The Madeleine Project: Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a quiz for you: name one contemporary politician who inspired you to read a poem in its entirety.

For me: Ted Kennedy. It’s not a route to poetry I’d taken before (or since), but Kennedy’s invocation of Tennyson’s great dramatic monologue, Ulysses, at what was a clearly a watershed moment in Kennedy’s life, made a huge impression on me when I was twenty years old.

It was Tennyson to whom Kennedy turned in his keynote speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, a speech in which it was clear he would never be president, having failed to gain his party’s nomination. This is what he said:

“And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again.

And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:

I am a part of all that I have met
Tho much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are —
One equal temper of heroic hearts strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

I know there are a lot of things you can say about Kennedy, but when I was twenty I didn’t know anything about his many weaknesses. When I heard him speak, I understood that he was bidding farewell to some idea of himself and embarking on a new course, one he both welcomed and feared. And I think I also knew even then that I was listening to one of the last political figures who could comfortably refer to a long-dead poet in a significant speech. That he did so without apology or fanfare, as though this was the proper way to go about explaining himself, is something I have never forgotten. When I was twenty, one of my fears was that I would not be a good enough reader, surrounded as I was by a university full of practiced, confident readers. Kennedy seemed to be saying that one need not feel that way. That poetry belongs in a lot of places, not just in the academy. And from this, I came to see that we can trust our reactions to poetry; that there is no reason why we may not find our own meanings in what we read, without fear that we are not sophisticated enough to read properly.

Tennyson wrote this poem after the death of a loved friend. And it’s possible to hear, in the voice of Ulysses, Tennyson’s own struggle with loss and death. It’s also possible to misread the poem as nothing more than an exhortation to “carry on” in the face of sorrow. But there’s more than that going on. Ulysses is old and his life is nearing its end. His son is carrying on business in Ithaca. That all voyages take you closer to death is something Ulysses understands quite well. And he knows his next journey won’t take him back to Ithaca. He welcomes it anyway, celebrates it even — knowing that this is what it means to be human, hard as that can be to bear. And I think the poem suggests, and certainly it suggested to Kennedy, that although we leave behind ambitions and loved ones, they are still part of who we are.

What I found, after reading this poem, quite slowly, because that’s how you have to read it to really get it, is that the poem moves me still. Twenty years ago, the poem was about something I didn’t quite understand. Now? Well, it makes me want to read the Odyssey again. And it makes me admire Ted Kennedy, a terribly imperfect man, who’s held fast to some things that matter to him, including Tennyson and poetry’s power to console us and teach us how to behave in life’s difficult moments.

Here’s the 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,
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
Vest 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 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 breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all to 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 had 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 the 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.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1842)

9 thoughts on “The Madeleine Project: Tennyson’s Ulysses

  1. Tennyson, by my standards is a master.

    Thanks — I hadn’t read this in some great time. It was a wonderful gift you have given us all.

  2. I like very much the lessons about poetry you talk about here — that we shouldn’t be afraid of it and our own readings of it, and that it belongs in many places, not just the classroom. Very, very true!

  3. Interesting challenge, but the answer is easy: not one. Politicians do inspire me to creative use of foul language, maybe even to the extend of becoming poetic.

    And I love this poem, hadn’t read it before (to my shame, of course.) Time to read more of Tennysons poetry, methinks.

    By the way, few things are more appealing in a politician than his/her weaknesses.

  4. What a lovely post. Thank you so much for it. I love Tennyson and this as great break in my morning.

    On another note, I’ve been thinking about this idea lately as well. It seems gone are the days of politicians incorporating poetry, history and art into their speeches, and it’s a sad, sad thing. Now our politicians pander to the lowest common denominator, hididng what intelligence they have in order to to not seem ‘better’ than others, I don’t know…some days it seems like any sort of art to living is lost…

  5. It is a wonderful poem. I read it out loud last night to a group of writers and was surprised to find myself chanelling wily Odysseus. I’m glad you’ve all enjoyed it.  Edwin, what you say about weaknesses is quite true — Bill Clinton comes to mind immediately. Courtney, I don’t know if the art to living is so much lost as gone underground. The proliferation of intelligent blogs says a lot about how much people yearn for civilized conversations. Who knows? Maybe Barak Obama won’t be afraid to be an intellectual leader.

  6. This is such a wonderful reading of the poem, Bloglily, and I call it that for a want of a better word. No, maybe the word I’m looking for is a meditation. It’s a beautiful approach to a wonderful poem, situating it in the heart of life, death, failure and success, just where it belongs.

  7. Many years ago we were lent a record, which I played endlessly, of Rchard Burton reading Tennyson. My favourite has always been “The Lady of Shalott”. I can also still hear Richard’s voice intoning “Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, O Sea!”

    Some years ago, when my mother was dying, I was sitting with her in the last hours. She was no longer able to speak or interact in any way, but because I knew that hearing is often the last sense to go, I read to her, and my choice was Tennyson because we both loved his poetry, and because his words are perfect.

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