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
Vest 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.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all to 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.
A section of Alfred Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses
It is slightly ironic that today’s baby boomers, a forceful generation that faced many firsts, is standing at the precipice of the past and the future, deliberating how to prolong the benefits of youth into an extended life expectancy. It seems somewhat cruel to have faced up to so many challenges: the demise of Nazi Germany, the civil rights era, women’s admission into universities for the first time, and to have time suddenly reward you with old age. This is a generation that lived up to the expectations set for them and by them, and now they are being asked to retire and to pull out of the game they so actively participated in for the majority of their young and adult lives. Where is the justice in that? Don’t we have a lot to learn from this group? Don’t they have stories to tell us? And more importantly shouldn’t we be listening to them, and to each other?
This morning my friend Riccardo and I got into a banter on favourite pieces of literature, Dante, the legend of Lancelot and Guinevere, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s
Ulysses was among them. It was Tennyson’s poem that caught my attention. For me, there was really no need to write another book after Ulysses. Don’t get me wrong. I love books. I love words. I am very content to curl up in the pages of a new found book. But for me Ulysses captured the human spirit so fully. While you might not agree with Ulysses or Penelope, it is their very flaws, their weaknesses as well as their strengths, that make them so compelling. And so human. They are no better than us. And no worse. They are like each of us; in all our rage and beauty as we face up to life.
Reading Tennyson’s Ulysses I cannot help but feel sympathy for this grizzled man that has endured and withstood the tests of time, but finds himself reaching the edge. While his body betrays him with knots and failing strength, his mind and his spirit are very alive and still hunger for the adventures of the past. There is still so much more to discover. The concluded stories were in some ways just an opening of Pandora’s box, and it seems premature to have the lid close on your fingers. As Ulysses says, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breath were life.” (This last line needs no further explanation of the injustices and the lack of imagination we impress upon the ageing population).
Reading passages from the poem, I cannot help but draw parallels between Ulysses and baby boomers. Knowing all that you know makes you want to set forth to do even more. It is part of your lived experience, it is part of your history, and it is even part of your DNA. Truth be told while some parts wane, there is still “And this gray spirit yearning in desire To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought” .After all these years of moving forward, how can you possibly retreat, or worse, step back and be told that the world is no longer yours to discover, or to experience. All of these experiences you endured have become a part of you and enable you to see the possibilities. Because despite the passing of time and the quiet slowing down of bodies, what does endure is the strong will and desire to strive, to seek, and to find. Come what may.
As Ulysses says:
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, 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, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the 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.