Classics and the Western Canon discussion

259 views
Interim Readings > What Next for Odysseus?

Comments Showing 1-50 of 65 (65 new)    post a comment »
« previous 1

message 1: by Everyman (last edited Mar 02, 2010 07:45PM) (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Something a bit different for this interim reading.

Many of you will have read Homer’s Odyssey; probably all who haven’t read it know the basic story of Odysseus’s ten year attempt to get home after the Trojan war. He finally makes it home, kills the suitors who had been trying to persuade his wife Penelope to consider him dead and take a new husband, and settles back down at home at last. The Odyssey ends with the goddess Pallas Athena ordering that the fighting Ithicans stop their in-fighting, and

“So spake Athena, and with happy heart he [Odysseus:] obeyed her.
And pledges for the days to come, sworn to by both sides
were settled by Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus of the aegis,
who had likened herself in appearance and voice to Mentor.”


What then? Odysseus is finally home and at peace with his wife and son in his palace on his island. He is back on his throne, where he belongs, after twenty long years away.

A classmate of mine, writing his senior essay on the Odyssey, took his title from the last two lines of Stevenson’s Requiem. The poem reads in full:

UNDER the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.


Is this the future for Odysseus, to grow old peacefully by his hearth and finally die as gladly as he lived, safe home from the sea?

In one of my very favorite poems, Tennyson has a quite different view of what an old man’s future should be. Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) offers a stark contract to Steven’s Requiem.

It’s not a long poem, but perhaps too long to quote in full in a post. (If you don’t have it in a book at home, there are many versions on the Internet, citations provided below.) But the beginning lines show Odysseus/Ulysses not content with his restored life:

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.


I suggest reading the poem several times, at least. (It’s definitely worth it.) Some of the grammar and structure need a bit of thinking through which aren’t obvious on a first reading.

But I hope you will enjoy the poem and find it worth discussing here, particularly the contrast between the approaches of Stevenson and Tennyson to encroaching old age.

And if you want to tackle the “bonus” question, add in Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle.” I have never found the depth in it that I find in either Stevenson’s quiet acceptance or Tennyson’s bold purpose; simple rage seems to me such a waste of energy. But that will be something to discuss!

Let’s focus on these two or three poems for the first week, then for the second week feel free to bring in any other poems or refer to other works which offer different approaches which inform, supplement, or contrast with these.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy these poems as an interlude. Let the discussion begin!


Finding Ulysses on the Internet:

I like this version because it contains the breaks which many other online versions don’t include, and the Readprint mode is a nice presentation.

Bartleby is a reliable source of classic texts.

You can find many recitations of the poem on YouTube, but I listened to the start of many of then and the only one I thought was passable, but barely, was this one. The reader does take a pause in the first line after “that,” which in my view is necessary to get the proper sense of the grammar of the line, but he doesn’t pause after “For” in line 13, which I also consider necessary to gain the meaning of the line. (As you can tell, I have very decided views about how poetry, and especially my favorite poetry, should be read!)

Bonus poem: Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle.


message 2: by Frances (new)

Frances | 36 comments I never thought about what happened to Odysseus, but I love what happened to Agamemnon! Not even in the same world as the poems you quote here, but I wrote a whole bunch of nursery rhymes "retelling" the Greek myths to help my daughter remember who's who on Mount Olympus. It worked--she got an A+! Plus, we had lots of fun.

Here is my ending to the Iliad:
(to the meter of Little Jack Horner)

Wily Odysseus sat on the beach
Determined the Troy walls to breach;
A horse did devise, the Greeks to disguise,
And bring on the Trojan demise.


message 3: by Dianna (new)

Dianna | 393 comments I love that Frances! Your daughter is lucky to have you!

I read the poem and tried to print it but the link wouldn't let me print???

It was a bit depressing to me. I would like to discuss Edgar A. Poe's A Dream Within A Dream sometime. I am sure this is not the place to put this but I just read it today and LOVED it.

