December 01, 2022

#08-259: Tennyson's Ulysses

The Return of Ulysses, by E. M. Synge (1909) (Wikipedia) Note
his old dog Argos licking his hand (just before dying),
one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.

Note: We often hear stories of heroes in their full vigor of life, but don't think about what happens to them when the adventure is over. In this stunning poem, Tennyson does just that with Odysseus, a hero in the works of Homer.

Get Ready: Have you ever read something, or heard a song, or seen a show or film, that you thought was boring, and then--maybe years later--read or heard or seen it again and been surprised by how good it is? What changed, the work or you?

As I grow older I am struck by certain poems that didn't "hit me" as a younger man.

One of these is "Ulysses" by the British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. It records the (imagined) musings of the aged hero Odysseus (here using the Roman form, Ulysses) as he sits by his hearth back in Ithaca.

You may remember that Odysseus was a hero of the 10-year Trojan War, as reported in Homer's Iliad. He was the "clever" one who conceived of the Trojan Horse that allowed the Greeks to enter and overthrow the city.

On his way home after the war he was blown off-course and spent 10 more years wandering the Mediterranean Sea, an experience from which we get the word "odyssey" (the title of Homer's book about his adventures).

Now, however, those 20 years are behind him, and he's bored, judging cases for his people ("a savage race") and thinking of Penelope--for whom he and his son Telemachus strove against 100 suitors--as "an aged wife."

"I cannot rest from travel," he says as he reviews some of his experiences of enjoyment and suffering, "both with those That loved me, and alone," whether stranded on land or fighting stormy seas.

This activity has earned him fame--"I am become a name," he says--but now that it's over, "How dull it is to … rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!" like a sword that has been set aside. "As tho' to breathe were life!" he exclaims: simply being alive is not really living!

He then considers his doughty son Telemachus, to whom he will leave his kingdom. He, Odysseus reflects, will make a good ruler, perhaps because he lacks imagination. He is "centred in the sphere Of common duties." They are different types, he says: "He works his work, I mine."

Now the old hero turns his thoughts to the harbor he can see down below his palace: "There lies the port;" and "the dark, broad seas." He thinks of his sailors, that have "toil'd, and wrought, and thought" with him, always cheerful whether in thunder or sunshine. "You and I are old," he would tell them, but there are adventures still to be had: "'T is not too late to seek a newer world." They will sail west, he says, "beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars" until they reach "the Happy Isles," where dwell the dead, like their old friend Achilles. Although they have lost much, "much abides" as well, and though their "heroic hearts" have been "Made weak by time and fate," they are still "strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. conceived
  2. doughty
  3. dull
  4. a hearth
  5. musings
  6. a sphere
  7. stranded
  8. strive
  9. unburnish'd
  10. yield

  1. give up
  2. stuck
  3. thought up
  4. boring
  5. work hard at something
  6. not polished
  7. field of activity
  8. brave and determined, but boring
  9. private thoughts
  10. fireplace

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 1, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. h; 3. d; 4. j; 5. i; 6. g; 7. b; 8. e; 9. f; 10. a