Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Ulysses and the Sirens
John William Waterhouse 

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems;
yet men die miserably every day
from lack
of what is found there."

William Carlos Williams

At some point in the late sixties, I rediscovered Tennyson's great epic poem, Ulysses.  I had read the poem in high school and college, of course, but treated it as little more than an academic exercise.  My perceptions changed, however, as I began to face the daunting headwinds of my own voyage.  I began to understand that Ulysses was more than just a poem; it was a reliable chart of the uncertain waters over which my own life would travel.  More importantly, it provided wise counsel on what one must do to not only survive the journey, but to find strength, joy, and fulfillment in it.

In the days that followed my rediscovery of Ulysses, I committed the poem to memory, where, for the most part, it has remained for four decades.  I share it with you now because, even if you have read it hundreds of times, there is always something fresh and inspirational to be unveiled.  If, like me, you are still writing the script for the third act of your life, you may find the poem's stentorian call to adventure to be especially moving.  It is, indeed, a time "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."  Enjoy!

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

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 enjoyed 
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed 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 honored 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 wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though 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 grey 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 scepter and the isle --
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered 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 honor 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,
'Tis 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 though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are:
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred Lord Tennyson
Portrait by George Frederic Watts


  1. Hi George: I always find Tennyson's Ulysses so stirring and a part of me resonates to his call not to yield, but to seek, strive, find some work of yet 'nobler' note ...

    And yet ... it flies in the face of my Taoist aspirations to relinquish seeking, desiring, wanting, striving. I am working hard on just being with what is, at staying in the present and not trying to grasp and cling to life and ever more exciting experiences ... to love what is, to satiate and quiet my hungry heart.

    It thus surprises me when I find this poem so deeply resonant with inner yearnings. It is hard to reconcile the deep desire to cling to life, to want to fill it to the brim with purpose, adventure, accomplishment before time is up - with the decision to accept (even love) what is exactly as it is. I guess this is the eternal conflict between our ego self and our higher nature.

    Knowing you are on a similar path, I would be interested to hear how you reconcile the two ... or if you even feel the need. I am presuming you have already given this must consideration. For example, how do you reconcile this poem with Lin Yutang? By this very question I find myself, very much like Ulysses, "following knowledge like a sinking star" ...

    Guess I am hoping to hear someone else's words about the challenge of reconciling these two worlds/calls.

    Do you ever have the opportunity to recite the poem aloud to an audience of friends or loved one(s)?

    Loved this post - as I'm sure you can tell!

  2. It's incredibly beautiful, isn't it. One of the most lyrical of poems. Would you consider creating a podcast of yourself reciting it, as Lorenzo did of his poem, and post it here? It should be read again and again, and listened to again and again. Afferin (as we say in Turkish for bravo) for memorizing it.

    At almost 54, when the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks, I have no wish for high adventure. I feel myself ease into the confidence of age and experience, while wishing to grow backwards in curiosity and learning, to be a child again. I want to read and write poems, I want to hear stories, I want to explore paintings and music, I want to look at things close up in Nature, in their essence. I want to feel humanity. It may be that this is high adventure, of a different sort.

  3. Ahhh, wild and lion-hearted old Tennyson and his indomitable Ulysses. It has been a while since I read this lyrical manifesto to an aging life—though whenever I revisit I always find that regardless of whether the gap between readings was long or short, its personal resonance has ever more increased. I find much of a kindred spirit in his words, for I, too, believe in drinking "life to the lees." Life is not an inanimate state; it is a being vivified, fired to action by that holy mystery which separates the recipient from being a stone beside the sea, sun baked and frozen in foam, washed night and day by relentless waves. Life is both wonder and gift.

    I have no desire to cling to life; the darkness holds no fear. Neither do I see my span as merely a platform for acquisition and accomplishment for accomplishment's sake. Life takes place only in the moment, the here and now rather than the future or past—though this doesn't mean I must sit and wait, in benign obsequiousness to that next wave washing ashore. No, indeed—I want to walk the path as upright and expectant as these aging bones allow, to find wisdom in the ordinary, beauty in the commonplace—to savor the gift and share it with all I can: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

    Thank you, George, for this lovely post…

  4. To Bonnie,

    These are challenging and interesting questions, Bonnie. Can Ulysses' call "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" be reconciled with the Taoist notion of acceptance and nonresistance? Is Tennyson stoking the fires of desire that are the source of suffering, according to Buddhist teachings? When you consider the totality of Tennyson's portrayal of Ulysses, do you find the hero's ego in ascent or decline? Is he moving toward a higher or lower consciousness?

