My post Skyfall: M and “Ulysses” got me thinking about what I know by heart. Long ago some English teacher or other required me to commit the whole of that long dramatic monologue, “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the 19th century poet, to memory. It is 70 lines long and free verse and that much more difficult because there are no rhyming clues.
It begins “It little profits that an idle king/By this still hearth, among these barren crags/ Match’d with an aged wife/ Should mete and dole/ Unequal laws unto a savage race.” Ulysses is standing in the port of his island kingdom, Ithaca, beside his ship or even on its prow, and addressing his crew and his subjects. Presumably his “aged” wife is there, Penelope, who faithfully waited for him all those years while he was fighting in Troy and taking his own sweet time getting home. Thinking he had perished, suitors beset her in order to gain her kingdom. She devised a scheme to put them off, saying she would choose just as soon as she finished weaving her tapestry: every night, she tore out what she had woven that day. Now Ulysses regards her merely as an aged wife.
Presumably his son, Telemachus is also there. Ulysses says of him “most blameless is he”, suited to the task of mete-ing and dole-ing apparently and subduing the savage race “thro soft decrees”. Ulysses does concede that Telemachus is “well-loved of me”. Maybe, but not all that well respected. Still “He works his work, I mine.” but make no mistake, only one is glorious.
Mainly, however, Ulysses is talking to his mariners, those poor sods who are going to row him, assisted now and then, by fortunate winds and scant sails. “Push off, and sitting well in order smite/ The sounding furrows”, Ulysses cries. “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,” he suggests, for he is going to take them out past what we call Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean, terra incognita so far as the ancient Greeks were concerned. I am ill-equipped, probably, being an aged woman, to understand how his charisma made his men eager to follow him still.
Nevertheless, I can well understand the lines with which he closes. I took them to my heart as a teenager, but they are even more significant now that I can empathize with the ageing hero:
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.