Feb 3, 2010

"Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson




Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

As Brenda requested yesterday, here is Lord Tennyson. I hope a few people can use a memory refresher on the famous "Ulysses." It's a fine work and makes an interesting companion to Richard Wilbur's "Still, Citizen Sparrow," posted here two days ago. Both poets see heroes as solitary figures who do work that others cannot (Tennyson) or will not (Wilbur).

Tennyson's Ulysses speaks of his citizens in much the same way Wilbur sees sparrows or carrion, and Ulysess wants none of it:

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 . . .

His son, Telemachus, tries to bring order among these ruffians (or sparrows and Wildebeests, if you read Monday's visitor comments). For that, Ulysess offers a supreme example of damning with faint praise (the "He" is Telemachus): "He works his work, I mine." I hear, "Telemachus is a good boy, and somebody has to carry out these dull functions, but I'm too lofty for that." (I wonder if Richard Wilbur would have made Telemachus the hero of this poem . . .).

Here is Ulysses' famous conclusion about setting out for one final adventure:

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.

And here is one way to paraphrase the guts of Ulysses' monologue, taken as a whole: "I am Ulysses The Great, adventurer, warrior, hero, bored with daily life among mere citizens. I was made for greater things, even in old age, wandering till I drop." Are we hearing gallantry we should admire or arrogance we should judge?

"Ulysses" is a dramatic monologue, in which the speaker is an identified character in a dramatic situation. Such a poem is like an excerpted speech by one character to another in a play, or one end of a telephone conversation.

Professor Robert Langbaum has said of dramatic monologues (especially Robert Browning's) that they are not likely to produce a feeling of resolution or tidy conclusion in the reader, but a tension between sympathy (which involves respect, not condescending pity) on the one hand and judgment on the other (usually judgment in a moral context).

In cruder terms, it's okay to feel in part that Tennyson's Ulysses is a wonderful old leader, full of spirt and spunk; but he's also an egocentric, bombastic old fart. He's not one or the other; he's both, though each reader might tilt one way more than the other.

When Ulysses speaks of "unequal laws" for a "savage race," isn't that admirable realism from a man looking back over his life? Surely any leader of any society has, with cause, felt that way about his people. And surely we must respect an important man who, in his final years, says with conviction:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world . . .

But the same guy has a patronizing, if not contemptuous attitude toward his dutiful, responsible son and toward the citizens in whose name Ulysess carried out his great adventures and became heroic.

In short, the sizing up of a human, even one widely accepted as a hero, is complex; it's not a greeting card. That's probably true for every serious piece of literature in which characterization is a factor.


And so, on a lighter note, it is for both good reasons and bad that we might urge senior citizens to climb into the Winnebago one more time and "Hit the Road, Jack." Behold now the other end of the aging spectrum:

YouTube - Hit The Road Jack - Sungha Jung
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2 comments:

Brenda's Arizona said...

This poem has been totally ruined for me by Rod Blagojevich's speech.
"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Blago used it ALL wrong, and now I am tainted... all I see is the 'bombastic old fart".

Never having met Blago, I am not part of him (I am a part of all that I have met...). It just tainted me for Ulysses now, too.

I hate being such a sucker.

BANJO52 said...

Brenda, I think you should hang in there if you like the poem. There will always be bad guys who like a good thing for all the wrong reasons, and that line, "He works his work, I mine," has a million possibilities (of course, for misuse as well as good use).

I've heard that Wagner and Neitzsche--though no saints or paragons of good sense--might have objected if they knew a creature like Hitler would attach himself to them.

Lovers' Lane