I don't want to talk about getting old ;p


message 4: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Dianna wrote: I don't want to talk about getting old ;p


But Dianna, dear, think of the alternative!


message 5: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Frances wrote: "I never thought about what happened to Odysseus, but I love what happened to Agamemnon! Not even in the same world as the poems you quote here, but I wrote a whole bunch of nursery rhymes "retellin..."

Blessed, blessed Kate!


message 6: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Here are some excellent readings of "Ulysses."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8WMkd...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hY4Tuh...

Sir John Guilgud's partial reading gives a hint of what I think probably became of the dream:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmDoT1...

I keep thinking, "But what of the aged wife?"


message 7: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments One of many things I love about this poem is the strength Tennyson gives it by so many lines of one syllable. No long multisyllabic lines here. Those may be more civilized, somehow gentler.

But these are lines of direct power. Read them aloud and listen to the power:

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


These are, for me, driving lines, almost elemental lines. Simple but far from simplistic.

This is not "poetic" language in the sense that that term is usually used. There are few words in the poem that a third grader wouldn't know. This, I am convinced, is not accidental, but is very deliberate. It gives the poem a raw, elemental power quite different from, say, Shelley's To a Skylark:

HAIL to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.


That's more like what is often considered "poetic" language. That's not what Tennyson is after here, I believe.


message 8: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4509 comments It appears that Dante, rather than Homer, was the primary inspiration for "Ulysses". Interesting background material can be found HERE. And a better translation of the passage from the Inferno can be found at the Princeton Dante Project.


message 9: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nice find! It makes sense, since the Odyssey ends with Odysseus getting home, and Dante carries his life forward to his death.

It also may explain why Tennyson called the poem Ulysses instead of Odysseus, since he was working from Dante, who of course used the Latin and not Greek for him.

I also agree with the article that Tennyson has Telemachus's character nicely presented. That is very much how I think Telemachus would have lived his future. He had had his one adventure, but he seems to be me to be more centered now on home and hearth and kingdom than to adventure.


message 10: by Dawn (new)

Dawn | 28 comments Everyman, I have never been a poetry kind of gal, but I think your selections may have converted me.

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.


Tennyson has really captured the essence of old age looking in the mirror and seeing its abiding youth. The things that motivate us in our time of strength do not simply go away in retirement.

This may be the first poem I have ever understood. =D


message 11: by Darcy (last edited Mar 03, 2010 09:46PM) (new)

Darcy | 42 comments I really love these two poems, especially when paired with one another. My brother, as a hobby, does Japanese style woodblock prints and several years ago he gave me a framed print with these two poems. "Ulysses" is carved into the frame and "Do Not Go Gently" forms the background of the print. I treasure this piece very much, although I know it isn't a piece of art that will appeal to everyone; it is a lovely thing to live everyday with such a gift.


Here is a close up of the background of the print with the opening lines, "Old age . . . "




message 12: by DJ (new)

DJ  (djdivaofjava) That is incredible Darcy!
Your brother is extremely talented


message 13: by Dianna (new)

Dianna | 393 comments Darcy, that is really neat!


message 14: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Darcy wrote: "I really love these two poems, especially when paired with one another. My brother, as a hobby, does Japanese style woodblock prints and several years ago he gave me a framed print with these two p..."

Love it!


message 15: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4509 comments Very cool, Darcy!


message 16: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4509 comments I'm a little stuck on one line. What does "For some three suns" mean? I went to the OED and it looks like Tennyson uses the word to mean "years" in other places, which makes sense here as well, but why three?


message 17: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Dawn wrote: "Everyman, I have never been a poetry kind of gal, but I think your selections may have converted me.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old d..."


Excellent! I'm glad you found the poem rewarding. I'll probably post more in the future, and hope to make you a true convert to the magic of great poetry.

The young don't understand the truth that "inside every old person is a young person crying out "what the heck happened?" But isn't that true of all of us as we age? The body may weaken, but the spirit, never!

In somewhat the same vein, but with a tinge of sadness, is the famous Harrow School Song, about students returning forty years after leaving the school. Here's the link to it, in case you don't know it:
http://www.harrowschool.org.uk/defaul...


message 18: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "I'm a little stuck on one line. What does "For some three suns" mean? I went to the OED and it looks like Tennyson uses the word to mean "years" in other places, which makes sense here as well, but..."

