottom of a cask of wine, in other words, he wants to drink all of life and its experiences down. This is probably not the profile of a good bureaucrat (breaking off briefly to say that there have certainly been political sex scandals that would put the lie to that statement.)

But the upshot is that Ulysses has seen a lot of the world so his return home to a full-grown son and an older wife is not exactly the happy event he thought it would be as he struggled his way back. Ulysses is an adventurer. He started out by fighting the Trojan War and ends up becoming used to struggle, battle and fresh challenges at every turn. The regular rhythms of home life, after all those years of striving, seem flat to him.  His wife, Penelope, has been famously true to him, yet we should also consider that Ulysses had some go-rounds with some mighty hot goddess chicks. I don't think he's out for more conquests (I think Harold Bloom calls him something like a "sea-faring womanizer") but I do think he's saying that his wife's age reflects on him and he sees his age more clearly (hence all the older guys that dump their wives for their cute secretaries.) He's looking for adventure– new worlds–new knowledge.

His son, Telemachus (which is the Greek for "far from battle") does a fine job with the administrative and domestic chores. He is a different sort of man than his father, who loves him very much but probably doesn't quite relate to him. As he says "He works his work, I mine." Their lives are so different– his son has always been literally far from battle.

Tennyson wrote this poem not long after the death of his best bud, Arthur Hallam. Tennyson came from an odd family, was a sensitive fellow and was physically large (he was well over 6 feet tall) and shy. Tennyson was the fourth of 12 children in his family, which had a good deal of drinking, drug trouble and depression. He was prone to depression himself. He wrote a small volume of poetry with his brother in 1827 which attracted the attention of a literary group of students at Trinity College, Cambridge, called "the Apostles".

Arthur Hallam was the leader of the Apostles who got together every Saturday night and discussed religion, politics and literature over cups of coffee and anchovy sandwiches (eww!) Hallam had gone to Eton where he became friends with (future Prime Minister) William Gladstone. He was supportive of the shy Tennyson's efforts from the git-go. This friendship and devotion to his talent was moving to Tennyson who came from a rather noisy household. They were best pals who laughed together and read aloud and were sympathetic to each other. Hallam was engaged to Tennyson's sister. Tennyson and his wife named their first child Hallam after his beloved friend. Many of Tennyson's greatest poems are written to the memory of his first and truest friend. Hallam was only 22 when he died of a stroke.

Now it's worth noting that Ulysses mentions Achilles. Remember that Achilles goes a little crazy with grief and anger when his friend Patroclus is killed by Hector. Of course Achilles doesn't write a poem about this, he hunts down Hector, kills him and drags the body behind his chariot. In the Iliad, anyway, Ulysses is clever and thoughtful, Achilles is a bit of an angry hothead.

In more recent years, an argument has been leveled that this poem makes Ulysses look like an irresponsible thrill seeker. I suppose there's a certain amount of that in this poem that is undeniable. But remember that once a person finds their calling, all other forms of living look like merely breathing. Ulysses wants to keep exploring and boldly go where no man has gone before (so to speak), even if it kills him. It's preferable to die trying that to give up.

Tennyson himself said he wrote the poem as his own "need of going forward and braving the struggle of life" after losing his best friend and companion. He felt that this poem, even more than his famous "In Memoriam A.H.H." ( a book length poem he worked on for 17 years devoted to Hallam) encapsulated his weary sadness; "though much is taken, much abides."

As to this blank verse poem's effective wording, it's hard to find a spot to excerpt for me since I think the whole poem is a work of incredible art. Even T. S. Eliot said it was almost a perfect poem.

I do hope you'll read it aloud- that's when it comes to life.

The picture is Ulysses on the left and a young Tennyson on the right. 

Here's where we have covered Tennyson before:

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