from Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a piece to celebrate the announced discovery of the oldest intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea with its mast, rudder, and even a rower’s bench still in place. This can’t be fully romanced into being Ulysses’ ship—it’s centuries newer—but it does give us an object, beyond the stories, to remind us of ancient sea voyages.

“Tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” This vase depicts a ship like the one in the shipwreck.

 

Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of his best-known shorter works, and one I was a bit surprised to find still survives on the seabed of modern teaching syllabuses. I expect that many will read “Ulysses”  as a complement to Tennyson’s American contemporary Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus”  which we’ve featured here, as a pledge from one who is old and past their expected prime to continue to strive. After all, the most quoted section, the one I used, starts right off declaring “You and I are old.”

Well for someone my age or Dave’s—that is to say, old—this understanding might seem natural.*   Indeed, as we recorded this last week, we too were not “that strength which in the old days.” But if one looks at Tennyson’s “Ulysses,”  both biographically and mythologically, there are some surprises to be found.

Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that this was not some later work by a long-lived poet (as Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus” was),  but instead the work of a 25-year-old? Odd that in our modern times, where we often expect authenticity in our poets, were the poem is expected to be biographically true to the author’s own experience. But of course, it isn’t rare for younger people to feel old and to feel an age is past. Tennyson chose to make his poem’s speaker aged because it did represent something he felt after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam (the same friend that his book-length epic elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.”  was dedicated to).

If one looks at the poem and sets aside preconceptions, you may find, even in its oft-quoted concluding exhortations I used, an undercurrent from this inspiration. Not only is this Ulysses a hero well-past the age of his greatest physical vigor, he’s demonstrating in his concluding speech two other characteristics. He’s looking backward to look forward. He recalls his Homeric feats, acts that in that story literally had heroes that “Strove with Gods.” He reminds his crew, in effect, “Look, we are the generation that knew Achilles personally, not the modern folk who only read about him.” Which brings us to the subject of his crew, the men he’s addressing in this exhortation. Homer’s Odyssey  is clear on what happens to them, after deadly battle followed by deadly mistakes: they were all killed, long before this poem begins. Like Tennyson after the death of his friend, those who know, those who shared and could testify to Ulysses soul, are gone. So, when he asks to set sail in that boat, there will be no rowing soldiers on those benches sitting well in order, except in his soul.

So, he’s crazy? Deluded? After all, he’s plainly talking to those that aren’t there. Well this is a poem, a work of art. Ulysses might never have existed, or might not have existed in the way we know him if not for Homer, who also might not have existed. And Tennyson and his friend Hallam? We can pretty well know they existed, even if anyone who could say of the eventually long-lived Tennyson “who we knew” is now dead, and so closely equal to the imagined. This is a poem about the hereness of the not-here.

I was telling my son the other day, “Death is the leading cure for immortality,” but sometimes the cure doesn’t take. I can’t say that the LYL Band’s performance of this part of “Ulysses”  is immortal, but we do strive to seek to find and not to yield. Hear it here:

 

 

 

*An example of the waterworks potential for this poem when read by Helen Mirren, making Stephen Colbert cry.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 3

We return with the next three in the count-down of the most listened to and liked audio pieces of last Winter. Like last time, all poets who worked in the 19th Century, but in this group, all men.

Two out of the three today are from the British Isles. In may be no surprise, given its head start in English literature, that Britain is an outsized contributor both in words to be used and the Parlando Project’s reader/listenership.

I’ll be taking my second, short low-budget trip to London this month, and I’m frankly not sure what I will find this time, other than planning a side-trip to Margate to see the Turner art museum there and its small exhibition commemorating Eliot’s “The Wasteland” which was partially written in Margate. I’ll no doubt re-visit the Blake room at the V&A, and who knows, maybe I should try to find that alley beside the Savoy Hotel?

JMW Turner Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate

The London forecast calls for rain, hopefully not JMW Turner stormy though!

4. Ring out Wild Bells

When I posted this for New Year’s I noted Tennyson’s level of fame when alive, something that even the most popular Instagram poet cannot reach now. What I found out afterward was even more intriguing, that this section of his long poem “In Memoriam A.H. H.”  has become a tradition in Sweden to be read at the turn of the year, sort of how the Times Square ball-drop is ceremoniously repeated in New York, or how Guy Lombardo would once appear with his Royal Canadians near the top of the hour on TV to play a Scottish tune.