I read it in two possible different ways.

One is that he has been home for three years, storing those years in basic idleness and essentially wasting them meting and doling those laws unto a savage race.

The other is that at his age, given the life span of the time, he thinks he only has three years of life left, and he doesn't want to spend them lounging around the palace, but wants to live even those few remaining years to the utmost.

I'm not sure which interpretation I prefer. And there are probably others I haven't thought of.


message 19: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Darcy wrote: "I really love these two poems, especially when paired with one another. My brother, as a hobby, does Japanese style woodblock prints and several years ago he gave me a framed print with these two p..."

Fantastic. I love the very different ways in which this poem inspires people.


message 20: by Darcy (new)

Darcy | 42 comments Thank you! We're pretty proud of him! He usually does landscape and animal prints, so this one is a bit unusual.


message 21: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "Well, I finally sat down and read the poem again. When i first printed it out it overwhelmed me and i had to stop. Last night I took a deep breath and read. Then I realized I had read it before...."

Great post, Patrice.

By now I'm used it, but in the past I used to be amazed at how much works of literature change as one ages. Things which seemed central and inspirational when I was 25 suddenly seem much more muted, and things which I knew only in theory and not in reality are suddenly things to which I say "ah, yes, now there's truth and wisdom."


message 22: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments The "aged wife" is probably between 40 and 45. Telemachus was just a babe when Odysseus sailed off for Troy, and he was gone for 20 years. As far as we know, he was Odysseus's only child. Women married young in those days, probably no later than 18 and possibly as young as 15. So she was probably well under 20 when Telemachus was born. Even if she was a bit older at marriage, or they didn't conceive right away, she would hardly be likely to be over 45.

Aged, paugh!


message 23: by Michael (new)

Michael Staten (mstatenstuffandthings) | 67 comments These lines from Homer's Odyssey seem relevant. These lines (Book 11, verses 135-159) come from the part where Odysseus travels to the underworld and speaks with the prophet Tiresias. They make it clear that Odysseus will have another adventure.

'...No doubt you will pay them back in blood when you come home!
But once you have killed those suitors in your halls-
by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze-
go forth once more, you must...
carry your well-planed oar until you come
to a race of people who knowing nothing of the sea,
whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all
to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars,
wings tht make ships fly. And here is your sign-
unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it:
When another traveler falls in with you and calls
that weight across your shoulders a fan to winnow grain,
then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth
and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea,
Poseidon - a ram, a bull and a ramping wild boar-
then journey home and render noble offerings up
to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies,
to all the gods in order.

And at last your own death will steal up you...
a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes
to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age
with all your people there in blessed peace around you.
All that I have told you will come true'

'Oh Tiresias,'
I replied as the prophet finished, 'surely the gods
have spun this out as fate, the gods themselves...'


In Book 23 lines 291-299, after Penelope recognizes Odysseus, she asks him to tell her about the prophesy.

"if it's bed you want," reserved Penelope replied,
"it's bed you'll have, whenever the spirit moves you,
now that the gods have brought you home again
to native land, your grand and gracious house.
But since you've alluded to it,
since a god has put it in your mind,
please, tell me about this trial still to come.
I'm bound to learn of it later, I am sure-
what's the harm if I hear of it tonight?"


Basically, near the end of the story, we're reminded that Odysseus will have another journey. I think Dante's and Tennyson's poetry explore what that next journey for Odysseus might be. There are two point that don't seem to match though. First, Tiresias's prophecy describes a trip over land, not over the sea as these works imagine. Second, I get the impression, especially from Tennyson's poem, that the hero is much older than Homer's Odysseus plus three years. Both of these things lead me to entertain the idea that Tennyson's poem might describe a third journey. I'm not sure though.


message 24: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Caeliban wrote: "These lines from Homer's Odyssey seem relevant. These lines (Book 11, verses 135-159) come from the part where Odysseus travels to the underworld and speaks with the prophet Tiresias. They make it ..."

