nectarhoff: A Slow Reading of Ulysses

A Slow Reading of Ulysses

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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

         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.

         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 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.

I find that the great poems of old can be extremely intimidating. They tend to be dense and because of their age the language used isn't always easy to understand. Memorizing older poems can be very helpful because it forces you to slow down and look at every line over and over and over again. I hope that this slowed-down reading will help make this great poem a little bit more accessible for anyone who wants to read it.

In this poem Alfred, Lord Tennyson speaks as Ulysses, the ancient Greek hero who fought in the battle of Troy and famously sailed back to Ithaca, the island he ruled. In old age Ulysses feels as if he is wasting away “by this still hearth, among these barren crags,”(2) serving people that “know not me.”(5) The abundant use of commas and the listing of similar phrases in this lengthy opening sentence convey how weary Ulysses has become in Ithaca, where “[he] cannot rest from travel”(6). But he proclaims that he “will drink life to the lees”(7) and travel once again. Here, the singsong quality of his statement formed from the consonance in the repeated lilting l sound makes it clear that Ulysses longs to leave his life as a ruler to return to his voyages and adventures; he pines for the “drunk delight of battle…on the ringing plains of windy Troy”(16-17). Tennyson’s use of such vivid, sonorous imagery glorifies Ulysses’s past compared to the “still hearth” and “barren crags” of the present. 

And yet Ulysses is inevitably trapped in the present, where he is forced “to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”(22-23) Following those four bland, repetitive phrases, the exclamation point lends the sentence a tone of desperation and frustration not yet encountered in the poem. Indeed, for Ulysses in his old age, “little [life] remains”(26), and this sincere spout of anguish marks the beginning of a turning point, where Ulysses states that his “gray spirit [yearns]…to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought”(30-32), which is a dressed up and dramatic way of saying that he wants to go back on an adventure. 

In the second stanza of the poem Ulysses describes how his son, Telemachus, will take over for him when he leaves. The first two sentences of the stanza are long and slowly paced through the use of caesurae and multisyllabic words, and in this way they parallel the opening sentence of the poem. Tennyson’s employment of subdued language like “slow prudence”(36) and “thro’ soft degrees”(37) to describe rulership further confirms that Ulysses views politics as unrewarding and uneventful. The stanza ends with a paradoxically soft bang in “he works his work, I mine”(43), as if Ulysses is definitively distancing himself from both his son and the position he will inherit. The pause contained in that one comma alone is so powerful that it pushes the reader on to the third stanza, away from all thoughts of “the sceptre and the isle”(34).

And following that break the tone changes completely. Ulysses is now speaking to “[his] mariners”(45), and each phrase over the next six lines grows longer than the last in a steady crescendo as he inspires them by praising their past heroism. The steadily drilling structure and feel of, “souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me”(46) mirrors the vigor that Ulysses describes. But then, in a break from his praise with an unexpected dash from Tennyson, Ulysses tells his Mariners “you and I are old”(49), and he must now convince them that glory and adventure can only be found on the seas, for “death closes all”(51), and although there is not much time left, “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world”(57). 

With a splash of classical imagery and valiant rhetoric Ulysses entreaties his mariners to “Push off…for my purpose holds…to sail beyond the sunset…until I die”(58-60). The intensity of the imagery steadily escalates before Ulysses’s final battle cry, when he admits that “we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven”(65-67) only to claim that they are an “equal temper of heroic hearts.” But, even if they are “made weak by time and fate, [they are made] strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”(69-70). The steady, monosyllabic, pounding meter of the final two lines sound like battle drums, and the repeating consonance in fine t and d sounds accentuate Ulysses’s call for glory.

- 7/14/14


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