Reading Tennyson’s Ulysses


Last weekend, while watching the delightful movie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I heard Bill Nighy make a wedding speech that included lines from one of my favourite poems: Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I recognized it immediately and it made me open the poem and read it again. The poem was written by Tennyson in 1833, but not published until 1842. I can’t recall exactly when I first read it, but it was in high school, in the 1960s. I’ve read it many times since.

It’s funny how one can read into a poem something entirely different on another reading. Or the third, fourth or tenth… Well, perhaps not funny as in humourus. Rather it is remarkable. Mysterious. Illuminating. Age, especially, seems to shine a new, different light on words and meanings.

Age is one of the things I think about more these days. Age and mortality. Not in a maudlin way, but rather as in seeing doors open and new paths to explore, making the most of what I have. What age does to us, what it presents, how we manage it. And how others have seen it. With both my parents dead, my own age presses upon me in ways it never did before.

But back to Tennyson. The poem, a monologue, opens:

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.

The poem is ostensibly about Ulysses, the voyager returned from his adventures and his battle in Troy. After ears away, he feels constrained, is restless, and itches to go back out on the road. His home has lost its former glory and seems barren to him. His wife, years older, is no longer the beauty he left behind when he headed to Troy. Conformity bores him, frustrates him. Everything he left behind has changed – himself most of all – and he wants to be the man he was when facing adversity, years before.

But equally it is about us, all of us, as we age. Do we drift into retirement after a lifetime of school and work, to paddle downstream, drift with the current towards death? Or do we itch for more adventure? Are we satisfied with who we ae or do we want to be something else? Someone we once were?

Ulysses was returned to the role of king and despite its trappings, is dissatisfied with it. Power and position have no chains to bind him to the mundane everyday tasks of governance any more. He has lost his connection to the people he rules, and they seem savage to him. Their attention is focused on the ground while he scans the sky.

I often wonder would I be equally dissatisfied had I been returned to council this term, among the “savage race” at the table? Certainly I would have been frustrated and angered as Ulysses by the wooden and uncomprehending heads that populate it now. I would have raged against those who pursue their own private agendas and petty goals – those who “hoard, and sleep, and feed” instead of reaching for higher goals and the greater good.

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
Vext 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.

I, too, will drink life to the lees. What a marvellous line. It reminds me of Dylan Thomas in his words, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” What is life but a long draught from a cup? This is one of the lines I heard in the movie.

Lees, a word seldom heard today outside vintners’ conversations, means dregs: the dead yeast and flocculate of aging. In Tennyson’s day, wine and beer were not the polite, filtered drinks of today. Wine had sediment in the bottom. Ulysses doesn’t care: he will drain the cup of life to its last drop.

Ulysses has seen much, done much, loved, hated, fought, alone and with friends all those years away. Bonds were forged in hardship and battle. He looks back to his past, longingly. Don’t we all? Who can forget our youth when we danced, sang and raged against the machine? But he has become an icon – “a name” – that transcends a mere man. A metaphor. Something other: a skin he must live in. Bigger than life, and smaller than himself.

Which is, again, true of all of us who have trod the stage in some form of public life. Even when the stage is as small as our little town, we become caricatures, symbols for those who hate and love us. We become symbols.

I am a 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 forever when I move.

Everything we have done, everyone we have met, every place we have been remains part of us, as we are part of them. But as we go through life, we travel further and further away from our experiences, from our connections, our family and friends. The past is a distant country, a hazy landscape on the horizon. We squint backwards, trying to recall its former light.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

I cannot imagine turning retirement into a sort of ambulatory sleep, as I see in many others. They stop learning, stop growing, stop playing, stop challenging themselves. They turn sedentary and go to rust like a tool left out in the rain.

No, I will not stop playing music, learning songs, writing stories, learning new skills, reading about new subjects or playing computer games. When I stop, I, too, will rust and die.

As tho’ 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.

Life is more than existence. It’s not simply a matter of faith in some divine plan: there must be more to life than just being here. Breathing does not alone signify living. Every hour must be precious. Every hour pursued with equal ferocity. The alternative is that “eternal silence.”

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had yet to meet a man who was fully awake. To be fully awake, fully aware, fully conscious of every motion, every act, every thought is a very Buddhist notion:

When the Buddha started to wander around India shortly after his enlightenment, he encountered several men who recognized him to be a very extraordinary being. They asked him: “Are you a god?” “No,” he replied. “Are you a reincarnation of god?” “No,” he replied.”Are you a wizard, then?” “No.” “Well, are you a man?” “No.” “So what are you?” They asked, being very perplexed.  Buddha simply replied: “I am awake.” Buddha means “the awakened one.” How to awaken is all he taught.

Few people achieve a fraction of their potential for consciousness. Many people go through their lives in a state of semi-sleep (most, Thoreau said).

