Sunday Poetry: Ulysses, by Lord Alfred 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 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 honoured 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
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 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 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, 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 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.
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.

- by Lord Alfred Tennyson

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What kind of guy is Ulysses, as portrayed by Tennyson?

When I was in high school, I risked the disciplinarian by vulgarly describing him as a “kick-ass guy” (it was a different time and place, where the word “ass” would normally draw a rebuke), and so it seemed to me at the time. For those in their teens, confident of their abilities and bolstered by the flattery of college admissions, what could better express our destiny than a call to be “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”?

Older now, I see the same things, but I hear the arrogance and self-centeredness that probably made that “aged wife” he was matched with view the prospect of his fatal final journey without a whole lot of regret. I wonder at his mentioning that his savage race subjects “know not me”, and why it means so much to be known by people he dismisses so summarily. Likewise, his “blameless” son Telemachus will probably offer to carry the baggage of Ulysses down to the shore.

To give him his just props, Ulysses had done the things of which he speaks. He went to Troy, and his adventures on the way home are legendary. Ulysses is the real deal, and, having seen and done the things he’d seen and done, it’s not surprising that he would get a little grumpy after three years of sitting around the house.

For those of us who read this poem when we were 16, and reread it now approaching 50, it’s both a rebuke and an inspiration. Yes, indeed, it is still entirely possible that “Some work of noble note, may yet be done,”, even if we haven’t quite lived out the dreams we had when we were 16. Tennyson is quite correct that “all experience is an arch wherethrough Gleams that untravelled world” – even if our arch of experience is a little less grand than Ulysses’, there’s more work and more to see ahead.

And while I have not quite drunk “life to the lees”, I can still “suffer greatly” if I describe the person I look forward to the uncharted future with as “an aged wife”. Most of us are more like Telemachus than Ulyssss, and that’s probably best for the world.

One Response to “Sunday Poetry: Ulysses, by Lord Alfred Tennyson”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'd never read this poem before. I found it to be profound. Thanks for posting it.

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