Tennyson’s Ulysses was written when Tennyson was a very young man, but it deals with Ulysses in his old age, home from twenty years of wandering and fighting the gods themselves, and it resonates with men of the age Ulysses is in the poem. How is this possible? Tennyson grasped on the longing of age for lost youth, but also for the thrill and race of adrenaline that warriors must leave behind when they retire from the field of battle, whether that be the military, or the less life threatening boardroom of a business.
His legacy from this poem seems clear in the other great poets of far-flung continents that came a generation after he wrote Ulysses. The spirit of Wanderlust affected the people of Tennyson’s time, and in Ulysses he captured that feeling, which would become the refrain of Kipling, Service, and Paterson. Rudyard Kipling certainly knew Tennyson, as they were contemporaries, but there are no records of either AB Paterson or Robert Service meeting him. Nevertheless, their poetry is full of the themes that began with Ulysses’ “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees.”
Kipling’s The Old Men
“We shall lift up the ropes that constrained our youth, to bind on our children’s hands;
We shall call to the waters below the bridges to return and to replenish our lands;
We shall harness (Death’s own pale horses) and scholarly plough the sands.”
Tennyson’s youth was bound by his father’s drunkenness, mental instability, and poverty. It wasn’t until he was able to leave home for college and the relative freedom of that institution, where he was to meet his great friend Arthur Hallam, that he began to truly produce poetry. During this time he was also able to go on a grand tour of the Continent, a custom of the time where a young man could see the world, or as much of it as was easily accessible, and it is certainly from that experience that Tennyson was later able to draw the resonance of Ulysses longing for his travels once home again. Much later in life, Tennyson would travel more, but when he wrote Ulysses, he would most likely have felt that he would never leave home again.
Robert Service’s Spell of the Yukon
“There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And Deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land – oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back – and I will. “
Robert Service echoes even more strongly the yearning of a man for the unknown, for the wilderness that could take his life between one heartbeat and the next. He comes back in his poetry again and again to the concept of the explorer, a man who doesn’t fit in, like Ulysses’ frustration with the sedate, everyday people who populate his kingdom, and even his scorn for his son who is quite happy just dealing with the petty affairs. Ulysses was one of the “Men that Don’t Fit In,” as you will read below, and there are many like him, stifled in office jobs, or menial work because they cannot conform to society today. It seems that we no longer have wildernesses and unknown countries for men like this to explore, and many who feel the Wanderlust have no outlet for it, unlike Tennyson’s time, when there were still large parts of the globe unmapped.
Robert Service’s The Men that Don’t Fit in
“There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they just don’t know how to rest.”
After the Industrial Revolution, which Tennyson was philosophically opposed to, the concept of retirement came in. Tennyson’s idyllic vision of a bucolic countryside, being spoilt by the encroaching engines of steam and power, did not extend fully to include the aged and halt still working in the field, or at whatever jobs they could manage, right until the last. It was only with the rise of business as we know it that the concept of being able to stop working, retire to some pasttime and relax, came into being. With this historic change came a dawning realization on the parts of families and doctors as they watched these men stop working, and within a far shorter time than expected, simply die.
A. B. Paterson, A Voice From Town
“But a truce to this dull moralizing,
Let them drink while the drops are of gold.
I have tasted the dregs – ‘twere surprising
Were the new wine to me like the old:
And I weary for lack of employment
In Idleness day after day,
For the key to the door of enjoyment
Is Youth – and I’ve thrown it away.”
The conundrum of men reaching what was their stated life-goal after working for years, to be able to be home with their wife, and enjoy their old age, falling into depression and dying shortly after achieving retirement has been much studied over the years since it was first observed. The percentage of men suffering from depression is notably higher than women who retired with them (Doshi, p 693) which can partly be explained by the continuing roles of a grandmother to care for the newest generation of youth (Szinovacz, p 4). Men seem to struggle more with the change in roles (Mo, p 470), which can have deleterious effects on their health and will to live, as seen in the Paterson poem above, where the old man is drinking heavily in regret for his lost youth and inability to work.
Rudyard Kipling, The Mary Gloster
“Not the least of our merchant-princes.” Dickie, that’s me, your dad!
I didn’t begin with askings. I took my job and I stuck;
I took the chances they wouldn’t, an’ now they’re calling it luck.
Lord, what boats I’ve handled — rotten and leaky and old —
Ran ’em, or — opened the bilge-cock, precisely as I was told.
Grub that ‘ud bind you crazy, and crews that ‘ud turn you grey,
And a big fat lump of insurance to cover the risk on the way.
The others they dursn’t do it; they said they valued their life
(They’ve served me since as skippers).
“I didn’t begin with askings” this was a man who started at the bottom, unable to have an opinion of his own, but by the end of the stanza he was the man in charge. He took crazy risks, and they paid off for him. Like Ulysses, he saw many men die, men he could call friends, who had struggled alongside him. Yet he survived. He states that it was not luck, it was the risks, and the hard work, and the willingness to throw his life away that made him a merchant-prince in the end. Ulysses, always fighting his way toward home, came home to a kingship, and a nagging sense of loss when his risks were all done.
Paterson’s The Road to Old Man’s Town
“And marching with us on the track
Full many friends we find:
We see them sadly back
For those who’ve dropped behind.
But God forfend a fate so dread –
Alone to travel down
The dreary road we all must tread,
With faltering steps and whitening head,
The road to Old Man’s Town!”
In Ulysses we see this theme of companionship being dear to him, those friends he had lost on his journeys still with him, “my mariners, souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me” (p. 395). In the original Homeric telling of Ulysses return home, none survived to come with him into Penelope’s hall. Perhaps this longing for those lost friends also ties into his stated intent “to sail beyond the sunset , and the baths of all the Western stars, until I die.” The bonds forged in battle and adversity are strong, a brotherly love that gives more to men than we commonly consider. David Drake writes of this relationship, “pain shared is pain divided, joy shared is joy multiplied,” in his story of veterans come home from war, ‘redlined’ or beyond the point of endurance for a human (Drake, location 2280). They can only speak of what they saw to those who were there with them in the cauldron of war, and that is a barrier forever between them and the life they left for war, then came home to, leaving too many companions, like Ulysses’ mariners, behind them. This does not make them broken, it has been discovered. Those who did learn to cope gained in wisdom proportionate to the stresses of combat they had undergone. The study states “how one appraises and copes with problems may be more important in the prediction of positive adaptation than the simple occurrence of stress” (Mroczek, p. 115).
“I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart”
Historically men have borne the brunt of the search for new lands, the forge of battle, and in my paper I largely addressed this as a male issue, for Ulysses is a man who having come home to his woman now yearns to leave her again. In our new world this is no longer the case, and women walk alongside their men to find the far shores of that dim sea in partnership. Even in the Victorian era of Tennyson this was done, but not celebrated as it is today. Yet, now that we can be men and women united in our search for those far shores, what are we seeking? With Earth giving up her mysteries, what remains? Where shall we send our young men, to struggle, die, but return oddly changed by their experiences, to be the men of these poems? Today, the wilderness might lie as far out as the stars, where the tinkling pinpoints of light might be a planet fit for a siren, or a god of which we cannot name with the knowledge we have today. In time, though, Wanderlust will break through the bounds of gravity and we will roam again, for in many of us chained to this modern world there lies a hungry heart.
Overlooking the land where anything might happen – wanderlust