What to read in a Shared Reading group: ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

scabius.jpg
Immensely tall yellow scabious in the Old English Garden at Calderstones

Earlier this week while reading ‘Beyond The End’ by Denise Levertov, I was reminded of ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I thought I might read it over the next few days. You’ll find the poem here.

This is a poem for a whole session, or possibly, depending on the amount of time you and your group spend talking, for two sessions. It’s a story-poem with thinking in it. Not sure how much I can get through  this morning but I’m going to start by reading the first two sentences. In a longish poem like this , it might not be a good idea to read the whole thing all the way through, because, if you have inexperienced readers in your group, they may well get lost very early on and then be adrift and  worried for lines and lines. Better to take it in small chunks and make sure you are keeping everyone with you.

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.

First – do you need to know the ancient Greek story behind the poem? No, you don’t –  the poem contains everything yo need to know to experience it. would Tennyson have expected his readers to know? Yes, he’d probably have assumed this  background was  in most readers’ minds. So might you want to glance at wikipedia. You might want that background info, and fair enough. But as I read it, I find myself thinking – there is tone of authority – about the poem, its setting , its meaning, its author, that I find at odds with the Reader spirit of Shared Reading. What is at odds?  Oh, received wisdom, the ways in which experts agree in knowing voices, how literary people talk in this dead and deadening way about a living thing… Read up,  by all means but then – throw it up. Get that info out of you.  Don’t let these men and women inside your head!

Now you have to read again, as if you yourself, with the poem, were entirely able to read, to understand. It doesn’t matter if sometimes we don’t understand. what matters more than anything is that we should have a live experience as we read, not regurgitating something  someone says or thinks or writes, but living our response – whatever it is. So let’s read:

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.

The poem is in the first person, and ‘I’: it’s in the voice of someone talking to us (or to himself or another and we’re overhearing).And it is a voice of complaint, this is someone who is fed up: there’s little profit in what he’s doing – look at all the words of  grumpy dissatisfaction: little, idle,still hearth, barren, aged wife, mete and dole, unequal, savage, hoard, sleep, know not me.

Most of these opening five lines are words of complaint or fed-upness or disgust. Ulysses  is wasting his own time  – you can imagine in pacing up and down, looking out of the window, trapped and longing to be away and in the next  – much longer sentence – he casts about for a different feeling:

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.

It feels really different now – hunger, appetite, movement, fame – this is the old life of Ulysses. He led the siege of Troy, he built the trojan horse, he travelled the world…and now, he had became the man who has led the life he led: ‘I cannot rest from travel.’

This would be a good a point to stop to think about ways in which, as Nietzsche said, we become what we are. How much does what we habitually do make us what we  are? Does being a nurse make you careful of people’s hurt? Tough or loving or both?  If you run a bar for thirty years will that affect your understanding of human nature?

Certainly Ulysses has had an amazingly active life: did that make him the man who says, now, in older age, ‘I will drink life to the lees’ ? (Does anyone know what that phrase means? As Reader Leader, you might well have looked it up. But don’t say so until everyone else has  had a a chance to share what they think!)

What does your group think of the word ‘cannot’? is Ulysses making a choice or is he in some way trapped in his own personality? And  ‘will’, as in ‘I will’ seems related to that cannot, doesn’t it? As if  this  speech is somewhat willed, as if  he is deliberately making himself this man?

Do you have to look up stuff you don’t already know?  In this next part, for example –  Hyades? Easy enough with wikipedia to do so.  But wear your wiki knowledge lightly, because it really doesn’t matter – the meaning is already in the poem:

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’d read it first and get the group to work at it – then I’d ask someone to look it up on their phone. But only after we’ve shown ourselves that we can understand it without the reference, wiki-confirmation.

Ulysses loves feeling a big feeling, loving greatly, suffering greatly – the connector is ‘greatly’. And he has felt these huge feelings in company – ‘both with those/that loved me’

and he has felt them alone when …

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea

Translate that, then… leaving an X to  stand for Hyades if no one knows what they are…Ulysses is saying he  had big feelings when the seas were stormy?  As when in shipwreck or storm, physical danger?  ‘…the rainy Hyades vext the dim sea’ means something like – they cooked up a storm.

Times up, more tomorrow

3 thoughts on “What to read in a Shared Reading group: ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A. June 30, 2017 / 7:57 am

    Hi Jane,

    Oh Dee Sea Us,
    What if Knot
    Then what Else?

    Seems to be about discontentment and loss.

    (Sorry got to go or be late for reading.)

    Currently reading: Mille et une Nuit. (Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Ed. Robert L. Mack.)

  2. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A. June 30, 2017 / 8:14 am

    Corrigendum
    ” loss of purpose.”

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