    Personally, I have found much greater peace and contentment in my life as I have become more immersed in the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. I believe that excessive desire (craving) is the cause of most suffering; I believe that surrender and acceptance usually provide more comfort than resistance; and I try to live my life in the present moment, without the constant distractions of past and future. That said, however, I must confront an interesting paradox. I have arrived at this place of contentment precisely because I have been a seeker and have resisted the effort of the ego to imprison me in a world of power, greed, status, and narcissism. Under these circumstances, the only way that I can reconcile the situation is to follow Lao Tzu's advice and look beyond words to the essence of things. Words like "strive," "seek," "find," "accept," "surrender," and "yield" mean nothing to me except in the context in which they are used. Thus, I don't find any contradiction when you speak of your "Taoist aspirations" to relinquish desiring or wanting. Similarly, I do not find my spiritual goals to be compromised by "striving" for more simplicity, "seeking" a higher state of consciousness, "finding" my authentic self, or refusing to yield to the tyranny of the ego. For me, it's all about the direction of one's energy. Is it in the service of the ego, or is it moving one to a higher consciousness?

    Looking at our hero, Ulysses, I find a man who might have found great solace in Taoism as he attempted to sort out his final years. He begins by telling us that his soul is no longer being nourished by power and it prerogatives. He also tells us that he is concerned with an inner life that is virtually unknown to those who surround him -- "a savage race" that is preoccupied with material comforts.

    Ulysses then tells us that he is restless for travel. It is not the conquests of earlier voyages, however, that he now seeks, at least in my interpretation. It is the life of exploration and discovery that is his new lodestar -- discovery of some new work of noble note, some work not unbecoming to men who strove with gods, discovery of himself. The new journey, in fact, seems very much like the journey that we have undertaken.

    I don't know if my rather lengthy explanation helps to resolve the perceived conflict or not. On a personal level, however, I continue to be inspired by Tennyson's Ulysses. He seems to constantly remind me that one should not simply rest in the comforts of achievement, that one should be willing to risk those comforts in order to complete his or her own journey of discovery.

    As for reciting the poem aloud to audiences of friends or loved ones, I have offered excerpts but not the entire poem. As everyone knows, the excerpts usually grow longer with each glass of wine.

  5. To Ruth,

    Thanks for the lovely comments. I've never done a podcast, but who knows? Maybe that will be another adventure.

    The journey that you anticipate for yourself sounds wonderful, but it also sounds adventurous. If you read my long response to Bonnie's questions, you will see that, in my opinion at least, Ulysses was on a journey of self-discovery, a different kind of adventure. I might also add that your poetry is flowering in the most beautiful of ways. My best wishes on your own odyssey.

  6. To Grizz,

    Thanks so much for the beautiful and thoughtful comments. It's reassuring to find others who are inspired by this wonderful meditation on the the latter part of one's life. You are right, of course -- "life is a wonder and a gift"-- and what I particularly like about old Ulysses is that he recognizes that each day is a new offering of the gift.

    Bonnie's comments have raised questions about how one can reconcile a life of surrender and acceptance with a life of seeking, finding, and not yielding. I think your comments provide an answer -- the notion that we can stop clinging to youth and material things, and yet still continue to walk the path in search of beauty, wonder, and wisdom.

  7. Your post and discussions are energizing and yet very peaceful at the same time. I have admiration for all of you.

  8. To Wanda,

    Thanks for the generous comments. If the postings are both energizing and peaceful, perhaps I am on the right track. As you well know, I am also quite inspired by your own blog, which is the essence of peace, and which always calls upon me to look more closely at my day to day world.

  9. George, your explanation is very good, I relate to Bonnie's question, and your response, which is book-worthy. This exploration is something any of us who try to maneuver through society by living in the moment need sextants and compasses for, to find the way.

    I think I used the wrong word (podcast) for what Lorenzo did, which was an audio recording.

  10. To Ruth,

    Thanks, Ruth. My response to Bonnie was perhaps a bit overdone, since I was trying to sort out my own thoughts in the process. It's great to have these discussions, however, as we all move forward on our own journeys.

  11. I have been an admirer of Tennyson since I first read "In Memorium" as a teenager and wished I had that kind of emotional attachment to someone. Life has certainly been an adventure for me even if it hasn't been as epic as Ulysses! Waking up is an adventure. Feeling the floor under my bare feet is an adventure. Everything that happens between waking up and closing my eyes again is an adventure. Even then, the adventure continues!

    I finished reading "What the Animals Teach Us" but couldn't bring myself to comment--I am far too moved to write anything pithy. I am a devoted friend to my fur-children and that post made me realize anew how incredibly priveleged I am to be in their company.

  12. To Lord Wellbourne,

    Thanks for the nice comments. Onward with your adventures, and may you always be accompanied along the way by your "fur-children."

