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.
-Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
You have to love Tennyson. Well, most of the time, anyway --- I’m not a fan of how he extols egregious stupidity in his Charge of the Light Brigade (‘O the wild charge they made... Honour the Light Brigade, noble six hundred!’), but Ulysses… ah, now that’s a different story.
In my last post, in honour of Valentine’s Day, I held up Will’s Sonnet 29 as a terrific example of a love poem. Not too long, not gushy or mawkishly sentimental… but really written from the heart and just a beautiful thing to say to someone. Great poetry.
So I wasn’t too surprised when I was asked by a friend about inspirational poetry: what poem could I point at and say, “There’s a piece that really could make one decide to face the day.” (I’m not sure about seizing the day, but it could probably do that, as well. Good poetry is often multi-functional.) And once again, I didn’t have to think very long before an example came to mind.
Ulysses is a much longer poem than the excerpt I’ve put at the head of this post, of course. It references Homer’s epic hero Odysseus, whom the Romans turned around and renamed Ulysses when they appropriated the poem from the Greeks (as they did with so many other things, too --- like their entire pantheon of gods). Ulysses (which is marginally easier and shorter to type than Odysseus, so that’s what I’ll use) was quite the world traveler, seeing all sorts of wonderful (and not so wonderful) things on his journeys. The only problem was, he was gone so long, everyone thought he was dead… and it was quite a surprise to everyone, including his wife, when he at last returned. It’s a great story… well, narrative poem.
Tennyson’s poem takes on quite a different flavour. In it, Ulysses is much older, but is thinking of going with his friends out on one last journey --- even though, as Tennyson says, they’re older and don’t have the youthful strength they once had. It’s wistfully sad, really, a metaphor for us all as we age and the dreams of our youth have either been fulfilled or receded into the mists of time. It’s a metaphor for our mortality, something young people rarely ever think of and older people can’t stop thinking about. How we all grow old and lose our youthful vigour as we approach the ‘undiscovered country’ (in Will’s words) from whom no traveler ever returns.
I can see your brow furrowing in bemusement. Now, hold on just a minute, you’re saying, I thought we’re talking about inspirational poetry, not the end of a life and the coming of death. And yes, yes, we are. I’m coming to that. Work with me, here. The inspiration --- for me, anyway --- is the very last few lines: “…that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts made weak by time and fate, but strong in will (dramatic pause) to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Oh, yeah, he breathed, eyes closed. I still get goose bumps with that last line in particular. What the passage is saying is that, in spite of the crap that life throws at us --- on a fairly constant basis, it seems at times --- and in spite of the fact that we age and as we do, we are no longer capable of some of the things we used to do (note that italicized qualifier on my part: some things, we can’t do anymore as we age, while others, we just get better at), we don’t just lie down and give up on life. We keep going, looking for new challenges to conquer while savouring the victories of old. Above all, we don’t yield: to indifference, to despair, to evil… to the 1001 things in this world that seek to bring us down on a daily basis. Or, as I phrase it in an as-yet unpublished prayer from the sequel to my novel Gryphon’s Heir, the ‘forces of evil and malign indifference which are abroad and at work in the world.’
To strive, to seek, to find… and not to yield. Is that not a great mission statement for life? In English or in Latin? Oh, yes: Certare, Petere, Reperire, Neque Cedere, in case you’re wondering, although I admit, it doesn’t roll quite as trippingly off the tongue as some Latin mottos do. But that’s beside the point.
The point is, if you go out there and strive… seek… find… and do not yield to the forces of evil and malign indifference abroad and at work in the world… then you can’t help but have a pretty damn fulfilling, interesting, and mostly joyous journey.
Who could ask for anything more?