Beyond The Utmost Bound

bee on hebe
A bee enjoying a Hebe, front garden, 2 July

Day Four of my  slow reading of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ – an idea for a Shared Reading group, which will take a full session, and won’t be suitable for every group. But for a bunch of people who may be in a give up/don’t give up situation, or for those of us facing the growing closeness of age… really worth reading. Search ‘Ulysses’ to find previous posts. Go here to find the whole poem and don’t forget to read it all aloud before you start trying to get into it!

Yesterday I was writing in the back garden to keep the birds away from the cherries, and I am back there today, late to my writing for a number of reasons, one of which is the  big online sleep experiment.  Scientists are trying to  see how much sleep or lack of sleep affects brain function. My goodness, some of those puzzles are scary!  I realised while I was doing them that even the word ‘test’, as in ‘Take the Test!’  makes me feel anxious. All those years of failure at school leave their mark.  But I enjoyed participating and am hoping that the study will encourage me to get my sleep  hours up to at least  seven a night.

However, to ‘Ulysses’. I was in this section:

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.

I think I was about up to ‘but every hour is saved/from that eternal silence’, which is sometimes how I feel on days when I wake up early and have the dawn hours to myself to read and write. Ulysses doesn’t just want the time, he wants time for a purpose, to him time gained is time as a ‘bringer of new things’. He makes his own argument for movement, for change, against  staying put, and  as he slightly thinks about his stay-at-home life we’re back to the frustrated vocabulary of the opening – ‘vile’, ‘store’, ‘hoard’.

What does he mean by ‘for some three suns’?  It’s a period of time and I guess years – though why that would be a sun I do not know.  But I don’t think it is months. This is the kind of thing someone in the group might want to look up on their phone but I’d ask them to hold off until we’ve tried to work it out a bit – we want the sense that we can either understand it or not be  bothered by not understanding it. It’s not the time period but the feeling of ‘hoard’ that is important here, the feeling of going ‘grey’ when you still have

                         spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This ‘utmost bound of human thought’ seems connected to the arch we read about yesterday:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

This is that sense of what Wordsworth calls ‘something ever more about to be’, the uncatchable,  the ineffable, the  reaching after which is the engine of human endeavour. There is always more, and a person like Ulysses will always want to pursue it.  And so he does, turning now to his son, and handing on the duties of  rulership:

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.

You can feel him reaching for his coat and heading for the door as he speaks. Telemachus is suited to one kind of job – and that job is not nothing, either –  building a civilisation:

by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

This is good work, but not  the kind  of work Ulysses  could fancy.  And Telemachus seems damned by his father’s faint praise: he is described as  discerning, prudent, blameless, decent and ‘centred in the sphere /of common duties’.

I would want to stop here, in my Shared Reading group, to talk about ways in which the good can seem mundane, or even boring. The wildness of a Ulysses, or any great hero who goes beyond the bounds of human experience, human thought, is enormously attractive, but as a species we need our Telemachuses as much as our great adventurers, don’t we? Is it simply because the great adventurers are rarer spirits that we  prize them more?  (If we were making a film of this poem, who would you cast to play Ulysses? Clint Eastwood, Russell Crowe?  and Telemachus? Some quiet, well-behaved bod I can’t even  remember the name of… This is a game  I often play in groups, because most people have ideas about actors, and know they stand for something when you are trying to cast them, it gives us a clue into the character we are reading about).

And the faint praise continues: Telemachus can keep everything ticking over, even ‘pay/Meet adoration to my household gods’.

I would want to ask what might be lost by not paying  ‘meet adoration’ to your own household gods –  loss of domestic security, the quiet comforts of home, or of being well-ordered at home.  How much does that matter?

But the poem presses on and Ulysses manages a  generous wave as he leaves the palace:  ‘He works his work, I mine.’ And he is about to get to his work now… but we’ll leave the last movement til tomorrow, as I must stop now for today.

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