Ulysses

My oldest brother and sister were in high school while I was still in grade school, and the yearbooks they brought home at the end of each school year were always a source of fascination to me.  The name of the volumes was particularly interesting: Arch.  (At that point in my life, I’m not even sure I knew what an arch was, let along why it would be the name of a book.)  Why the name was chosen was revealed on the front endpaper:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
Ulysses
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It would be several years before a) I came to appreciate the aptness of Arch as the name for a high school yearbook and b) I saw Tennyson’s poem printed in its entirety.  Uncharacteristically for me, I don’t remember when and where it was that I ultimately encountered the poem in full; what matters is that I did.  And it stuck.  (To borrow from Tennyson, if I had a flower for every time I’ve read Ulysses…I could walk through my garden forever.)

Although Tennyson wrote Ulysses in 1833, after the death of a close friend, it wasn’t published until 1842.  Written in three paragraphs of blank verse, the poem is a dramatic monologue delivered by Ulysses years after he has returned home following the Trojan War and his subsequent travels.  He’s restless on Ithaca, and feels he’s not suited to rule a people from whom he is so different.  He recalls his past adventures and yearns for more.  His son, Telemachus, can take over for him so he–Ulysses–can return to sea with his fellow ‘mariners’ and ‘sail beyond the sunset.’

This is obviously the most rudimentary of synopses.  Detailed analyses and explications of the poem abound–in literary textbooks and journals, on the Internet–and address a variety of topics:  Is the Ulysses we hear the one from Homer’s Odyssey or the one from Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno?  Should he be viewed as a heroic figure, or as someone who is abandoning family and responsibility?  Is the entire poem, in fact, delivered by Ulysses from his death bed?  What does it all mean?  Is there a right interpretation?

Tennyson himself, in his Memoir, noted that the poem “gave my feelings about going forward, and braving the struggles of life.”  This has been my experience of the poem as an adult.  For me–and clearly for many others, since they’re so often quoted in print, film and television–it’s the last lines that pack the punch; the key words are strive and seek.  What is life for, if not to seek and to strive….for fairness, for a just society, for knowledge, to be a better person, for enlightenment?   The work continues; the poem is an inspiration to keep going.

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, by J.M.W. Turner
Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, by J.M.W. Turner (1829). The painting is at the National Gallery in London.

(Favorite lines highlighted in blue).

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.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext 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 honour’d 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 wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ 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 gray 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 sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
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.
   There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, 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 honour 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 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.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Tennyson was named Poet Laureate in 1850. He's buried in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Tennyson was named Poet Laureate in 1850. He’s buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Dedicated to LRJ and EMJ.

One comment

  • Absolutely beautiful!
    On a different Ulysses note, I took my senior year Joyce seminar with Marilyn French. She was writing at the time what would later be known as “The Women’s Room.” We became very good friends. She had received her doctorate in English from Harvard and her thesis was on Ulysses (Joyce). Cheers.

    Like

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