01 June 2010

Tuesday Poem: Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1833)

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 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.
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 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 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.

Tim says:

I like dramatic monologues, a form much beloved of Victorian poets, and this is my favourite. What I like about it, apart from the fantastic lines and memorable images - the section beginning "Come, my friends" most of all - is the intriguing contrast between the jut-jawed Victorian heroism of the poem's surface and the doubt and weariness beneath.

The final line of "Ulysses" stands as Robert Falcon Scott's epitaph, inscribed on a wooden cross on Observation Hill in Antarctica, but in fact the entire poem, in its mixture of doubt and determination, stands as a fitting epitaph for Scott, the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration, and the classical notion of heroism.

Check out all the other Tuesday Poems here.


lillyanne said...

Thank you so much, Tim - you pick great poems as well as writing them. This is one of my favourites too.

LentenStuffe said...

The dude 'abides'. Nice choice, apt remarks.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, lillyanne and LentenStuffe.

Helen Lowe said...

Hi Tim--love the poem! I've always liked Tennyson's "The Lotus Eaters" as well. And have been working on my own Ithaca Conversations sequence--you selected two "The Trojan Shore" and "Homing" for JAAM 26 and "The Wayfarer" is on my website. Am enjoying the sheer variety and selection we're getting with the Tuesday poems--and by visting the sites get to look at other great poems 'in the margins', such as Helen Rickerby's Empress Elisabeth. Adored that poem when I read it!

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Helen. I am excited to hear that you are working on an "Ithaca Conversations" sequence, and will check out "The Wayfarer". As well as publishing individual poems, do you have plans for the sequence as a whole?

Two of the poems in my forthcoming collection, both unpublished as yet, make some reference to Tennyson's "Ulysses". Neither of them, it is safe to say, demonstrate much in the way of classical learning...

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be a "Tuesday Poet" when Mary first broached the idea, but I am so glad I decided to take part - I've read lots of excellent poems, started some fascinating conversations, and even sold a book or two!

Helen Lowe said...

Tim, I think the Tuesday Poem is a great initiative, so great that I interviewed Mary for Women on Air and will be putting the interview on podcast tomorrow (I'll send you the link.) Re the Ithaca Conversations, it's a work in progress but could be a 'pamphlet' or chapbook "one day" maybe--except that we don't really do Chapbooks and Pamphlets etc here the way they do in the UK ...

So glad you've sold a few more books! :-)

Rona Gallery said...

great poem, great writer, great choice. Begins and ends with brilliance...and so should we all...

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

susan t. landry said...

i agree with your favorite section, come, my friends... so lovely and inclusive: to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars...
thank you!

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, "art-gallery" (I'm guessing the initials RP or AP, but please correct me if I'm wrong!) and Susan. "Ulysses" speaks to me more directly than most of the poetry I've read from that era, and I'm pleased that it strikes a chord with other people as well.