Thanks, Caeliban; I was looking for these references. Tennyson might be imagining Odysseus, like Jonah, willfully going in the opposite direction of his calling. I'm not sure myself that Tennyson approves of Odysseus's decision.


message 25: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Caeliban wrote: "These lines from Homer's Odyssey seem relevant. These lines (Book 11, verses 135-159) come from the part where Odysseus travels to the underworld and speaks with the prophet Tiresias. They make it ..."

Nice find. But you're right, the difference between the land journey foregoing the sea, and a journey to the Western Isles, are very different.

I think Thomas's point that Dante rather than Homer was the real inspiration for Ulysses clarifies that Tennyson probably wasn't thinking of these prophecies.

But still, it's interesting that Homer didn't envision an Odysseus sitting quietly home by his hearth either.


message 26: by Michael (last edited Mar 06, 2010 02:45PM) (new)

Michael Staten (mstatenstuffandthings) | 67 comments Yes, no doubt that Odysseus is fated to be a perpetual traveller, an icon for wandering.

Also, I don't think there is any doubt Tennyson was reimagining Dante's verse. There are many parallels in both. D gives us and "my aged father" while T gives us "an aged wife". Both describe a strong brotherhood or companionship among the mariners. Both sail westward. I'm sure there's much more if we took the time to examine the verses closer.

I think the main difference between Dante's story and Tennyson's is the direction they are looking. From Dante I get the impression that the while the crew is old they are going on their trip in search of adventure. These lines from Dante (26: 94-99) show that the hero was young enough to still have a living father and that the trip is forward looking.

not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty
toward my aged father, nor the love I owed
Penelope that would have made her glad,

could overcome the fervor that was mine
to gain experience of the world
and learn about man's vices, and his worth.


Another forward looking aspect in Dante's story is the pep talk that Ulysses gives his men and it's result.

With this brief speech I had my companions
so ardent for the journey
I could scarce have held them back.


For Dante, the death of Ulysses is an unexpected accident.

We rejoiced, but joy soon turned to grief:
for from that unknown land there came
a whirlwind that struck the ship head-on.


When I read Tennyson, I get a strong retrospective vibe. Sailing west becomes both a final adventure and euphemysim for death. The hero is old, disconnected from his people, and reminiscent. He sets his business in order by leaving the sceptre to his son Telemachus and then leaves forever.


message 27: by Michael (new)

Michael Staten (mstatenstuffandthings) | 67 comments Laurele wrote: "Tennyson might be imagining Odysseus, like Jonah, willfully going in the opposite direction of his calling..."

Thanks Laurele. I like this and will have to think more about it.


message 28: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Caeliban wrote: "Laurele wrote: "Tennyson might be imagining Odysseus, like Jonah, willfully going in the opposite direction of his calling..."

Thanks Laurele. I like this and will have to think more about it."


The other hero I always think of when I read Tennyson's poem is Reepicheep. :)


message 29: by Mark (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments Maybe we who joined the Classics and the Western Canon Group are on an odyssey Tennyson (and Ulysses) would credit. I don't mean to curry favor with the group--I am a new member, first post, and I have really enjoyed the discussion--but some of the language of journey and prospective discovery Tennyson uses in the last section makes me think of the wonderful "transportation" we achieve, on so many levels, with great literature. Inspired by the chance to re-read this Tennyson classic, I hope I will be attentive to opportunities to act in beneficial and even heroic ways in my later life (I'm 56). But I also know that through literature I can "sail beyond the sunset" and "touch the Happy Isles, and see the great Achilles."


message 30: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments Caeliban wrote: "These lines from Homer's Odyssey seem relevant. These lines (Book 11, verses 135-159) come from the part where Odysseus travels to the underworld and speaks with the prophet Tiresias. They make it ..."

I suppose that Tiresias gives Odysseus an overland journey to balance or complete his long journey over sea. But he says that Odysseus should then return home and offer sacrifices, and that he will be rewarded with a peaceful death in bed, far from the sea, surrounded by his loved ones. Perhaps Odysseus failed to make the required land journey, and as a consequence was overcome with sea-longing. Otherwise it's hard to see how Tennyson and Dante can be reconciled with Homer.

