Like several other poems on the Countdown, Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses” [hideous website alert, but the best text I could Google up] requires a little backstory. Fortunately the backstory is Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, frequently taught and read to this day. This bestseller of ancient Greece recounts how Odysseus (or as the Romans spelled him, Ulysses) made his way home from the Trojan War. Ulysses was the original guy who went out for a pack of cigarettes and stayed out for 20 years. He kept talking the whole time about how he wanted to get back and spend more time with his family (wife Penelope and baby son Telemachus), but Telemachus was finishing college by the time Dad wandered in the door with a load of likely stories about the Cyclops and the Sirens and his buddies getting turned into pigs.
The Odyssey ends with Ulysses being told by some Gods that he needs to go out on a further adventure. Typical sequel hook; but if Homer even wrote the sequel, it was lost during the Dark Ages. Tennyson imagines Ulysses embarking on that “lost” final adventure. Ulysses addresses his men and tries to talk them into getting back on those ships and exploring the unknown once more.
But here’s where the poem breaks free from its backstory and becomes – I won’t avoid the word – noble: in the sense that Victorian writers like Tennyson could bring off, unashamedly; a sense that we’ve lost, perhaps, in a more cynical and self-conscious era. As soon as Ulysses starts his speech, the setting fades into lower profile. This could be anyone encouraging people to embark on a project without huge immediate Return On Investment, without “cost certainty,” without well-defined outcomes measures – and I suspect that Ulysses is yet another of these guides “who only has at heart your getting lost.”
Why do we keep looking after we should be satisfied with what we’ve found? Why do we get up in the morning?
Most poignant of the many themes in Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is that of age. Ulysses’ last voyage is magnificent to contemplate because he’s so old, yet so driven to continue seeking for whatever’s out there to be sought. Mandatory retirement is not in his vocabulary. Telemachus, who plays it safe, comes in for some damning by faint praise, but not much. “He works his work, I mine.” And “mine” – Ulysses’ – is the work of living itself.