TREASURES OF THE PAST #3 TENNYSON’S “ULYSSES”

BLOG #19, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

TREASURES OF THE PAST #3

TENNYSON’S “ULYSSES”

May 9, 2012

 

Last week, in discussing our Book of the Month, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, I also referred to Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” generally considered to be the greatest poem on aging ever written.  It was so considered by three generations of our family, namely my maternal grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger; my mother, Barbara Leininger Wheeler—and I have inwardly mined its wisdom all of my life.

 

The untimely death of his dearest friend and soulmate, Arthur Hallam resulted in a spiritual earthquake that permanently darkened Tennyson’s inner skies.  Not only did it result in the greatest ode in the English language, it also resulted in Tennyson’s writing a poem that almost defines the aging process long before its author reached his own twilight years.

 

Tennyson’s persona is no less a person than Ulysses, the lead character in Homer’s immortal Iliad and Odyssey.  Ulysses, who, after fighting the Trojans for ten years, roams the Mediterranean world for another ten years; only then, returning to his long neglected wife Penelope, and kingdom of Ithaca.  But Tennyson goes beyond Homer in this marvelous creation: a titan who finds “business as usual” impossible to endure after having lived and interacted so long with kings, queens, warriors, and Greco-Roman gods.  Indeed this restlessness has resulted in his rounding up all the surviving warriors who accompanied him on his sojourns and battles, and enlisting them in one last adventure, one from which none will return to Ithaca alive.

 

In this monologue, Ulysses explains to us the reasons why he is embarking on this third and last quest.  He has thought of everything and everyone (with the notable exception of his long-suffering wife Penelope); he has turned over the reins of government to his much more prosaic son Telemachus, and has his crew ready to launch out into the deep.

 

First of all, he explains to us all why he must go—his restlessness; his hunger to fully live again (not merely exist); his yearning for action; for fighting against overwhelming odds; for making a real difference in his interactions with all those he comes in contact with; for learning, for becoming, for experiencing, everything life and the gods may throw at him.

 

Then in the poem’s powerful conclusion, Ulysses details his personal Bucket List: all he hopes to accomplish before he and his mariners sail off into the sunset.

 

This is one of those poems that so grows on you that each year of your life that passes, the lines and imagery will embed deeper into your psyche.  In short, properly internalized, the poem will revolutionize the rest of your life.  At the least, post it on your wall, or, better yet, memorize it:

 

ULYSSES

 

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched 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 [dregs].  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

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 honored 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 untraveled 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 scepter and the isle—

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

This labor, 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, centered 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 honor 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.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

THE CHANGING SEASONS

The snow is falling again as I write these words.  Another reason for living in the Colorado Rockies.  In fact, the two seasons are slugging it out, as the golden aspens (at peak only a week ago) are clearly reluctant to surrender the field to the forces of winter, but they have no choice in the matter given that each season is as inexorable as incoming and receding tides.

We’ve been waiting almost half a year for this moment: when once again it is safe to build a fire in our moss rock fireplace.  If the truth must be told, when we moved back to Colorado in 1996, the real estate agent had been given a list of 30 priorities (what we valued most in our new home).  At the top were: It should feature serenity, a view we’d never tire of, lots of snow, and a wood-burning fireplace.  Today we get to revel in all four.

OUR BLOG WORLD

Our daughter Michelle and agent, Greg Johnson, joined forces two years ago to drag, kicking and screaming all the way, this dinosaur of the ink and paper age, into the new digital age.  “You must blog!  Thus was born the weekly blog, Wednesdays with Dr. Joe,” which has continued unbroken even during that hellish period when an unscrupulous predator hacked into our world and shut us down.  We have no idea how many readers we lost during that traumatic period.

What I have discovered is that blogging is such a new construct that there are few entrenched norms—unlike tweets where a Procrustean Bed of 140 spaces preclude deviation length-wise.  As you have discovered, I joined the ranks of those who prefer the longer format.  It’s really much like the weekly column I wrote once, “Professor Creakygate,” for the students attending Southwestern Adventist University.  Once you establish a rhythm, it’s just a matter of not breaking it.

Given my penchant for longer blog series (the Northwest National Parks, the Southern Caribbean, the Zane Grey convention in Virginia, the Trembling World, and the upcoming series on the Southwest National Parks), I have discovered that long series where I dwell on a subject for months at a time can put my voice into a straitjacket which precludes me from speaking out on hot current issues.  Because of this, I hereby announce that this time, expect periodic breaks; but rest assured, always I will afterwards resume the series topic.

OUR TWEET WORLD

I held back as long as I possibly could—until my agent held my feet to the fire long enough to risk ignition—on adding the tweet dimension to our lives.  On October 1, I started daily tweets, concentrating on quotations chosen from a half century of collecting (hundreds of thousands).  Not just quotations, but quotations that help make sense of this thing called “life.”  Speaking just for myself, this hectic life we live virtually guarantees that we will break down unless we turn to a Higher Power than ourselves and also seek wisdom from others who have learned much from the batterings of the years.  These hard-earned nuggets of thought and insights end up providing us with just enough strength and courage to face each day.  Changes of pace too, for without changes of pace (such as humor) in our thought-processes, we become warped or petrified.

During my 34 years in the classroom, one aspect was a constant: a thought written with chalk on the blackboard each day.  My students looked forward to something new that greeted them each time they came in the door.  Also, I have since discovered that many of them copied those quotes into their notebooks and have lived with them ever since.

I’m an avid collector of quotation compendiums.  Some few I find worth the price; many, if not most, are not (merely quotations flung onto paper, without regard to their relative power or effectiveness).  I don’t know about you, but what I hunger for most are quotes that make me think, that make me re-evaluate my own habits and inter-relationships, that end up making me a different and better person than I was before.

I also realize that we are each fighting off electronic strangulation; so much so that we try something new with great reluctance.  It is my earnest desire that you will find these tweets worth the time it takes to check them out each day.

MY PERSONA

For years now, my agent has been trying to hammer into my thick head this message:

Our old world (paper and ink-driven) is changing by the nanosecond.  While books are likely to always be with us, they will never reign supreme as they have during the last six centuries.  Like it or not, electronic books will continue to expand their reach.  What this means is that the old templates will no longer work like they once did.  Your persona is no longer captureable just in traditional print.  But rather, you owe it to your “tribe” [people who are kind enough to listen to what you write and what you say] to speak out about life and values multidimensionally: through paper and ink books [75 so far], through public speaking, through media appearances on radio and TV and book-signings, through your blogs, through your tweets, and through all the plethora of new communication technologies.  Only by keeping up with all this as best you can, can your unique voice (your persona) have any chance of remaining alive during coming months and years.

And since I do wish to stay in contact with all of you, I am committed to continuing to create books (traditional and electronic), blogs, and tweets.  Do let me know if all I’ve articulated in this blog makes any kind of sense to you.

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Next week, we will transition through the abstraction of travel toward the Southwest parks and lodges.

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