“I will drink life to the lees” – Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Poor Tennyson, like so many of the Victorians today, he can come across as pompous, grandiose, even corny.  Or, worse, quaint.

That is our loss, I think, and a result of our own myopia and a contraction of our brains and senses.

Today we live in a age of reduced expectations, an age of minimalist cynicism, though nevertheless, a fat and flaccid time of carping, of quibbling and twittering about essentially nothing. We bitch, we moan, we “friend” and beg online for others to “friend” us.

For a great poet today to approach great themes, to try to scale them, and apply all of his or her considerable talent, skill and personal insight/experience to them, is almost embarrassing to many, if not most.

For some reason, this poem of Tennyson’s came to mind today, particularly the line, “I will drink life to the lees.”  The line states baldly that the speaker intends to drain the whole damn wine glass of life, bottoms up, and swallow even the grainy dregs.

What today would we make such a grand assertion by a contemporary poet?

And yet I know in my bones we all harbor that universal urge to know, to feel and to understand and experience all things to “the max.”  To live our lives fully with no reservations, no holds barred and embrace risk instead of fleeing it. How sad it is so few of us are able to admit this to ourselves and instead ridicule it in others who have the nerve to declaim and embrace it.

The following poem is a dramatic monologue, a favorite verse form of the great Victorian poets, and in the voice of Odysseus (Ulysses to the Roman world).  He has finally returned home, almost miraculously and with the assist of the goddess Athena at critical junctures along the way, many years after the Trojan War, Helen, Achilles and all of that, and only after risking his life, limb and sanity.  He is finally safely back to hearth and the comforts of home. While he was away a-warring, a lifetime surely it seems,  his loyal, patient long-suffering wife Penelope kept the home fires burning in the palace while deftly repelling and fending off the courtship of a host warring contending suitors, fierce young men on the make who would claim the hand of the widowed queen and thus rule the realm.

And you know what? Finally home at last and safe and sound?  He is bored.

The thrill of risk, of daring and striving to achieve great things, Tennyson seems to be saying, is incomparable to anything life has to offer for it ratchets up life to a fever point, and then and only then we truly are alive and aware.

Whatever your tastes and predilections in poetry, if you’ve read and studied the Iliad and the Odyssey, this cannot fail to move you. A great poet writing at the height of his powers.

 

“Ulysses”
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 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.

 

 

 

 

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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2 Responses to “I will drink life to the lees” – Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

  1. Lonie Fulgham says:

    I read this a few months ago. Can’t wait to revisit it. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

    Like

    • Wonderful that you read it! It’s a biggie. “To strive, to seek to find and not to yield.” That last line, when I first read it so many years ago as freshman English major, was like a dare, like a lightning bolt that landed at my feet. The rolling thunder that followed it still lingers, reverberates in my mind. Haunting. The mark of great poetry.

      Like

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