Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tennyson--"Ulysses" (1842)

This is, or was until recently anyway, one of the central poems in the English tradition, read and known by every schoolchild. This is apparently one of Harold Bloom's favorite poems to claim as his own and break out in a recitation of in his public haranguings, but don't let that put you off. Harold will either be dead or too superannuated to maintain his current visibility and influence on the literary scene very soon, and the poem's greatness will long outlive his particular championing of it. I originally read and made comments on this poem on December 9, 1995. Looking over those comments I am astounded at the energy I previously had for reading. I still think it is a tremendous poem. My weary middle-aged take on it, perhaps speaking more of myself than the actual contemporary human condition, was: 'Man has become overwhelmed by his knowledge. He has overreached himself. These conceptions of human wholeness, oneness with life (i.e. in the poem) are striking. Saddening? We are moving ever away from this vision of ourselves.' I won't reproduce my entire 1995 report, though I did things like identify a symbolic meaning for nearly every image and adjective, and even note the aspects of the verbs, which sort of thing I can't be bothered with now, even assuming anybody would let me be bothered with it.

I will record a few of the observations I made on the poem in that former reading, which looks to me to have been at least as solid as anything I am likely to get out of it now.

Images of death ("By this still hearth, among these barren crags") linked to domesticity, homebodiness.

Feminine love is ultimate end (meaning death of vitality) for man.

His subjects live like animals, seem to have limited souls ("a savage race/That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.")

"Rest" ("I cannot rest from travel") is starvation, death.

Extremes of sensation felt often and simultaneously; trying to define what it means to say Ulysses is everyman, as is often said. But what does it mean? (2009--Ulysses was clearly never "everyman" except in the sense of being a culmination [i.e., not an average] of men collectively. He is almost as unlike the run of men as is it is possible to conceive of).

"Roaming" is a good metaphor for life.

"And drunk delight of battle with my peers". 3rd nourishment reference (l.16). Battle is delirious, 'ringing'; somehow proper for men.

Why is Troy 'windy'? Winds of time, timelessness perhaps?

"I am a part of all that I have met." I.e., in a greater way than most men.

ll. 19-21: "Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move."

Arches bridge gaps and support weight. Does it fade only for him or for all men through him? This is a poetic crescendo. He did change human existence through his life and agency.

ll 22-3: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!"

The end should not be made. Lofty ideal that man should gleam and shine. But only he can let himself tarnish. Use of course is a key word.

ll 24-5 "As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little..."

This may be the underlying sentiment behind all of advanced human civilization. Life in itself is as nothing, like a series of infinitessimals.

"Some three suns" (l.29) I miss the sense of.

ll 30-32: "And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought."

The spirit is gray because of the bounds in which human thought is restricted. Knowledge grows dimmer and dimmer, sinking away from land, life as it becomes more real.

On the stanza entrusting the island and scepter to Telemachus (ll. 33-43): How through (Telemachus's) worldly workmanship will he subdue them to the useful and the good? This labor is the greater part of man's work, but it is nonetheless not the work of the fully realized man. Therefore the overwhelming majority of men must remain essentially unrealized. Why 'blameless'? (l. 39--of Telemachus again) One who is 'centered' (l.39) cannot exactly move or escape the center. But man is not man because a because a few of his exceptional sorts are the center creating, not the circumscribed. (2009--I'm not exactly sure what I was trying to get at here.)

The sea is ever the unknown; even now when overlook (i.e., are largely unconscious of its enormous presence) it, it is the symbol of the (myriad) unknown we overlook (i.e., our ignorance).

Mariners are by nature not so domestic, societally-directed. Possess some glimpse onto otherworldliness. They were free because they welcomed what lay seemingly far outside themselves.

ll. 50-53: "Old age hath yet his honor 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."

Twin connection of glory and man's work. Only death can properly close a work. Whole passage very classical in view.

The last 15 lines have pretty obvious symbolism. Voices of the dead. The earth no longer as an utter limit in itself. Sunsets and baths being sailed beyond, the most distant voyages being made by the concentrated powers of the mind. The idea that heaven as well as earth can be moved (altered) by superior human acts is an interesting and old-fashioned one. Perhaps this is still possible in the common human perception. Since time and fate weaken him, a man need be robust of body and vigorous of mind to move heaven or earth in the slightest.

O.K., this is the other Ulysses, but I couldn't pass on the picture.

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