Daily Archives: January 10, 2007

Literature: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses

“…my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars until I die.”  –Ulysses speaking to his son, in Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (1833) 
 
Scott's Memorial The ultimate adventurer’s poem?  If I had to pick it, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” might be the one I’d choose–I can’t think of any other verse that gives a better voice to those restless grumblings in my bones.  

Tennyson’s seventy-line poem is narrated by the aged Ulysses—the heroic figure who in his youth narrowly escapes the Trojan War and then encounters numerous trials on his return journey to Ithaca (the subject of epic poems the Iliad and The Odyssey).  But Tennyson’s version of the hero is an “idle king” struggling with his insatiable desire to set back out wherever the seas will take him. 

In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses hands over his scepter to his son and then looks in the direction of the port, where he sees that “the vessel puffs her sail.” Ulysses thinks of his mariners, who are now old like him, but his purpose still holds.  “That which we are, we are,” Ulysses says, “…made weak by time and fate but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”  

I recently reconsidered this poem after finding that its last line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” is inscribed on the memorial cross perched atop Observation Hill.  Visible from the center of McMurdo, the marker memorializes Robert Falcon Scott and his party who died sledging home from the South Pole in 1912. 

Outside of its literary context, the reference could seem to suggest stubbornness, inflexibility, or foolhardy lack of compromise.  Knowing Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” we can sympathize more with Scott as a kindred adventurer, one with a “hungry heart” who believes, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” 

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