Tennyson: Ulysses and the Meaning of Life

Maybe the key to the meaning of life is not in our answers, our hopes, or our wishes, but in our struggles. This is a salient theme in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, which tells the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and his ten year journey home after the end of the ten year long Trojan War. Odysseus’ tribulations on his homeward journey are legendary, as he battles giants, monsters, storms, and the sirens of beautiful women who call sailors to their death. After finally reaching home, reunited with his wife and his kingdom, Homer suggests that Odysseus desired to leave again, an idea picked up centuries later by Dante.

In the nineteenth century Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892) expanded on this theme. Tennyson was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, and one of the most popular poets in the English language. His poem Ulysses, Odysseus’ name in Latin, famously captured Ulysses’ dissatisfaction with life in Ithaca after his return, and his subsequent desire to set sail again. Perhaps nothing in Western literature conveys the feeling of going forward and braving the struggle of life more movingly than this poem.

Tennyson begins by describing the boredom and restlessness Ulysses experiences after finally returning to rule his kingdom.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Contrast these sentiments with his excitement that his memories elicit.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed 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 honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

He’s nostalgic about his past, but he also longs for new experiences. He describes his restlessness perfectly:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though 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.

And so he will leave the kingdom to his son.

 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.

Looking toward the sea with a restless heart, he again feels its pull.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, 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.

Finally, he gathers his fellow sailors and pushes out of the harbor for new adventures. Tennyson describes the scene and the sentiment with some of the greatest lines in the English language.

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
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
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.

Ulysses found joy and meaning, not in port, but in his journeys, in the dark troubled sea of life which tosses us as we wrestle against it. There we find the thrill and the meaning of our lives as we battle without hope of ever finding a home. For Ulysses, the struggle was the meaning.

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