We live in the story

Today I visited the site of ancient Troy.

Many associations came to mind, but my favourite recollection was of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s beautiful poem, “Ulysses.”

Here are some of the best lines:

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
Vext 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 a part of all that I have met

[…]

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

[…]

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
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.

Over the years, I have expressed my love of this poem to friends. Some of my friends have disdained the poem, agreeing with Dante that there are good reasons for Ulysses to be in hell.

But I am inclined to take to heart Tennyson’s intention in writing the poem as a noble tribute for his friend and travel companion who died when Tennyson was just 24 years old. (Tennyson’s own sister was even set to marry this beloved friend of his.)

Tennyson attested:

There is more about myself in “Ulysses,” which was written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many poems in “In Memoriam.”

I find Tennyson’s poem evocative – with its zeal for life, tragic dimensions, exhaltation of nobilty, sense of adventure, and tenor of longing and loss.

It’s clear that Tennyson, as a young man who had gone adventuring with his pal, had felt that they lived a bit in the story of Ulysses. And life is richer when we live in the story – when our lives are not only our own but are lived out as story within story.

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