Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I guess I’m a bit of a cliché. I do like Tennyson a lot. One of my favorite poems by him (and ever) is “Ulysses.” I might have discovered it watching James Bond…but probably not.

Anyway, it’s a long one, so I just want to talk about the overarching themes of this poem.

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,
The bold words are meant to draw attention; he refers to himself as an “idle king,” with an “aged wife,” as the ruler of a “savage race.” So right away the speaker’s-the famous Ulysses/Odysseus– growing dissatisfaction is obvious.
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.
Farther down the poem, Ulysses reminisces about his adventures travelling the world and battling in Troy. He spent so much time trying to get home, but now he finds that he isn’t happy there any longer.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

….

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.
While in another line Ulysses calls Telemachus beloved, it’s obvious that he deems his son too soft, too used to kingly and good duties versus Ulysses’s roaming ways.
……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,
Ulysses dissatisfaction may run deeper than he reveals; while he seems to be unhappy to be stuck at home, perhaps he is also feeling robbed of his youth. After all, he spent 10 years in the Trojan war, and another 10 trying to get home. By the time he returned to his kingdom, his son was an adult and he was middle-aged.
Finally, the famous last lines:
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 lines are often touted, like in Skyfall, and seem like strong, powerful lines to push forward. But read with the rest of the poem, they carry a defeated tone, one that will push forward even as he begins the end.
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