The first poem Tweetspeak proposed for this journey was from the last section from Tennyson’s Ulysses. It is a section I had previously printed and saved in a poetry notebook. So when I printed it again and read it aloud again, it felt like running into an old friend.
The first thing I noticed this time was that the poem is in iambic pentameter. As I read it aloud every day, I noticed the beats, five per line. Noticing them made me read it differently — less about punctuation and more about rhythm and sound.
When it comes to form, this poem is perfection. Listen to these S’s:
… 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 …
Memorizing made me notice other bits of alliteration I’d previously missed. It was easy to remember “the sounding furrows” when I noticed that what came next was another F, “for my purpose holds.” Memorizing also made me pay closer attention to word choice. It took me a while to learn that it was “touch” the Happy Isles. I kept wanting it to be “reach,” but “touch” suggests that all Ulysses needs to is touch the hem of the island, as it were.
This poem has inspired readers for over one hundred years. Military leaders have quoted it. Coaches have quoted it. People in dire situations have clung to its last line as an anchor: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” That line is why I first printed the poem, years ago.
But as I tucked the poem in my heart, that line no longer resonated. In my life’s particular dramas, I am often called to yield. The right response may be to not be so strong in will, not so much like Ulysses.
As I sat with the poem and the tea, I wanted to refresh my memory regarding Homer’s legendary Greek hero, which led me to start reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s The Odyssey (in iambic pentameter!). Here’s how she renders the first line: “Tell me about a complicated man.”
The more I read the story of Odysseus, aka Ulysses, the more I thought, Poor Penelope. I would not have wanted to be married to this complicated fellow. Can’t he just let that ol’ heart “made weak by time and fate” sit on the front porch with his faithful honey-boo and share tales of derring-do over glasses of iced tea? Must he really “push off” again? Does he need to attempt to move “earth and heaven” one last time? Chill, dude.
So why did Tennyson pick this complicated man as the subject for his poem?
Tennyson wrote “Ulysses” after the death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam. Thus began a ten-year period of isolation, writing only in private, publishing nothing. Tennyson sounds an awful lot like mercurial Ulysses when he said, of that period in his life, “I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all my life so that I desired to die rather than to live.”
Knowing that Tennyson was in a period of profound grief when he wrote these words helped me understand them. It explained the deep sadness I felt the more I sat with the poem and my genmaicha tea each afternoon. It explained why the poet might have wanted to write so stridently and with such conviction. Maybe he was seeking to inspire himself.
These are the thoughts that sprang to mind while sipping, reading, listening, and thinking about “Ulysses.” One day I noticed I had memorized it. But memorizing didn’t feel like the daunting task I expected it to be.
And in October when we did a three-mile hike to Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, I recited the poem in my head as I climbed.
Did you memorize the selection from “Ulysses” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the month’s poem.
By Heart for November
Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It will not ebb like the sea.
I am the pool of blue
That worships the vivid sky;
My hopes were heaven-high,
They are all fulfilled in you.
I am the pool of gold
When sunset burns and dies,
You are my deepening skies;
Give me your stars to hold.
— Sara Teasdale
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
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