“Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Reader-Response Commentary
There are some poems I’ve studied that are so touching so inspiring that I have never forgotten my first encounter. “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of those. Since I am a believer in the Reader Response theory of literary study, I decided to revisit this poem that deeply affected me many years ago when I was in college and see how my personal response to that poem may have shifted or changed. I don’t have those early notes, but I vividly remember how the poem affected me. Reader response can include religious, cultural news and facts, family, personal successes and failures, lessons learned, etc. Many preachers use a reader response when speaking from the Bible. There are some preliminary facts about the poem that should be kept in mind before a line-by-line commentary is attempted.
First, Tennyson wrote the poem in 1833 after the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam a poet, and the subject of Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam. The poem was first published in 1842. Hallum is known as the jeune homme fatal, the doomed young man of his generation. In form, it is an interior dramatic monologue, written in blank verse (unrhymed Iambic pentameter). Now, here is the text and my commentary in italics. I may add more thoughts later, so it may be a work in progress:
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 also feel listless at times. As a college instructor, I’ve always felt my task was to civilize my students. More and more students enter my courses as savages—rude, unread, lazy (I believe in rigorous academics), dishonest (plagiarism is too common), lacking patriotism, with a victim mentality, and too easily influenced by popular fads of media and politics.
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;
I have traveled extensively across the nation since 2007, as a storyteller, musician, and author. Sometimes, I’ve experienced great joy, at other times, suffering, sacrifice and pain. When I reflect on those journeys, cities, events, and people I’ve encountered, I realize how greatly they have affected me. I too am a part of all I’ve met. It’s hard for me to rest from travel. To go from close to 150 presentations across the nation to almost nothing because of the COVID shutdown has been hard.
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever 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.
The COVID shutdown, not only cost me a great amount of money, but it revealed how my schedule drove me on and how boring my life can be without goals and tasks and opportunities. As another possible shutdown of the nation looms before us, I hope I can keep this same positive attitude to follow knowledge. I don’t want to rust out. I need to use my time better, to “save every hour from that eternal silence.” I still want to see how far I can go.
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.
I too have a son, who seems to have more sense than I have, more stability, and so committed to his own work. All I leave behind when I leave this world will be in his hands.
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,
‘T is 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.
I hope this will always be my optimistic attitude, my philosophy. I may go down, but I won’t die sitting still, without dreams. I do a song in my music show, “40 Days of Rain,” that has these lines: “This dry land may get me, but it ain’t got me yet.” Like a farmer, I must wait to see what the next year will bring my way. The last two lines are my favorite in this poem. “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”