Ulysses

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First published in 1842, no alterations were made in it subsequently.

This noble poem, which is said to have induced Sir Robert Peel to give Tennyson his pension, was written soon after Arthur Hallam's death, presumably therefore in 1833. "It gave my feeling," Tennyson said to his son, "about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in 'In Memoriam'." It is not the 'Ulysses' of Homer, nor was it suggested by the 'Odyssey'. The germ, the spirit and the sentiment of the poem are from the twenty-sixth canto of Dante's 'Inferno', where Ulysses in the Limbo of the Deceivers speaks from the flame which swathes him. I give a literal version of the passage:--

"Neither fondness for my son nor reverence for my aged sire nor the due love which ought to have gladdened Penelope could conquer in me the ardour which I had to become experienced in the world and in human vice and worth. I put out into the deep open sea with but one ship and with that small company which had not deserted me.... I and my companions were old and tardy when we came to that narrow pass where Hercules assigned his landmarks. 'O brothers,' I said, 'who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the West deny not to this the brief vigil of your senses that remain, experience of the unpeopled world beyond the sun. Consider your origin, ye were not formed to live like Brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge.... Night already saw the other pole with all its stars and ours so low that it rose not from the ocean floor'"

('Inferno', xxvi., 94-126).


But if the germ is here the expansion is Tennyson's; he has added elaboration and symmetry, fine touches, magical images and magical diction. There is nothing in Dante which answers to--


  Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
  Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
  For ever and for ever when I move.

or


  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.

Of these lines well does Carlyle say what so many will feel: "These lines do not make me weep, but there is in me what would till whole Lacrymatorics as I read".



  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 [1]
  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, [2]
  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, [3]
  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, [4]
  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, [5]
  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.


[Footnote 1: Virgil, 'Æn'., i., 748, and iii., 516.]

[Footnote 2: 'Odyssey', i., 1-4.]

[Footnote 3: 'Cf'. Shakespeare, 'Troilus and Cressida':--


  Perseverance, dear, my lord,
  Keeps honour bright: To have done, is to hang
  Quite out of fashion, like a rusty nail
  In monumental mockery.]

[Footnote 4: How admirably has Tennyson touched off the character of the Telemachus of the 'Odyssey'.]

[Footnote 5: The Happy Isles, the 'Fortunatæ Insulæ' of the Romans and the

[Greek: ai t_on Makar_on naesoi]

of the Greeks, have been identified by geographers as those islands in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa; some take them to mean the Canary Islands, the Madeira group and the Azores, while they may have included the Cape de Verde Islands as well. What seems certain is that these places with their soft delicious climate and lovely scenery gave the poets an idea of a happy abode for departed spirits, and so the conception of the _Elysian Fields_. The _loci classici_ on these abodes are Homer, Odyssey, iv., 563 _seqq_.:--

[Greek: alla s' es Elysion pedion kai peirata gaiaes athanatoi pempsousin, hothi xanthos Rhadamanthus tae per rhaeistae biotae pelei anthr_opoisin, ou niphetos, out' ar cheim_on polus, oute pot' ombros all' aiei Zephuroio ligu pneiontas aaetas _okeanos aniaesin anapsuchein anthr_opous.

[But the Immortals will convey thee to the Elysian plain and the world's limits where is Rhadamanthus of the golden hair, where life is easiest for man; no snow is there, no nor no great storm, nor any rain, but always ocean sendeth forth the shrilly breezes of the West to cool and refresh men],

and Pindar, 'Olymp'., ii., 178 'seqq'., compared with the splendid fragment at the beginning of the 'Dirges'. Elysium was afterwards placed in the netherworld, as by Virgil. Thus, as so often the suggestion was from the facts of geography, the rest soon became an allegorical myth, and to attempt to identify and localise "the Happy Isles" is as great an absurdity as to attempt to identify and localise the island of Shakespeare's 'Tempest'.]




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