Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Return of Ulysses

It isn't unheard of that some otherwise forgettable or moribund movie should put me in touch with art - with some utterly far-fetched reference to a beautiful piece of music, a magnificent old (or new) building, or an exquisite poem, that I had somehow overlooked in the bustle of my own life. The people who make movies are, some of them, cultivated people who, though they may not be so expert at making movies, have lived lives, seen the world, and found their own ways through.

Watching the latest James Bond extravaganza, Skyfall, which as such movies go, is a few strides ahead of most of the others, put me ijn touch with a few lines from a poem identified, by Judy Dench, as Tennyson's:

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.

Dame Dench's character, known simply as "M," director of MI6, uses these lines as a sort of character witness for the defense of her department to the head of an oversight committee. It could also serve as one of those beautiful speeches of which the British are so fond that define them as a race. Rather as John Gaunt's speech in Shakespeare's Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,...

Except that old John was witnessing the very start of the panoply of English history, just as Dame Dench was apostrophizing it's decline.

But the lines from Tennyson quoted above are lifted from his wonderful poem, "Ulysses," of which I had no knowledge until I saw Skyfall, which I quote in full here.


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.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ulysses' words are noble and bold, but he seems quite like Quixote, sitting in Ithaca, old and used up by his many adventures, longing to begin a new voyage. If you calculate that he was young when he embarked for Troy - maybe 30 - and the Trojan War lasted 10 years, and his return lasted another 10 years, that would make him 50 at the end of The Odyssey. Perhaps Ulysses was simply unable to imagine to quiet, domestic life at home with Penelope, who after all waited 20 years for him to end his voyages. Stay home, Ulysses. Here and now is your promised land.

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