Goofing around with Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Goofing around with Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

“Ulysses” (1842) by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) is written in blank verse (ten lines of iambic pentameter: unstressed, stressed, unstressed, .. stressed), the same meter scheme as Shakespearean drama.

The poem is an aged Ulysses (the Roman name for Odyssesus, a hero of the war against Troy in the Iliad and for wandering lost in The Odyssey) speechifying. He’s now back in his kingdom (Ithaca, where he’s king), and feels like shoving off for one more grand adventure.

It begins with a short paragraph assessing his current situation: sitting around ruling a bunch of morons doesn’t suit him. The narrator then spends a longish paragraph recounting and reveling in and philosophizing upon his travels — how they’ve affected and shaped him, and how the promise of more adventure and more life calls to him. In the third paragraph he succinctly and kind of dismissively makes the moral case for leaving his kingdom in his son Telemachus’s hands: The kid’ll be fine for the grunt work of running a kingdom — he’s a good sort, though clearly no HERO; “Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere of common duties, …” ; “He works his work, I mine”. In the final paragraph he addresses the port, the vessel puffing her sails, his aged mariners, and the promise of one more final boundless adventure, fit for old heroes, too restless and life-overflowing to finish their final years on solid ground: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It is a beautiful, inspirational poem — so long as one identifies with the heroes. Otherwise, one feels kind of like another loser toiling nonstop on the shore, trying to keep it together while the king once again goes adventuring with your tax revenue. And what has Odysseus the hero really accomplished in the last twenty years? Ten years were spent sacking, destroying, and plundering Troy because Helen preferred Paris to her husband Menelaus. Another ten were spent wandering lost in the Aegean. Is there even any plunder left by the time Odysses and his crew creep back into port? The whole enterprise was vainglory, and the nonheroes cannon-fodder for the magical timeless splendoring heroics.

I love this poem, because I democratize the glory: we are all together Odysses and his mariners, and we explore right here in Ithacus, seeking Beauty in art and shared laughter, and the Good in our daily lives and the ordering of the state. I love this poem because in my version, Telemachus has adventures too, both in port and the sea; and none of his explorations require pointless violence. I love this poem where Telemachus, Penelope, Odysses, his mariners and town- and field-folk become one and become all of us; and all together we become a name and we plunge like Fate into the scudding fray.

Here I goof off at the periphery of the poem, but my laughter is sickened, is biled, is jumbled and lost in the fussing of wave against wave and wind flailing all. You see, I’m annoyed at Odysseus for boldly demanding Agamemnon burn his daughter Iphigenia to death to enliven the winds and send the hundred ships of young men against the walls of Troy, and I’m generally disgusted with the whole crew: what a stupid, self-indulgent caper they enacted far on the windy fields of distant Troy!

It little profits that an idle king,
Worn scepter loose in withered sailor’s paw,
While Ephigenia yet flames above
Her holy, breeze-unleashing virgin’s pyre
And Troy forever smolders where her sons
Had giggled, boasted, toiled, played; had sang
Tall tales of heaven-defended Troy.
The valiant and otherwise son’s of Troy
Shall always scream, turn, moan beneath a sky
So clear, so bright, so full of gods and light.
These remnant women, hustled onto straw —
Enslaved to kiss the heavy manly hands
That ran their fathers, brothers, husbands too —
That slew their sons right on through.
Left-over hags in finespun rags, as young
And ripe as plunder ought to be — they live
Eternal deaths in wave-crushed ships, or soft
Dry beds that smell of strange men who won.

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
This setting sun, her golden halo round
A soft pink baby belly. I will drink,
For I’m grown old, my muscles lag and flop,
I headlong fall before the mighty charge.

Having here abandoned my answer-poem, since I dropped the question and found myself alone with the bumblebees, I’ve nothing left but to reprint the original poem, which, as I’ve said, I’ve always liked, and still do like, even if I can’t help but think that heroic adventures drenched in blood and pride are best left unstrung. Unstrung, OK: but now the bow’s long spent: surely there’s no harm that it’s sung! No, well, to some degree every work of art is an archaeological — dig, to some degree an artist catches the Beauty, and to some degree he catches the trappings of his time and place. The nice thing about the spirituality within literature is that it is not perfect, not sacred, not all or nothing.


Eve Dee Struuk’Cion

“Ulysses” by Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd 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 shore, 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 part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever 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 sceptre and the isle –
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, 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, 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 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 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 that 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.

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