I was standing in a sort of courtyard. A plain, ordinary courtyard filled with ordinary things: a car, a tree, a bike. People shuffled around the street and sparrows hopped from crumb to crumb.
And in that ordinary moment, I remembered some Tennyson: “I am part of all that I have met / Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades /For ever and for ever when I move…”
The day to day living is the same here as in America – I have written this before. Me in a courtyard in China is just like me in a courtyard in America, though I might be a little more confused in the Chinese courtyard. Nevertheless, my feet are here in this courtyard. And my feet were on top of Emei mountain, and in the streets of Shanghai, just as they walked the Golden Gate Bridge and jogged the streets of Chicago. And I think part of what Ulysses feels in “Ulysses” is that pull of wanting to be himself elsewhere, of recognizing the pull of the world and how it resonates in his heart. The horizon is a tantalizing thing because it promises differences, but what I think we hope for is that we will be different.
“Ulysses” is sad – he’s reflecting on the need to prove himself in his twilight years; that it is better to go out and fight than grow old at home. My cynical side notes that it’s easy for him – he’s got his son who inherits the kingdom and can do the work in his absence. I am lucky that I get to travel to work, but I must work. I have no husband or children to carry on my legacy. That’s another difference – Ulysses is old, and I am not. I cannot go out and seek the way I would want to because I have student loans – shackles which will stay with me until I’m as old as he was. OH! So when I am as old as Ulysses, and my debts are finally paid, then I too can “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western starts until I die.”
Now there’s the melancholy necessary to appreciate this poem, coupled with the optimism of knowing that I will not stop because things are difficult. Optimism in the face of challenges – that sounds pretty good.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
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 enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed 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 honoured 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;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too 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 grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
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.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. 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 though
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.
….Now how do I get out of this courtyard?