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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ulysses - Lord Alfred Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crag,
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 less.  All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on share, 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 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 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 foreheads0 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 gulfs 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.


Ulysses' final lines are among the most inspirational lines of poetry I've encountered.  While I know a few people who cannot stand the notions of Romanticism in poetry, the plain language of men past their prime still seeking to seek more is very powerful, I think.  The notion that the journey is never over, and that there is nobility in pushing beyond one's time and means is breathtaking.  The last line in particular, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." always excites me, making me want to seek out my own fortune.  While I'm not about to sail off into the sunset, the message applies to any life.

I'm no classicist, so I can't properly speak about Tennyson's appropriation of the Ulysses figure for his poem, though it still strikes me as somewhat problematic.  While the Homeric hero is a symbol of exploration, he is not a good life model.  The character of the Homeric hero and the Ulysses in the poem are very different.  I do not think that this matters so much in the overall scheme of the poem, however, and think that Tennyson titled the poem Ulysses to give it an air of grand adventure, of facing the unknown, and of approaching the mythic.

I'm a sucker for inspirational Romantic poetry.  What about you?  Are you moved to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield?  Or do you gag at the prospect of the elderly king seeking to live new glory days?  Let me know.

1 comment:

  1. Hell yeah "Ulysses" was always one of my favorites, Tennyson rules. I like to think of this one as a reassessment of and response to "The Lotos-Eaters" that he wrote I think a couple years before this one. This blog owns btw, keep posting

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