It’s almost a cliché to say that rereading texts brings new wisdom and clarity to the work. Where a first reading may be focused on the drama of climactic encounters, further readings can find the beauty in complicating action or elegance in the denouement. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses is perhaps the perfect example of this process of finding novelty in classic texts.

Those closing lines are bombastic and shocking, and on a first reading they are often the only part of the text that a novice reader will fully understand. Judi Dench delivers them in the film Skyfall, powerfully defending the need for vigilance in the realm of national intelligence.

They give the rest of the poem context for a reader unfamiliar with Tennyson’s prose.

But returning to Ulysses after what is close to 5 years for me, I find myself focusing on what Tennyson is building to get to those closing words. In the first stanza, Ulysses’ focus is on his pride.

“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”
He complains of his kingly work lacking glory and value. His words call to the potential left in his bones for real world changing work. But in the second stanza he softens on the importance of governance, moving the focus from his own potential and pride to defining what works are good and how his son is better suited to that calling.
“This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.”
Finally in the third stanza he comes back around to apply similar value judgements on the work that will let him, “shine in use”.

“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.

Nobility: for all his talk of glorified battle and sailing beyond the sunset what Ulysses is really grasping for is what a man of his nature is called to. He fought beside gods on the fields of Troy, and though he is getting older, there are still noble tasks to do. It is not too late to seek a newer world and to yield to the world of today is to abandon a better world for tomorrow.

Those final lines often feel like the only important ones in the whole poem, but in returning I’m finding deeper and more complicated intentions in Ulysses, and intentions that I can relate to my own life rather than what at first glance could seem to be the ravings of an aging soldier.

I’m sure this has been written about before by other smarter people than I, but I’m realizing the importance of recording these small discoveries. Recognizing when you expand your horizons and maybe become a little bit wiser than you were yesterday.

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