I don't think I have any 'expertise' on this subject. I am simply somebody who loves poetry and who wants to share his thoughts on particular poems and what makes them great. If you love a sports team, you talk about them and you don't hesitate to explain why the manager should be playing such-and-such in a different position. If you love movies, you complain about Martin Scorsese's most recent movie and why it wasn't as good as the one before. Nobody thinks there is anything odd about this, or that you need a coaching badge or a film studies qualification to deserve an opinion. So why should I forbear to give my opinion on great poems and why I think they are great?
I have some hope that students looking for analyses of the poems might chance on my blog-- and, if they do, I hope I might inspire them a little about the poems. Most analysis tends to be so dry. I hope, too, that readers who already love the poems will enjoy reading my thoughts on them-- I know that, when I really love something, I want to read other peoples' appreciations of it. And finally, I would be thrilled if I actually introduced anyone to any of these poems, or helped them fall in love with them.
The poems I featured in my list, and that will therefore feature in this series, all have a certain characteristic in common, one that (I think) qualifies them for a special sort of greatness-- they all have a universality of theme that means they are, in a sense, about all human life everywhere. For instance, I have picked 'To Helen' by Edgar Allen Poe, and not 'The Raven'. 'The Raven' is a wonderful poem, but I don't really think the story of a bereaved scholar who is held captive by a talking raven can be said to be an allegory of the whole human condition. The poems on my list also share a certain loftiness of style. 'If' by Rudyard Kipling has often been voted the greatest poem ever, and it's certainly a first-rate poem, but it has a mellowness of tone that, to me, falls short of the grandeur I look for in the greatest poems.
The last point is especially relevant when it comes to Tennyson (and three of the poems on my list are by Tennyson). Tennyson was almost the epitome of a high Victorian-- long-bearded, patriarchal, staring piercingly into the distance in all of his photographs. He took life very seriously. He took the human condition very seriously. He had high ideals. We live in an era that is rather allergic to solemnity and seriousness, but we can't appreciate Tennyson's poetry unless we read it in the serious spirit it was written.
The first poem I will look at is Tennyson's 'Ulysses'. You can read it here. And I suggest you do, unless you already know it well, or you won't get much out of the rest of my article
'Ulysses' is written in blank verse-- verse written to a metre (iambic pentameter) but not rhymed. Blank verse is the most dignified and exalted of verse forms. Its metre is steady and stately. It's usually not ornamented by rhyme, repetition, or any other rhetorical devices. It is (in my opinion) the best verse format for extended poems, as more mannered verse-forms become oppressive after a few verses. And 'Ulysses' is a fairly long poem. (I once recited it at a dinner party, all the same.)
I can't remember where I first encountered 'Ulysses'. I think it might have been in the movie Dead Poets' Society, where the famous last line-- "to seek, to strive, to find, but not to yield"-- is spoken at one point. In my teens I carried it around in my pocket, in handwritten form, on a folded page with a few other poems (Yeats's 'The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland' was one).
One of the reasons I love 'Ulysses' is because I have always been fascinated by old men full of memories. Listening to people who have, as the phrase goes, 'been places and seen things' has always thrilled me. (I married a woman who has been described as a 'Time Lord' for the extent of her life experience.) My own childhood was very uneventful and unadventurous, so the contrast between my little world and the great world was very real to me. And the Ulysses of Tennyson's poem is just the kind of old man I admired the most -- not a dried-up and dreamy old man, but a rugged and sparky old man, very much still alive and kicking.
The older I get, the more fascinated I am by experience and the past. Its very intangibility seems to make it more real, more vivid. I've harped on this theme through countless posts, so I won't overdo it here, but this fascination is part of what makes the poem so delicious to me.
The lines in which Ulysses recounts his own past are my favourite in the whole poem:
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.What makes this so thrilling are the contrasts, in my view. Alone, and with comrades; on sea, and on dry land; in peace, and in war; in pleasure, and in pain. What is that distinct thing, the self, that continues through all these changes, and that becomes more itself the more changes it encounters?
How can the richness of life be manifested, except by contrast and variety? As I was coming into work this morning, I was looking at the very summery sky and found myself musing on the beauty of the seasons; the specialness of summer, autumn, winter, and spring. It would be terrible to live in a world of constant summer. In the same way, I feel the artistry of a loving Providence in the difference between man and woman, child and adult, one landscape and another landscape, one political system and another political system. I don't understand the mentality of people who want to erode these differences. And I can easily imagine a world where none of them applied.
