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Antidote: A Reading of ‘Ulysses’ by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Classic Poetry for Modern Life

By Christopher Nield Created: July 5, 2011 Last Updated: September 13, 2012
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(Liza Voronin/The Epoch Times)

(Liza Voronin/The Epoch Times)

Ulysses

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 untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.


—Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)

 

When should we put our feet up and retire? Decide that we have already seen all that life has to offer and spurn the rest? Sit in our chair and prepare for the final curtain?

‘Never,’ says the Greek hero Ulysses in Tennyson’s dramatic monologue. He is already an old man, long since returned from the Trojan War and reunited with his wife, the patient Penelope. Yet he is bored stiff. In this section from the poem, Ulysses asserts that he “cannot rest from travel.” He cannot abandon who he is. The dull business of kingship and governance are not for him; he was made for the ocean waves and adventure.

Ulysses is not someone for whom a cup is either half full or half empty. No, the cup must be drained “to the lees”—to the very dregs. Life for him is not the pursuit of happiness, but of intensity. He has “enjoyed greatly” and “suffered greatly” too. He has brought every possible nuance of experience to its utmost pitch.

When he recalls times with “those that love me,” he is perhaps thinking of his sojourn with the nymph Calypso, who kept him hostage while he longed for his wife. When he eventually escaped, he washed up naked and alone on the island of Scheria, seemingly abandoned by gods and men. In a magnificent pause, Tennyson evokes the hero gazing upon the “rainy Hyades” as they “vexed the dim sea.” Here we should imagine the stars rising in the night sky through the “scudding drifts” of clouds as a prelude to rain.

As if emerging from a sea-mist, the voice of Ulysses makes the superb claim: “I am become a name.” Even in his lifetime, he has joined the immortals. His achievements mean the man has long since been obscured by the legend. This may remind us of today’s celebrities, whose fractured lives belie their global fame—their notoriety as much a nightmare as a dream.

Ulysses boasts that he has been the most “honoured” guest at every table, but we feel the constraint the well-mannered “councils” and “governments” has put on his “hungry heart.” Throwing off his regal detachment, he affirms his “delight” with “battle.” His rousing phrases bring the “ringing plains of windy Troy” into our imagination; suddenly we stand with him on the battlefield, matching blade with blade. As a summary of everything that we have heard, Ulysses declares that he has been a “part of all” that he has met. He has never shirked from the challenge of each moment. Yet life has a cruel twist in store.

This section concludes with three of the most haunting lines of poetry perhaps ever written. Repeat them and commit them to memory now, for they express an eternal truth of our existence. Despite all of his triumphs, Ulysses is left dissatisfied. Why? Because every time we try to reach the horizon, it slips away. The “gleam” of “that untravelled world” is both a blessing and a curse; a promise that will always inspire us and also always disappoint. The words “for ever and for ever” melt away on our tongue, leaving us with an echo of sadness and longing.

Is Ulysses a tragic figure? His character is a powerful mixture of arrogance, bluster, impatience, courage, pride, and majesty. With his insistent, self-assertive “I,” he is impetuous, imperious, and irrepressible. As the poem continues, he admits that “death closes all,” but avers that it is “not too late to seek a new world.”

The literary critic Harold Bloom has written that he turned to this poem in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. And while Ulysses can never be said to be a figure of wisdom, his indomitable spirit remains admirable. It is impossible not to be moved by Tennyson’s final lines in which the classical hero admits that although made weak by “time and fate,” he will swear “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, and is still considered one of the most eminent poets of the English language. His most famous poems include The Lotos Eaters and The Lady of Shallot.

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