Many Tennyson enthusiasts will know that his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly in September 1833. Hallam's death coloured much of Tennyson's mature poetry. But perhaps no poem bears this out more intensely than the now famous, 'Ulysses' and the London Olympics use of the line, 'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield'.
Tennyson wrote 'Ulysses' in November of 1833 while the shock of Hallam's death was still fresh. In Hallam Tennyson's Alfred Lord Tennyson, a Memoir, by his Son (1897), Tennyson's thoughts on this poem are quoted. He said the poem 'was written soon after Arthur Hallam's death, and gave my feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in "In Memoriam"' (vol. I, p. 196). His reflections on this poem suggest it is about a man who realises life will never be as joyous as it once was, but he must find a way to move forward anyway.
At the opening of the poem Ulysses is at home in Ithaca lamenting the end of his adventures:
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. (lines 1-5)
After twenty years of adventure and danger Ulysses has managed to return home and, presumably, to dispatch Penelope's suitors. But he is not happy. He calls his people 'a savage race' that feeds off of him, but doesn't seem to love him as their ruler.
Ulysses clearly prefers life among his sailors:
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 (lines 6-9)
He yearns to return to the sea, to have further adventures. Ulysses values the joy and the pain he experienced on his travels. He felt loved by his men and able to face anything with them by his side, but he also felt able to face danger alone. Sitting at home in Ithaca, however, he seems to have lost these feelings of strength.
To justify leaving home again, Ulysses says that his son, Telemachus, is more than capable ruling in his place:
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. (lines 39-43)
Ulysses says his son is utterly different to him. Telemachus has a talent for ruling Ithaca that Ulysses cannot match. After this justification, Ulysses prepares for his final adventure. He realises he and his men are not as strong as they once were. He also realises they are unlikely to return from this journey, but must take the journey all the same. Sitting at home, he feels useless and imagines his men feel the same but they need to go and try to do something worthwhile:
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. (lines 52-53)
Ulysses' determination does not blind him to reality. He understands the toll time has taken on his men and on himself:
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. (lines 65-70)
These closing lines show that though Ulysses knows they are weaker in body, they are determined to act. How they will act is not clear. Will they triumph?Or are they knowingly going to their deaths?
These lines are also among the most famous in all of Tennyson's poetry. Just last year, the final three and a half lines were used as an inscription in the Athletes' village for the 2012 Olympic Games. Their use in that context caused some controversy.
The final line, taken out of context could be seen as a statement of steely determination such as we might expect of an Olympic athlete. However that is not fair to the poem or the sentiment it expresses. However, the decision to put that line in context by including the preceding two and a half lines also caused some uneasiness because the ending of Tennyson's poem is, and must remain, ambiguous.
Was this another case of 'marketeers' getting it wrong, or a great way of bringing great literature to a wider audience?
Read Tennyson's Ulysses poem