I also don't know who are the "mariners, Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me." All his mariners from the voyage home from Troy were lost on the voyage. Could these be companions from later voyages? Is Ulysses's mind wandering in old age, imagining that this earlier companions are still with him? But Dante has Ulysses sailing west in a single ship with old shipmates, which founders in a storm just as they sight the Mountain of Purgatory.

I can't make sense of this unless I say that Tennyson's and Dante's Ulysses is just a different character from Homer's Odysseus. If after all his adventures, and living for nine years with a goddess, Odysseus wants to go home, I think he knows his mind. I say he'll follow Tiresias's instructions and die in bed.


message 31: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Mark wrote: "Maybe we who joined the Classics and the Western Canon Group are on an odyssey Tennyson (and Ulysses) would credit. "

Let us hear more from you, Mark. That's the sort of thinking we value here.


message 32: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Roger wrote: "I also don't know who are the "mariners, Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me." "

I have noticed that, too. Perhaps it's a reflection of Tennyson relying on Dante, not Homer. Sometimes I just allow it as poetic license, either on Ulysses's or Tennyson's part. Maybe despite Homer Tennyson is assuming that there were other Ithicans whose ships might have survived the journey home. (I would have to re-read parts of the Odyssey to see whether Homer contends that ALL the Ithicans were lost at sea, or just those on Odysseus's ship, and others did finally make it home.) Maybe during the years of war Ithicans came and went from Troy.

Mostly I just sort of gloss over it, though, for the sake of the power of the passage.


message 33: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Mark wrote: "Maybe we who joined the Classics and the Western Canon Group are on an odyssey Tennyson (and Ulysses) would credit. I don't mean to curry favor with the group--I am a new member, first post, and I..."

Very nice, Mark!


message 34: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4509 comments Roger wrote: " Could these be companions from later voyages? Is Ulysses's mind wandering in old age, imagining that this earlier companions are still with him?

It is Odysseus, after all. It can't have been lost on Tennyson that his subject was one of the most celebrated cheats and liars of all time! But the poem is obviously sincere. On the other hand, that an old hero might be a bit confused and waxing nostalgic is not impossible.


message 35: by Tom (new)

Tom  | 8 comments Hello, I'm new to the group and have been peeking at the many interesting posts. I only read sketches of Dante and can't remember the section on Ulysses. However, Tiresias' prophecy is picked up by Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba the Greek)in his long poem "The Odyssey - A Modern Sequel"

In the Kazantzakis poem, Odysseus/Ulysses sets forth on a new adventure not long after returning home. He uses Tiresias' prophecy as guide. NK makes Odysseus into an almost devil-like figure with a reckless intensity and drive. It is a strange poem - depicting a primitive, amoral world. I made it through about 100 pages before it tired me out!


message 36: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Tom wrote: "Hello, I'm new to the group and have been peeking at the many interesting posts..... However, Tiresias' prophecy is picked up by..."

Welcome, Tom.

Interesting, I haven't heard of that Kazantazakis poem. But I consider him one for rather unusual treatments of classical subjects -- witness his Last Temptation of Christ and his At the Palaces of Knossos (in which, relevant to our discussion, he has Theseus give a cup engraved with an image of Odysseus, who hadn't been born at the time).


message 37: by Tom (new)

Tom  | 8 comments I haven't read any of NK's other books, although some of them are very famous. His "Odyssey" is a massive poem (24 Books of approx. 1300-1400 lines each) Apparently, he worked on the poem for many years in-between other projects. It's a dense poem - the diction is a bit archaic for the 20th century - it's full of strange imagery - but it's a very earthy, physical poem. I think it contains some beautiful writing, but the intensity level remains very high most of the time so it's a bit demanding on the reader. I may try to tackle it again someday.


message 38: by Michael (new)

Michael Staten (mstatenstuffandthings) | 67 comments Laurele wrote: "The other hero I always think of when I read Tennyson's poem is Reepicheep. :)..."

