The Poetry Appreciation Chat: Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

What's this? The Poetry Appreciation Chat is a (hopefully) weekly series where we pick a poem and discuss it on chat. You can read more about how and why we decided to do it here. You are always welcome to join our discussion in the comments.

This week we decided to go with a Victorian poem, Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson, published in 1842. We had a great time discussing it (...and Mad Men, and the British Empire and aristocrats in conjunction to it). This series is shaping up to be the most fun thing we do for the blog. You can read the poem here/scroll down and then below you have our conversation about it.

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 for ever 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.

The Poetry Appreciation Chat

[This was edited format-wise (uniting lines, adding proper punctuation, fixing typos, deleting bunch of smileys, that sort of stuff). Our goal was to keep the conversation as close to the original as possible, while making it easier for people to follow, so we tried not to edit it content-wise.]
Claudia: Okay, let's start. We should probably begin by saying that we chose Tennyson this week because of the Victorian Celebration event.
Alexis: Yes, indeed. But the relationship to Bloomsday doesn't hurt. Literary hitchhikers that we are :)
Claudia: Oh yes. So, I picked Tennyson today because in Ulysses, that I've been reading this weekend, Joyce refers to him as 'Lawn Tennyson' and it amused me. I don't think Joyce really liked a lot of these 19th century guys.
Alexis: Eh, that's Joyce.
Claudia: So we went with Alfred, Lawn Tennyson and the title of this poem works well with the Bloomsday theme too. But the Victorian connection is there as well. Tennyson was very important in the Victorian period. He was the Poet Laureate for more than 40 years. We read the wiki, so we know :P
Alexis: Very impressive. ALSO, can we talk about he was the first writer raised to the British peerage b/c of his writing?! Clearly, that's a dream come true!
Claudia: I knew you'd latch on to that, British-aristocracy groupie.
Alexis: I mean, if I was British, oh how I'd work to be a great, great writer!
Claudia: Haha. Yes, that's the only thing keeping us from writing. The fact that we are not British and can't be rewarded by the Queen.
Alexis: "Why are you so passionate about writing?" "Well, one day if I'm really good... I might become a baroness!"
Claudia: But does that still work anymore? I mean, Salman Rushdie, he's a knight, not a baron. I think Dame Alexis is the highest you could go?
Alexis: I don't know, probably. Because it's all political these days...
Claudia: (Or because no one cares about the aristocracy anymore, but shhh...)
Alexis: Sigh. Anyways, so Tennyson was well-loved by Queen Victoria...
Claudia: Yes. And he was Wordsworth's successor...
Alexis: And he held a prominent place in the Victorian British society...
Claudia: this very odd job of being the Poet Laureate
Alexis: ...and writing odd poems about foreign royals coming to visit. Again, this would be a great job.
Claudia: You would enjoy it.
Alexis: "Her tiara sparkles with brilliance."
Claudia: We should write to the Queen. If someone is needed to write a poem about royalty, we have the right person here.
Alexis: AND I share a birthday with Tennyson!
Claudia: It was meant to be.
Alexis: But on to the poem itself. I'm really glad you picked it. I enjoyed it greatly. So many great images!
Claudia: Yes. So, we have Ulysses. He returned to Ithaca and he's basically having a midlife crisis.
Alexis: Yes, he's filled with wanderlust and regret. I had a very interesting reaction to this poem actually. Because, reading it – the sense this poem conveys about his search for adventure, about never being satisfied, always seeking new horizons etc. etc. I found myself nodding along and thinking "Oh yes, that's such an American concept!" But of course it's not at all. It's just a strange way in which our cultural lens comes into play here. Because that's so ingrained in how we Americans approach the world, I immediately was just like "oh sure, I gotcha, Ulysses!"
Claudia: Such an American concept? From a Greek written by a Brit? :-P
Alexis: Exactly, it doesn't make sense. I'm not trying to say it was meant to be read that way. Only that it can be read like that, coming from the American literary tradition (and culture) that's obsessed with adventure, manifest destiny etc.
Claudia: You know, it would make sense if we thought of the US as the 20th century equivalent of these empires. Because you already have two empires in this poem. On one hand, you have the Greeks with Ulysses. But on the other, you have the British Empire of the 19th century.
Alexis: Who were pretty well in love with manifest destiny in their own right. "The sun never sets on the British Empire" and all that.
Claudia: Yes, and it can definitely be read in that key. That Tennyson is using one empire to talk of the other. But I was thinking, and this partially came from wiki too (there were some discussions about irony there) -- To what extent is this an ironic portrayal? Because Ulysses is basically old. And yes, he keeps craving adventure, but isn't that a little deluded of him? Doesn't this poem say the opposite of what it appears to say, in the end?