How many stories involve the narrator journeying through a range of different experiences and backgrounds and atmospheres? Lord of the Rings, The Stand, Star Trek, Huckleberry Finn, and any number of others. The Odyssey seems to be the parent of all these-- maybe it wasn't the first (I don't know much about ancient literature and mythology), but it certainly seems the classic example. This is shown by the number of stories that have been consciously modeled on The Odyssey, from Joyce's Ulysses to the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? In terms of cultural influence, I think only the Christ story itself is more important. So in choosing Ulysses (otherwise known as Odysseus) as his hero, Tennyson could hardly have chosen a better embodiment of life's variety and adventure.
Essentially, Ulysses is Western man, through the ages. He "cannot rest from travel" and he tells himself that it is "not too late to seek a newer world". This restlessness is the mark of all the cultures born of ancient Greece-- the hunger for discovery and novelty that is always seeking new worlds to conquer, from Alexander the Great to the cowboys of the Wild West to the astronauts of the moon missions. It seeks new worlds of knowledge as well as space, and indeed any modern university could take a line from this poem as its motto: "To follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bounds of human thought."
This hunger is certainly appeased at a price. Imperialism, 'future shock', nuclear bombs, social alienation and many other evils can be attributed to this craving for newness and change and discovery. I have always admired the Amish for the choice they have made, which runs entirely counter it. As a conservative, I have even sometimes seen this urge as a kind of original sin. And yet-- there is something inexpressibly noble in it too. I think it is so much a part of us to escape, anyway.
(Of course, the journey into the unknown and the transcendent finds its ultimate fulfillment in God. God is the final frontier.)
My favourite line in the whole poem is probably that very simple line:
And manners, climates, councils, governments.
In one line we have a kind of mini-epic of Ulysses's travels, and its very vagueness makes it more vivid. There is something tremendously powerful in a one-line list of nouns. The same appeal lies in Milton's evocation of the angelic hierarchy in Paradise Lost:
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers...
I think you either get this or you don't. It is the poetry of every litany.
'Ulysses' is a slow-burning poem, for all its urgency. Its pace seems to be summed up by the wonderful lines:
The long day wanes, the slow moon climbs, the deep
Moans round with many voices.
I generally don't like picture-painting in poetry, because I have no visual imagination, but Tennyson's picture-painting is so deft and so discreet that we can smell the sea breeze and see the stars beginning to emerge while hardly noticing any picture-painting going on.
There aren't many 'currants' or purple patches in this poem-- although you could say it's all one purple patch. The language is extremely plain and dignified and there are few obvious flourishes. This is part of its appeal to me, though I have nothing in the least against flourishes in themselves.
Finally, the pathos of the last lines-- where Ulysses decides that he is, to put it bluntly, going to die with his boots on-- is incalculable. "That which we are, we are." This is perhaps the thing I find most noble about noble old men. A man is never more dignified and heroic than when he is confronting his own failing mental and bodily powers. Don't we all feel that, no matter how many victories a hero enjoys, the moment of his greatest heroism is the moment of his defeat? (Only recently I saw a painting, on the wall of a private home, of Napoleon's surrender, and was quite moved at the sight, and by the fact that my friend had chosen it for his wall.) Interestingly, one of the other Tennyson poems on this list-- The Passing of Arthur-- is also about a hero confronting his own failing powers and his own death.
This pathos and dignity can be illustrated by a thousand examples. I will only mention two I especially like. First, the words of Ronald Regan when he announced he had Alzheimer's: ""I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."
Second, the last words of 'The Battle of Maldon', an Anglo-Saxon poem describing a defeat of Anglo-Saxon warriors against Vikings: "Mind must be the stronger, heart the bolder, courage must be the greater, as our might lessens."
Perhaps there is nothing more decadent about our society than its increasing tendency to see euthanasia as 'dignified'. There is nothing dignified about being put down like an animal, though we might have compassion for somebody who makes that choice. Dignity is persevering until the end. Dignity is an old man, who was once a virile youth, hobbling from room to room, but remaining undaunted. Dignity is to say with Ulysses:
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.