July 6, 2011

Tennyson's "Ulysses": Do YOU View Aging This Way?

In my rather erudite Parkinson's support group, the Ulysses in Tennyson's poem is often mentioned as an admirable role model for dealing with aging and infirmities. "Poetry challenged," I had to look up the poem and was intrigued enough to do some research about it.

I'm still wondering if the poem is a clarion call for me. What do you think of it? What does it say to you?   

Here's a summary of the background. The text follows.

Only 24 years old at the time, Tennyson wrote Ulysses after the death of his close friend, poet Arthur Henry Hallam, with whom Tennyson had such a strong emotional bond that some have suspected a homosexual relationship. Those close relationships between men were more typical then, and modern commentators -- perhaps lacking that context -- often view them with suspicion (like Abraham Lincoln's bond with Joshua Speed, for example). Hallam's death was traumatic for Tennyson, who wrote: "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."

In the poem, Tennyson has Ulysses (the Roman version of the Greek "Odysseus"), home again in Ithaca, making a speech after his heroic journeys. As he resumes his responsibilities as king, Ulysses is restless and struggling with the infirmities of age. He is driven by "the longing I had to gain experience of the world." And he's preparing to launch a final voyage.

 Here's what Ulysses says:
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.
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 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, 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 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.
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
Tho' 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.

Is that the way you feel? The same? Something different?

If you'd like to hear the speech, here it is:


Bob McMullin said...

It reminds me less perhaps of becoming older than it does of the sense of loss, wonder and hope for something more that we all went through in during the time of plague. 

Today's challenge for me is to eschew wonderlust and the need to assomplish anything in pursuit of a peace that comes for only now beginning to appreciate how full of grace my life has been.

Barbara said...

I suppose I must have read Ulysses when I was in school, but it wouldn't
have meant anything to me then. Now the words "How dull it is to pause . .
." ring very true.

What really struck me, reading the poem, is that, being only 24 years old, how
could Tennyson know so well how it felt to be old.

John said...

I hadn't thought about that. Interesting point.

John said...

Yes, Bob.  You describe one of my reservations about Ulysses as a role model for aging. He seems intent on resuming the fighting and striving of his youth. Like you, I'm happy switching to a more contemplative mode.

Phyllis said...

 Just a note that aged wives probably don't care especially
for aged husbands, either!!


But I'll try to swallow that and go on and read the
poem.  Sounds interesting.



Volalawson said...

I love this poem, and the title of Robert
Kennedy's book "To Seek A Newer World" comes from  a line in
this poem : "Come, my friends,'tis not too late to seek a newer
world."   RFK  meant it as a metaphor for the spirit
of John Kennedy's New Frontier.   Ulysses was bored and wanted to
start his explorations again even he was old and didn't care what happened to
him, and Robert Kennedy had that sense of adventure, and willing to take
whatever risks that involved getting this country moving again.  
What memories of that lifetime agol.