Wow! It's been 30 years since I've read those books. I had to look up the reference. Wikipedia does give this quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that seems to align itself well with Tennyson's Ulysses.

Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.


The image of Frodo, Bilbo, Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, et al. sailing to the west at the end of Lord of the Rings came to my mind.


message 39: by Michael (new)

Michael Staten (mstatenstuffandthings) | 67 comments While it's clear he worked from Dante, I think it would have been impossible for him to ignore Homer. I would say one of the reasons the poem works so well and with such economy is because it is able to rely on the established character traits of one of the most famous characters of all time. He probably just gave himself license to ignore some of the details.

One thing that strikes me about the Tennyson poem is how Ulysses stays true to his identity. He finds it "vile" to stay put. He is a wanderer and will pursue adventure until he meets death. I have a ways to go before I reach retirement age but I've seen others suffer a real identity crisis when that time comes. It's almost as if they feel they are betraying their identities (maybe professional identities?) when they retire or consider retiring.


message 40: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Caeliban wrote: "Laurele wrote: "The other hero I always think of when I read Tennyson's poem is Reepicheep. :)..."

Wow! It's been 30 years since I've read those books. I had to look up the reference. Wikipedia ..."


One major difference, of course, is that Reepicheep was going East, toward the sunrise, and Odysseus was going West, toward the sunset. I think there is some meaning in that.


message 41: by Mark (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments I've followed Everyman's advice to read Tennyson's Ulysses several times. Fine advice, Everyman. What a rich poem! The multiple readings have clarified my understanding of parts of the poem, but the poem has also proven to be somewhat of a moving target, too.

One passage has been resonating with me:

"Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move."


I'm struggling with this a bit. It seems that Ulysses values the questing more than his past accomplishments. Even for Ulysses and all he accomplished and experienced, life events experienced are never as great as "the untravelled world" (or a future life experience) which "gleams" through the lens of our past experience. My early readings of the poem had me thinking that Ulysses' mid-life, or later-life, crisis was simply fear of growing old and regretting the prospect of inactivity or unproductivity. But I think he's also dealing with a slightly different aspect of our human condition. The attainment of our goals, or the experience of living, can often seem less valuable (less exciting? enjoyable?) than what we felt during the journey toward the goal or the anticipation of the experience.

So the end of the quest for Ulysses means confronting the ultimate insufficiency of life without the quest. So does even the great Ulysses needs the pop psychology advice to "live for today," "stop and smell the roses," etc., to avoid always postponing his enjoyment of life? Or, maybe we need to heed Ulysses example and always have a new goal or quest. Oh yeah--maybe a balance between the two would be good.

Thanks for assigning this great poem, and for the discussion.


message 42: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Mark wrote: One passage has been resonating with me:

"Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move."


I'm struggling with this a bit. It seems that Ulysses values the questing more than his past accomplishments. Even for Ulysses and all he accomplished and experienced, life events experienced are never as great as "the untravelled world" (or a future life experience) which "gleams" through the lens of our past experience.


Or is Tennyson's Ulysses feeling about his adventures the way Isaac Newton felt about his scientific discoveries? Newton said, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”


message 43: by Mark (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments Laurele wrote: Newton said, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Neat! Thanks for sharing that Newton quote, Laurele. Maybe our human need to pursue the undiscovered has a negative by-product--a tendency to devalue our past accomplishments. Old Isaac presumably was doing a lot more than diverting himself with seashells on the seashore, though that was his description (and I wonder if he was an old guy like our Ulysses when he expressed that thought?). Good thing for humankind, though, that Newton always felt the pull toward that "great ocean" of undiscovered truth.



message 44: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Mark wrote: Maybe our human need to pursue the undiscovered has a negative by-product--a tendency to devalue our past accomplishments. Old Isaac presumably was doing a lot more than diverting himself with seashells on the seashore, though that was his description (and I wonder if he was an old guy like our Ulysses when he expressed that thought?). Good thing for humankind, though, that Newton always felt the pull toward that "great ocean" of undiscovered truth.