Alexis: In some ways. You know, it makes me think about the concept of exile or alienness. For Ulysses, he's an alien to life in his own land. He doesn't belong and there's a restlessness there.
Claudia: Which can definitely happen if you're away for so long.
Alexis: It seems like he doesn't belong anywhere – that he only belongs when he's pursuing something new. I mean, clearly I must quote the most important show of our time here –
Claudia: MAD MEN. I called it!
Alexis: OF COURSE. I'm not going to go all "Ulysses is Don Draper," I promise :-P But there was a great quote recently on Mad Men: "What's happiness? Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness." Which I think encapsulates this feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction really well.
Claudia: Yes, that's exactly it. And starting from this Don Draper comparison...
Alexis: Oh no, don't get started. Now I'm envisioning Ulysses in a three piece suit, smoking on his boat.
Claudia: ....and looking inscrutably miserable as he does so. But returning to our comparison, since we all know that Don EXCELS at family life, it was interesting to see how Ulysses relates to Penelope and Telemachus.
Alexis: Oh yes, the "aged wife." Ouch.
Claudia: She's too old for him now.
Alexis: That is very Don Draper of him.
Claudia: And what strikes me here is that he thinks his son is less adventurous than himself. It really makes you think of how this journey affected Ulysses. How he was in a state of arrested development almost. I don't think he accepts his age.
Alexis: Well, there's a certain element of disdain for those who are comfortable living this "land life." And I think that's evident in his discussion of his son. It's like "Oh, he'll be a decent king...he has the temperament for it. Whereas I, the brave Ulysses..."
Claudia: Yes, and it's very ironic in the context of the Trojan War stories, where they had to drag Ulysses to the wars, because he was just so content working the land on his tiny island.
Alexis: It's also an ironic spin on the idea of kingship and duty. So Ulysses' true calling and duty was to be the king. And yet he views his adventures as the more noble, majestic calling - his true duty.
Claudia: I wonder whether the Victorians saw this as well. How this is problematic.
Alexis: It's almost pulling apart these two key elements that mattered deeply to the British Victorians: kingship and empire. It's putting them in opposition to each other.
Claudia: IT IS! I love this idea! This should be an empire that rules the seas while at the same time keeping a firm hand on things at home.
Alexis: "Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/Britons never will be slaves."
Claudia: The monarch should perform both these functions, but here you get Telemachus and Ulysses opposed to each other. And Ulysses is so dismissive of his people too: "a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me." So yes, taken seriously, I'd say on a political level this is dynamite. It probably wasn't perceived as such, but wow.
Alexis: It's interesting, isn't it? Do you think that these kinds of themes are something that we pick up on easier from our 21st century perch? Because it seems rather subversive ... but would the Victorians have seen it that way?
Claudia: And did Tennyson intend for it to be read that way?
Alexis: I mean, this is the man who will be the Queen's Poet Laureate, so this poem obviously didn't pose a problem. I don't think our interpretation is a wrong one-- I think it's valid. but it must not have been an obvious one. And of course the story of Ulysses was even more known back then and the classics were just de rigueur, so I could see a Victorian reader thinking "Oh, it's quite a lovely poem about Ulysses." and leaving it at that.
Claudia: Yes, and I had no idea of this, but apparently the idea that Ulysses WILL go on one final journey after returning home was in the Odyssey.
Alexis: Oh, I see.
Claudia: I think it ultimately depends on how you read this poem, if you go for the general, political meaning or for a more personal one. I read it at a personal level. I do this with poems, I constantly stop to ask "IS THIS ABOUT ME? ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT ME HERE???" And, reading it this way, I very much liked these lines:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
Alexis: Oh yes, just lovely. I loved the ending. It was beautiful.
Claudia: I didn't like the ending. And Ulysses' sailors were actually dead... and Tennyson probably didn't know this, so it's just sad all around.
Alexis: Oh I liked it! It made me think if he was truly setting off on a new journey or if it was a metaphorical journey, about him moving towards death.
Claudia: I thought of that too. I think it's both, actually. Because I don't think he'll ever be able to stop. So this is the last journey and it will stop in death, even if it's not death itself. That last part actually reminded me of Dylan Thomas and Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.
Alexis:  Yes.
Claudia: Oh, and this was pretty too, in a very obvious fashion:
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Alexis: I liked this part a great deal:
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.
Claudia: Oh, that is quite pretty.
Alexis: Almost reminded me of a Whitman O Pioneers! thing. See? America, it's everywhere! :)
Claudia: Yes, and on that note, we should really wrap this up. We really ran on about this one. Looking forward to the chat next week!

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