Sunday, December 04, 2005

To search the ways of life; man’s evil and his virtue

Tennyson's Ulysses is a wonderful poem. It's better simply to read and enjoy for its pleasures.

Why cast about for its context?

I don't know why, but the temptation is strong and I do not wish to resist.

Christopher Ricks, maveric professor; eccentric, overwhelmed by his enthusiasms for T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, Samuel Beckett, and, yes, Alfred Tennyson. No one reads a poem more closely nor writes more allusively and without pity on readers. He's something of an addiction of mine and my family recoils inwardly when his name comes up.

Ricks shows Homer to be one of Tennyson's sources, of course, but not the main one.

Here's the Homeric source. It's Tiresias' speech, in book xi, lines 112-37, of the Odyssey, translated by A.T. Murray:
Late shalt thou come home and in evil case, after losing all thy comrades,
in a ship that is another's, and thou shalt find woes in thy house— proud
men that devour thy livelihood, wooing thy godlike wife, and offering
wooers' gifts. Yet verily on their violent deeds shalt thou take vengeance
when thou comest. But when thou hast slain the wooers in thy halls, whether
by guile or openly with the sharp sword, then do thou go forth, taking a
shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught ... ships. ... And
death shall come to thee thyself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that
shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age, and thy
people shall dwell in prosperity around thee.
Surprisingly, Tennyson's main source was Dante. In the canto he used, Virgil has taken Dante to a section of Hell where the damned are surrounded by flames. He questions one of them, who turns out to be Ulysses and Ulysses tells him of the last voyage of his life, the one which in Tennyson's poem he tells us he will make.
Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue. Forth I sail’d
Into the deep illimitable main,
With but one bark, and the small faithful band
That yet cleaved to me. As Iberia far,
Far as Marocco, either shore I saw,
And the Sardinian and each isle beside
Which round that ocean bathes. Tardy with age
Were I and my companions, when we came
To the strait pass, where Hercules ordain’d
The boundaries not to be o’erstepp’d by man.
The walls of Seville to my right I left,
On the other hand already Ceuta past.
‘O brothers!’ I began, ‘who to the west
Through perils without number now have reach’d;
To this the short remaining watch, that yet
Our senses have to wake, refuse not proof
Of the unpeopled world, following the track
Of Phœbus. Call to mind from whence ye sprang:
Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes,
But virtue to pursue and knowledge high.’
With these few words I sharpen’d for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them. To the dawn
Our poop we turn’d, and for the witless flight
Made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.
Each star of the other pole night now beheld,
And ours so low, that from the ocean floor
It rose not. Five times reillumed, as oft
Vanish’d the light from underneath the moon,
Since the deep way we enter’d, when from far
Appear’d a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I e’er beheld. Joy seized us straight;
But soon to mourning changed. From the new land
A whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side
Did strike the vessel. Thrice it whirl’d her round
With all the waves; the fourth time lifted up
The poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed:
And over us the booming billow closed.
Source: Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The Divine Comedy. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. translated by H. F. Cary Canto XXVI, 90ff.

Ricks says that Tennyson wrote a friend about the importance of Ulysses to him. The death of his friend Hallam was the greatest tragedy of his life and a source of great inspiration to him, particularly with respect to his immense sequence of poems, In Memoriam. Tennyson wrote: "There is more about myself in Ulysses, which was written under the sense of loss and all that had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many poems in In Memoriam."
Source: Tennyson, Christopher B Ricks (New York, Macmillan [1972]) - Selected Edn. 1989, p 138.

Tennyson's son gives another anecdote about the poem: "Ulysses, my father said, was written soon after Arthur Hallam's death, and gave my feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in 'In Memoriam.'"
Source: Alfred lord Tennyson; a memoir by his son, Hallam Tennyson Tennyson (London, The Macmillan Co.; Macmillan & Co., 1897)

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