In western culture we are discouraged or distracted from such intense self-awareness and encouraged instead to turn off our conscious mind and watch TV instead. Hold to the shiny baubles of entertainment rather than plumb the depths of knowledge. It keeps us happy and stupid, more concerned with what the Kardashians are wearing or who gets voted of the island than things that actually matter. Thoreau wrote:

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. Thoreau: Walden

Ulysses, however, pursues knowledge – including self-knowledge – despite the distractions that new things bring. That is his majesty: he never stops exploring, never lowers his sight, never lessen his horizons. He is willing to learn new things tight to the end of his life.

I cannot imagine not learning, not discovering new things every day. I cannot imagine not steeping myself in whatever topic interests me of late, almost to the point of obsession. Learning is change and not to change is to die.

Yet I know people who seldom, if ever read. Who don’t go to the library. Who make ill-informed decisions based on what they know now, rather than what they could know from a little effort. Who are quick to judge, quicker to condemn, without dipping even their toes into the pond of knowledge that might not conform with their pre-conceived prejudices.

I’m not talking only about  the narrow-minded politicians who sit at the council table these days, safe and smug behind their solid walls of ideology. I know people, local people, who wail and bemoan about the town’s Elvis festival but steadfastly refuse to attend a single event, even the free concert on the main street. They would rather hate than experience, rather criticize than participate. They would rather swallow the poison than learn about it.

I know people here who disparage our new recreational facilities without having once stepped inside one. They prefer to believe in a hate-based ideology spread by others rather than experience them for themselves; people who prefer to condemn and dismantle rather than build. They have become barnacles: rooted to their views, their existence; immutably fixed to a small portion of a much larger world.

When I was young and single, in the 1970s and early 80s, I would take my dates to the only Japanese restaurant in Toronto at the time. None of them had ever tried Japanese food. It was alien to us all then, not the pop culture food of today. I would watch their reaction to each dish. I didn’t care whether they liked or disliked it. My attention was focused on how they reacted to a new experience. Was it a joyful challenge, or something to avoid? Were they excited at something new or horrified to leave their comfort zone? Would they try something or push it away, untasted?

The last time I did that, we spent three hours over the food, talking, trying different dishes, laughing. I had  met someone not afraid to live, to try something new. Not afraid to live. We’ve been together ever since.

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 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.

We all have to pass authority, power to others. We have to relinquish control to family. The aging patriarch has to cede to his son the privileges of kingship. Ulysses recognizes in Telemachus, his son, a slow, gentle decency.

Ulysses recognizes the good in his son,  the good his son does for their people, so he is able to let go. Telemachus is a servant for the greater good. He observes all the forms, all the duties. We all have to pass the torch, but our hope is that it gets passed to a worthy recipient. That what we have lived for, stood for, fought for, will not be ignored or forgotten. But democracy is seldom so kind.

My mother let go of her long life only after she had said goodbye. Ailing and fragile, she held on to see all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren one last time. After that, she lasted but a day. The torch was passed.

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—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.

Ready to set sail, Ulysses calls on his aged crew. All ready, all willing to venture into the unknown, but every one of them – every one of us  looks on the face of death. But there is still some “work of noble note” to accomplish. Never give up, as Tennyson will reiterate in the ultimate line. Age cannot hold them back. As Shakespeare wrote about Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.”

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,
‘T is 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.

Life begins anew with each day. We set sail on adventure every time we awake.  It is never to late to learn, to explore, to discover. Once we stop exploring, once we stop learning, we start to die. But we die regardless. Time cannot be stopped. What matters is how we travel that road. Aware, awake, fighting for what we believe… or just passengers on the boat; someone else controlling the direction.

Not too late to seek a newer world: it is never too late to learn, to explore, to experience. In Canto XXVI of The Inferno, Dante puts Ulysses in the eighth circle of Hell , punished for going too far, for striving too long, for seeking too much:

Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue. Forth I sail’d
Into the deep illimitable main…

But Tennyson’s Ulysses is blind to that threat. What matters is not the destination but the journey. he won’t become a barnacle, even when he is on a throne:

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.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
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.

There’s a line in the movie, Galaxy Quest, in which the commander says “Never give up. Never surrender.” It’s a humourously similar notion to this last line. And who can forget the “to boldly go…” line in Star Trek?

Again, back to Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gently…”  life is to be drunk to the lees. We all die, we cannot defeat time. it is an indefatigable and invincible foe. But it doesn’t mean we have to go passively. Weakened by time but not by will, we must journey forward every minute of every day.

In fact, Ulysses starts out by saying that his and his crew’s fate may be rather prosaic. Gulls may eat their bones. They may reach some paradise. But what matters is the voyage. Life is that voyage. It isn’t a destination.

Tennyson wrote this poem shortly after the death of close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. He would write a much longer elegy to him in Memoriam. Tennyson later said the poem was about his own “need of going forward and braving the struggle of life” after the loss of his friend:

There is more about myself in Ulysses, which was written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many poems in In Memoriam.

My mother died at 95 after a lifetime of troubles and challenges. She never gave up, never yielded, and until her very last days continued to seek, to learn, to discover. In her honour, I cannot do any less. I will drink life to the lees.

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