Monday, 15 August 2011

Poems I Like #2: Ulysses

I would quote the whole of Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, if I thought I could get away with it.  However, since it would probably double the size of my review, I won’t.  The first time I read it I was rendered speechless.  I wanted to run out and show it to everyone I knew, to point and say look – this is how it’s done.  However, if it doesn’t strike you the way it struck me, I can appreciate that.  Not everyone enjoys metrical poetry, and not everyone is moved by Tennyson’s particular brand of it.

For those who don’t already know, ‘Ulysses’ is Odysseus, hero of the appropriately-named Odyssey and lovable trickster in the Iliad.  He conquers and/or flees from great dangers on the way home from the Trojan War and settles back into an idyllic family life in Ithaca.  The aging Tennyson set his poem years later, when the aging Odysseus grows sick of peaceful life and sets out on one last voyage – into the sunset, basically.

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.

The opening lines of the poem introduce us to Odysseus’ voice: evocative, majestic and harsh.  The unrhymed iambic pentameter lends him a kingly cadence, enhanced by images of ‘barren crags’, a ‘still hearth’ and a ‘savage race’.  The unsettling dismissal of his ‘aged wife’ is offset somewhat by his claim that he is ‘matched with her’; charitably, this means that he, like her, has grown old.   The people he rules are similarly dismissed as a rough group of people, characterized by the desire to hoard, sleep and feed. The five lines are viscerally bitter – from ‘It little profits’ to his condemnation of himself as an ‘idle king’, to the judgement of his wife and people, to the dragged-out double-spondee growl of “...and know not me.”

Odysseus goes on to tell the reader a little about how interesting his life was before he began to stagnate in Ithaca – ‘Much have I seen and known’ and so forth – in a section which contains some of the best images of the poem.  ‘Always roaming with a hungry heart’ is one; ‘Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy’ is another.  While avoiding the letter-perfect pentameter of, say, Alexander Pope, Tennyson’s meter is regular enough to create a soothing effect.  Words pile on words as the booming voice of Odysseus rolls over the reader with his story.  The story ends, and the poem’s tone changes from reflective to inspiring:

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 gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The tone is almost frantic.  Enjambment in lines three to five creates a sense of breathless urgency that fits the meaning, as if Odysseus were falling over himself to explain why he needs to leave.  I cannot exactly explain why the last three lines of this section strike me as so beautiful.  The image of a ‘gray spirit’ plunging like a shooting star over the horizon – perhaps, but that falls short of the poem itself.

Perhaps conscious of the heights of poetic fancy reached thus far, Odysseus falls back for a stanza to describe his son, Telemachus, who will take over the rule of Ithaca.  There’s a fairly Platonian claim that by a slow and prudent rule he’ll improve his rugged subjects.  Odysseus and his son are very different people, the one an adventurer, the other a dutiful citizen, and the last lines of the stanza acknowledge that: ‘he works his work, I mine.’

Let’s move to the final section, which rises to a crescendo of rugged determination:

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.

I could cite the strengths of this last section; perfect meter, the dash after ‘we are’ letting us take a breath before the end, the series of commas in the final line neatly cordoning off each metrical foot; but knowing these things didn’t increase my enjoyment of the poem.  That, to me, is the purpose of criticism; if any critical article doesn’t make a poem more fun to read, drop it right away. 

If you’re more bemused than bedazzled by my love of this poem, then I guess I can’t really explain it to you.  But if, like me, you’re left with a sense of wonder, then look.  This is how it’s done.


  1. Nice interpretation. Helpful and interesting, thank you.

    What I like about the poem is that, when reading it, it never occurs to me that it was not written by Odysseus.

  2. That's an interesting point. I suppose one of the main reasons I like the poem is that Tennyson gets the voice absolutely perfect.

  3. I discovered Ulysses earlier this year and like you I'm completely smitten by it. And until I saw your review I didn't understand why. Thanks for your insight.