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Almost eight years ago on this Hollywood Progressive site I wrote “What I Owe to Poetry.” Among the many poems I mentioned was Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and I indicated it had become one of my favorites and how (while still in my thirties) it had contributed to my knowledge of aging and death. Now that I am an octogenarian those two subjects have a more personal meaning for me. In the remainder of this essay I want to indicate how and why this is so.

This example will be just one brief sample of how a poem can offer a capsule bit of wisdom on various subjects for different people. You may be male or female, young or old, black or white, straight or gay, a religious believer or not, American or foreign, but whatever you are (and you are not just one thing but have multiple identities) there are poems out there that you can embrace, which will nourish you and make you wiser every time you remember them anew. As the poet T. S. Eliot once wrote: “All language is inadequate, but probably the language of poetry is the language most capable of communicating wisdom.”

So on to “Ulysses”—and me. First, here is the poem itself:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd 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 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
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,|
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; 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:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
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.

How Tennyson’s Poem “Ulysses,” Helps Me Cope

Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens

The Ulysses pictured here is an aged king (“Match'd with an aged wife”) who returns to his Greek kingdom after all the adventures Homer had him experience in The Iliad and The Odyssey. He tells us he has had great adventures (“Much have I seen and known”), but now back in his kingdom he is restless. (“How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!”)

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Like Ulysses, I now am old, 84 to be exact. And I have had an eventful life—being an artillery officer in France for six months, marriage to a wonderful woman for almost six decades, raising three children together, living in DC during the Kennedy and Johnson years, and many trips to Europe, the old Soviet Union, and later Russia. But what really grabs me in the poem are the lines from “you and I are old; / Old age hath yet his honour and his toil” until the end of the poem.

Recently widowed and realizing that like my two best friends in college, I could (despite my apparent good health) now more than ever depart this earth at any time, I need a pick-me-upper or two to cope successfully with the years ahead. Regarding any blissful heavenly life after death, I would not call myself a “believer,” only a hoper. Therefore, I do not have that consolation that seems to comfort some other aging people.

But Ulysses words that despite his oldness, “Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. . . . 'T is not too late to seek a newer world” give me comfort, as does his ending:

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.

In the nine years my wife Nance suffered from Alzheimer’s, I took great comfort from Tennyson’s words that “some work of noble note, may yet be done.” Loving and caring for her seemed to qualify. And now that she is gone, coping successfully with her loss seems a noble enough challenge for me.

But with much wrong in our world—e.g., growing effects of climate change; Trump and Trumpsters; many Supreme Court decisions; senseless mass killings, both by deranged individuals and armies (like that of Russia in Ukraine)—we all (including us grieving widows and widowers) need, as Tennyson urges us, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” and to keep seeking “a newer world.”

I recently received, with countless others no doubt, an email from 100-year-old Norman Lear. Near the end of it, he urges, “Let’s take strength from one another and find the determination to keep going. We need each other. And our country needs us.” Wise words, to which I would only add: Find some good poems that you can turn to when you get discouraged. They can also strengthen you, strengthen your resolve to keep fighting to create a better world.