With Newton I think it was just an honest outflowing of his natural humility. He also said, "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." Both statements are an expression of the cumulative nature of scientific breakthroughs.


message 45: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4509 comments Laurele wrote: "With Newton I think it was just an honest outflowing of his natural humility. He also said, "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." Both statements are an expression of the cumulative nature of scientific breakthroughs.

Sorry if this is way off-topic, but I'm not so sure about Newton's humility. From what I've read he was a rather imperious guy. In fact, it has been suggested that the "shoulders of giants" reference was in fact a veiled insult. Newton was writing to Robert Hooke, with whom he had an ongoing feud. It is thought that Newton was referring in a backhanded way to Hooke's hunched back and short stature.


message 46: by Darcy (new)

Darcy | 42 comments I can't help but think of Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto," when I read Tennyson's "Ulysses." This line from AdS really sticks out:

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?"

For me, though, I read AdS as being in earnest, and I am more skeptical of Ulysses. Personally, I find the final lines to be both defiant and spoken ironically. Ulysses knows that if he sets out again, he will not return. His twenty-year journey became a narrative because he survived and came back home. If he leaves again, it will be a journey that cannot be told because there will be no one to tell it. Dante, I think, ultimately makes the same point. Ulysses sets out, but his story is only heard because Dante is able to travel through Hell. Otherwise, it would be lost.


message 47: by Mark (last edited Mar 09, 2010 05:26AM) (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments Laurele wrote: Newton...Both statements are an expression of the cumulative nature of scientific breakthroughs.

Thanks, Laurele. I suspect I might have been reaching to impute to Newton a Ulysses-like obsession with the journey/quest. I think I was a bit biased to find support in your first Newton quote for the proposition I advanced in my earlier post about Ulysses devaluing his past. I think you have it right.

But thanks for the two Newton quotes. The "great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me" language is a great addition to our discussion about Ulysses, even if it doesn't really support my overly flexible logic! And I had forgotten that Newton was the "shoulders of giants" guy. Interesting to consider that he might have been dissing his hunchbacked competitor!



message 48: by Michael (last edited Mar 09, 2010 10:50PM) (new)

Michael Staten (mstatenstuffandthings) | 67 comments This has been a great conversation. Since it has kind of died down a little I'll more fully take up the invitation to compare the poems to other works.

Anna Karenina ends with three suicidal characters: Anna, Vronsky, and Levin. It might be interesting to compare the attitudes of Vronsky and Levin to the speakers in these poems. When Vronsky gets together some men and gets on a train to go to war hoping to die as a soldier is he repeating Ulysses's pattern of getting some friends together to escape an untenable present and seek a last adventure? When Levin overcomes his suicidal despair by finding a religious purpose is he raging against death?


message 49: by Everyman (last edited Mar 10, 2010 07:14PM) (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Caeliban wrote: "This has been a great conversation. Since it has kind of died down a little I'll more fully take up the invitation to compare the poems to other works.

Anna Karenina ends with three suicidal ch..."


That's a nice linkage of our two most recent reads.

However, I don't think Vronsky is a Ulysses. Ulysses is after positive adventure for adventure's sake. He knows death is coming someday, but he's going to grab the proverbial bull by the horn and make the most of what life he has left. Vronsky is a defeatist, quite the opposite, IMO.

I would more associate Tennyson's Ulysses with Don Quixote, except that Odysseus was much more practical than DQ. And a much better warrior!


message 50: by Michael (new)

Michael Staten (mstatenstuffandthings) | 67 comments To any that enjoyed considering what might have been next for Ulysses I would recommend The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel. Its 44 vignettes (just over 200 pages) propose all kinds of various alternatives to Homer's version of the events and forces the reader to reconsider the traits of the main characters by posing questions like: what if Odysseus was really a coward? Did Penelope really remain faithful? Was Agamemnon crazy? What is Polyphemous's (the cyclops) version of the story?

In one story Odysseus suffers amnesia and lives in a sanatorium. It posits that in order for Odysseus to stop wandering he must shed his identity.


« previous 1
back to top