Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Armand Assante as Odysseus in the  1997 made-for-TV movie version directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

Armand Assante as Odysseus in the 1997 made-for-TV movie version directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

In my World Literature class, we are finishing up Homer’s The Odyssey.  Odysseus has finally made it home to Ithaca after being away for 20 years—ten in the Trojan War, and ten lost at sea on the way home.  He is greeted not by the warm embrace of his people, but by a band of snarling suitors who want to kill him, as well as a wife who isn’t sure who he is.

In the end, though, Odysseus prevails.  He gets his kingdom, his wife, and his son back.  He is home.  He and his family will live happily ever after, right?

Well, not according to Lord Alfred Tennyson.  He wrote a poem called “Ulysses” in 1833 and published it in 1842.   This poem is based on the myth of Odysseus/Ulysses as it appears not just in Homer’s Odysseus, but also in Dante’s rendition of Ulysses in his Inferno.)

In Tennyson’s poem, reproduced below, Ulysses is far from living happily-ever-after with his family.  On the contrary, he laments being stuck at home.  He is bored with his job (being king!) and with the yahoos he rules.  Worse yet, his wife is aged. After hanging out with all the sex-starved nymphs he met on his travels, Ulysses probably finds Penelope rather unappealing.  So he decides to light out for the territory again.

I have mixed feelings when I read this poem.  On the one hand, this is a blog devoted to travel and other forms of exploration.  How could I not love lines such as these:

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 forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

 

This is a gorgeous poem, no doubt about it.  But although I understand the travel bug infecting Ulysses, I can’t help but think about his family, especially Penelope.   She waited faithfully for twenty freaking years, and now he wants to leave again? It’s enough to drive a woman to drink with the swineherds.  Did it not even occur to him to ask her if she wanted to accompany him?  Aaarrrgh!

Tennyson’s poem reminds me of my own pendulum swing between home-travel-home-travel home.  Personally, I like having a solid home base.  It’s wonderful to travel, but it’s always great to come home as well.

But Maybe that’s a woman thing.  Classic literature is bereft of male heroes who are content with their domestic fires.  They are much more inclined to be “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

 

What about you?  Would you spend all your time travelling and exploring if you had the option?  Or would you come home to Penelope and stay put?

 

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

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;

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.

 

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 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.

 

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3 thoughts on “Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

  1. Debra, you must also be a fan of The Clash. I have that song echoing in my head. While the story of Odysseus is more thrilling, the poem probably tells a truer version of the mind of a wandering hero. It is not at all uncommon for the traveler/ fighter to relish the time on the road with the remembrance of the good parts of home. Yet, because they relish the thrill of acting demonstratively, they get bored with doing the basic maintenance of life. Today, our troops that come home say they miss the camaraderie of their fellow soldiers. I would guess they miss the common danger the troops worked against. Good post to make me think this morning, BTG

    • Indeed, I am a fan of The Clash. That song has been stuck in my head all day. Good point about returning soldiers. I have also heard vets say they miss being at war. Often they miss the camaraderie, but some even miss the actual fighting. It must be a serious adrenaline rush. Almost anything would seem boring after war, I suppose.

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