Friday, June 11, 2004

Ulysess, by Alfred Lord Tennyson(1809-1892)

This has become one of my favorite poems. The more I think about it, the more I like it.
Here's a link.

Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson(1809-1892)

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.

In this first stanza, we can see that this is not the young Ulysses but a much older one, who is not very happy with his lot. He feels that his subjects take him for granted.

Ulysses was gone from his country (Ithaca) for twenty years. While his fellow warriors might see him as a brave, resourceful leader, the people who stayed home might not see him that way. This is reinforced in the next few lines.

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
Vest 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.

Ulysses looks back on his life. He was a man amongst men. A trusted, cunning warrior and a beloved leader of men. In the plains of Troy, he lived and walked with the greatest Greeks of his age. What a feeling that must have been! To know that you are in the presence and indeed are one of the greatest of your time. He has travelled a lot and has seen much. All this has left a mark on him, as can be expected.
For such a man to have to rule people that 'hoard and sleep and know not me' must have been trying.

I am 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 for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!

This is a most eloquent description of Wanderlust.

As tho' to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all to 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.

The last three lines are really beautiful. Here, the purpose of the poem is finally revealed. Ulysses wishes to leave his kingdom and to travel again. Travel, for its own sake.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
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.

Ulysses abdicates in favor of his son. And, soon, we see what his plans for the future are.

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-

Ulysses' love and pride for his men shows through clearly here. He has assembled those that remain of his old crew to go on a final voyage, and apparently, all his buddies are here. These men are clearly not among those that are referred to in the first stance as 'That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.' That description of his subjects is contrasted with the description of his mariners 'that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me'. Now we know why he prefers his mariners to his subjects.

you and I are old;
Old age had 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.

Ulysses acknowledges that his fellow adventurers are old and weak, but is determined to do something worthy of their past '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.

Ulysses and his men know that they might never return. Indeed the tone of the poem suggests that they don't wish to return. They want an end worthy of their lives. Not for them a death on the sick-bed.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the 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.

These lines are so moving. A fitting finish to a beautiful poem.

I love the fact that Ulysses is not crying about the times past. He looks back, not with longing, but with pride. He knows that he (and his men) have accomplished great deed that will live on forever, long after they themselves are gone. He has fulfiled his duty as a king and his successor is ready.

All that he wishes to do now is to go forth again with his friends. He does not seek to recapture his youth, but to accomplish something worthy of his greatness. 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world'!

Ulysses wants to travel. He is tired of the repetetiveness of his life. He wants to feed his wanderlust, knowing full well that it can never be slaked. He seeks adventure, purely for its own sake, not for any other motive. 'To follow Knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought'.

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