  13. Lord Wellbourne's comments are awesome. Actually, I have enjoyed reading all of the comments here. It's refreshing to see a group of people who enjoy discussion and thought on the internet.

    I fell in love with the story of Ulysses as a high school student, and I also love Tennyson's poem. As a kid, I was drawn to the romantic call to adventure. I still am, but now I can also appreciate the lessons he learned along the way. It is every human's story.

    Speaking of lessons learned, I also love the Waterhouse painting you included with the poem. That is a great choice. Thank you for sharing the poem and your wonderful thoughts. Again, I am inspired.

  14. To Julie,

    Thanks, Julie, for the generous comments. I agree with you about the extent of the comments of others. It is exciting to find a group of people who enjoy talking about the challenges of our collective and individual journeys. I like the Waterhouse painting also -- and I can relate to it, for I have been strapped to the mast from time to time in my own voyage.

  15. Hello George

    I have so enjoyed reading Tennyson's Ulysses this morning and also the comments, especially those of Bonnie, Ruth and Grizzled and your response to them.

    As I was driving home from the gym a few minutes ago I was musing on the thoughts of 'How little I need to be happy'. I am packing up my home yet again and know for certain now after two pack ups in the last six months, that there is little in a home that I need...I can nest anywhere...
    So to read your post has been a perfect complement to my musings.

    I always thought I was a seeker, til I realized that I was in fact a finder...and now I see that the travails and adventures of Ulysses are a reflection of the epic tale of each one of us. To me Ulysses'

    Come, my friends,
    'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

    is metaphorically speaking of an inner journey and challenge that I face at this stage of my life.

    In fact I see many of the myths and legends and stories of the generations to be maps of the psyche...I think of the works of Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes for example, which are based on this principle.

    thank you for a thoughtful and thought engendering post,

    Happy days

  16. A wonderful poem (and wonderful comments) which certainly changes in meaning from early high school readings to this encounter in my mid-sixties. I am a follower of Thich Nhat Hanh, for the most part, and am going to have to think about this striving/letting go discussion for a while....(Like the rest of my life, maybe?)

    I think one can strive, but just for the striving, not for a desired outcome. I admire Ulysses' growth and authenticity in this poem.

  17. To Delwyn,

    Thanks for the wonderful comments. This has been a great discussion and I am delighted to have your insights. To get to the point where one needs little, where one can nest anywhere, is a blessing. As I read your comments on this, I was reminded of T.S. Eliot's words from "The Four Quartets.' "To possess what you do not possess, you must go by the way of dispossession."

    I agree with your interpretation of Ulysses' desire to seek a newer world. I see his new journey as one from the material world of power and status to the inner world in which his authentic self can be discovered and allowed to flower.

    I have long been a fan of the works of Joseph Campbell. I'm not familiar with the works of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, but will check her out.

    Thanks for making such a nice contribution to this interesting discussion.

  18. To Kristi,

    Thanks for the comments. Glad that you not only enjoyed the posting, but the comments of others as well. It's been an enlightening discussion.

    I agree entirely with your observation that reading this poem in one's sixties leads to an understanding that is completely different from the understanding one had upon reading it in high school. It's ironic that people are introduced to poetry when they are least capable of grasping its significance, and then abandon it altogether when they need it most.

    I am also a great admirer of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I think that his philosophy would have resonated with old Ulysses as he left the material comforts of his kingdom in search of a newer world.

  19. With such an impossible amount of unread books towering over us, we are often loathe to go back and reread some of the classics, like this poem. Yet, if we do, it is like rediscovering them. A few years ago I reread Homer's The Odyssey, in Robert Fagles' brilliant translation. I had read it decades ago in college, but this go-through was as if I had never read it before. I cannot recall how much I took away from my first reading, but I certainly think now that it takes decades of living to be able to trully begin to appreciate these works.

    Much the same happens with this poem. The last stanza is so memorable and heartening as well ... so "much abides",

  20. To Lornezo,

    Great to have you back, Lorenzo, and thanks for the comments. Re-reading The Odyssey sounds like a great idea, and I agree that it takes decades of living to truly appreciate the value of great literature.

  21. Yes, a truly inspiring and rewarding poem - another one to reread and refer to constantly throughout life. And one I remember having to learn off by heart at school, along with the first part of another memorable poem of Tennyson's, 'The Lotus Eaters'. I enjoyed greatly the ensuing discussion here, and your 'interpretation' of the poem.

  22. To Robert,

    Thanks for the comments. I thought the extensive comments on "Ulysses" were quite interesting. There is something in the poem that really resonates with people, especially those of us who are in the second half, if not the final quarter, of life.