To My Students Reading Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

When reading poetry, or any literature, we want to avoid several erroneous assumptions.  First, we often think that what we already know is all that’s valuable or worth knowing.  In other words, we may think that whatever we don’t currently understand isn’t really important.  Thus, for example, if we have not heard of Achilles, Homer, or Virgil, then we may consider such things not meaningful or worth knowing.  Also, why bother with ancient literature and all those hard-to-pronounce proper names?  Or why bother reading in that “old way of speaking or writing”?  Second, we often think that something worth learning ought to be easy or accommodate our personal feelings.  Third, we may think that literature written before our lifetime–or outside our cultural familiarity–is basically irrelevant to present day life.  Fourth, we may think that anything worth understanding must relate to us somehow.

Regardless of these assumptions, we would greatly benefit by approaching poetry with open and inquisitive minds.  That means we do not quit reading or listening when we arrive at something we don’t know or find enjoyment in.  And we don’t expect a simple or definitive answer, because such things are rare as we pay attention to the ambiguity of language.  Poetry requires us to think, puzzle over language, and study words and the rhythm of words.  Poetry requires us to consider words and sound images.  And it requires us to make informed judgments based on textual evidence.  Great works of art and literature require much of us: active reading and participation.  Clear eyes. Open minds.  Sensitive hearts.  Our opening a book is not like turning on the television.  If we are reading, then we’re thinking, because reading requires thinking.  If we’re not thinking, then we’re not properly reading.  If we’re not thinking, then we cannot possibly care about what we’re reading.  If we don’t care, then quite simply we’re missing out on opportunities to discover truth and wisdom.  I want to invite you, as the speaker in Alfred Lord, Tennyson’s famous poem “Ulysses” does, to experience realms of possibility “beyond the sunset.”  That is,  allow yourselves to use your imagination to discover new ways of expression, ways of being, forms of life, and unmapped geography.

Let’s take a brief look at the closing lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s famous poem “Ulysses.”  Have you read the lines aloud?

Come, my friends.
‘T is 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.

We discussed these lines in class.  If you recall, we started a “fact / idea” list.  In writing your paper, what are the next steps?

We began an analysis by breaking the poem into manageable sections, looking at complete syntactic units.  In analyzing a poem, we primarily examine language: word choice, denotation and connotation, figurative language, rhetorical style, sound and rhythm, and imagery.  What does it mean to say that it’s not too late to seek a newer world?  This line is spoken by a persona who has already seen plenty of the world and has experienced many trials.  He’s an expert in the ways of adventure and heroism.  In that way, the line may be slightly off-putting for us.  What have we experienced or accomplished with our lives thus far?  Have we lived the kind of heroic life that Ulysses led?  How would we find out what kind of life Ulysses (Odysseus) led?  What books should we read to find out?  What shall we do with our dreams?  Why isn’t Ulysses content with the lulling lifestyle of late retirement?

We may be content with our current way of life, daily routines, or safe decisions, but the persona in the poem invites his companions to seek a newer world.  This requires that the traveler recognize certain facts: departure is not simple or easy, and it’s easier in the saying than in the doing.  It’s always easier to stay at home on the couch.  It’s always easy to “talk the talk.”  Complacency and banality require very little action and hardly any effort; furthermore, these attitudes lead to few rewards and lazy ignorance.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked,  “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

The persona in Tennyson’s poem encourages his friends to commit to action and finally haul off and do it.  Nothing worthwhile is easy to do, nor can it be accomplished in full by venturing only half way.  Thus, the mariners must work as a team, rowing in unison, smiting the sounding furrows.  But he reminds his friends that the endeavor must conform to “my purpose.”  He takes charge and leads the mariners.  There can be only one pilot.  Why?

But where does he lead them?  His purpose holds to sail “beyond the sunset” and “the baths of all the western stars.”  Look carefully at the language: “smite the sounding furrows,” “my purpose holds,” “baths of all the western stars.”  What’s the affect of these word combinations?  What sounds are evoked?  What do these words lead us to conclude?

What does the persona acknowledge?  What is he risking?  Does he risk failure?  Why?  Do you think he has experienced failure before, and if so, then why would he be willing to experience it again?  Does the persona acknowledge weakness and vulnerability to suffering, pain, or even death?  Is he willing to die of old age?

Remember, these are men who have striven with the gods.  What does that mean?

These are men who are strong of will.  They don’t quit.  They aren’t as young as they used to be, and aren’t as physically strong as they were as young men, but they act with “one equal temper of heroic hearts.”

Examine the rhetorical climax at the end:

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.

Here, I am reminded of my 67-year old bodybuilder friend Harold.  He competes, lifts weights, and doesn’t quit.  In my mind, he’s a hero.  He resists time and fate, and I have witnessed him strive with the gods.  In the words of Dylan Thomas, he “rages against the dying of the light.”  He seeks new ways of knowing and new possibilities by challenging himself, both mentally and physically.

Ulysses and his fellow mariners have striven with the gods.  As one strives with the gods, the impossible, he does not consider yielding to self-doubt or the ills of mortality.  Through adversity he will fight on, and he will not allow logistics or the details of following through with a decision stop him.  With a restless heart he follows his dream, and that dream could be his last.

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