As evidence of Tennyson’s fame, I noted that my little Iowa hometown had a major street named for him when it was platted back in the 19th Century. Eventually the town and it surrounding farms were settled largely by Swedish immigrants. The Tennyson and bell-ringing tradition in Sweden started in 1927, long after the town was founded and settled, but wouldn’t it have been good in the town’s heyday if the farmers, shopkeepers, and schoolchildren had gathered on the sides of the street on New Years Eve to hear a poem?

Instagram poets get knocked for the shortness of their verse and it’s focus more on remediation than demonstrating literary skill. Tennyson built “In Memoriam”  into a book length series of poems, but his focus too was on remediation, in his case, of grief.

 

3. The Wild Swans at Coole

Yeats was Irish, and for decades I’ve met monthly with a group of poets the majority of whom were Irish-Americans. Yeats seems to have seamlessly transported himself between the 19th and 20th Centuries, changing so smoothly that he could not be observed changing. Somewhere around the turn of those centuries he decided that poetry should be chanted (not sung) to music, and yet we seem to know little about how exactly that sounded. Contemporary reports (and that’s what we have, there are no recordings I’m aware of) were decidedly mixed, even derisive, and Yeats eventually set that quest aside. The recordings of Yeats reading that we do have are from decades later, and in them there may still be traces of that concept audible in his, by then unaccompanied, reading style.

Yeats warns listeners that his chant may not necessarily enchant.

Reports also tell us that Yeats suffered from a difficulty carrying a tune, much as I do. His chanted, not sung, idea did not come from that he tells us, rather it came because conventional art song had too much ornament and melodic elaboration, deducting from the inherent music in the words.

In the course of the Parlando Project I take various stabs at what Yeats was trying to do, recreation in the literal sense, trying to create from the ancient and natural connection between music and poetry some combination that doesn’t privilege one over the other. Sometimes it’s spoken word, sometimes it’s “talk-singing,” and sometimes I think it necessary to sing.

I avoid apologizing for my musical shortcomings. It never mitigates anything anyway, and I’ve always found the humble-brag distasteful. I’ve hesitated at—and decided against—releasing performances most often because of failures of my singing voice. This performance came close to staying in the can. At times it works, not from my skills, but because there’s a certain match in the failings in the voice and the meaning of the poem.

 

2. My Childhood Home I See Again

One last 19th Century poet, an American. Long-time readers here will know that US President George Washington’s teenage love poem “Frances”  has been a surprisingly persistent “hit” with listeners here. It didn’t make the Top 10 this season, but we now have another Presidential/Poetical contender in Abraham Lincoln. If Washington was all youthful alt-rock persistence, Lincoln is more goth, with a downcast you-can’t-go-home-again tale of all he finds missing when he re-visits his hometown in his thirties.

Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again”  was very close to the popularity of the Number 1 this season. If didn’t count the substantial Spotify plays the Number 1 received, Lincoln would have topped this season’s list.

I posted this for what was once a common U.S. holiday, Lincoln’s Birthday. Also on this season’s Top 10 are the Tennyson New Year’s post and Rossetti’s Christmas song posted on Christmas Eve. Not sure if this is a trend, but listeners did like the holiday poems this winter.

 

Tomorrow, the most popular audio piece.

Ring Out Wild Bells

This guy was once famous. Not just writer-famous, but Beyoncé or Beatles famous. In England, and to a large degree in America, he was the face of, and the center of, Victorian poetry. And poetry in Victorian times, the written-down and printed in books kind, was still a force in mass culture.

tennyson

Once an empire’s most famous poet, now reduced to modeling a Slanket.

 

The town I grew up in was platted and settled around 1880, its success achieved by the industrious Swedish-American farmers around it and the railroad that went through it. The town was named Stratford, after Shakespeare’s birthplace, and so it was that the town’s main street, with it’s block of stores, was named Shakespeare Avenue. Shakespeare Avenue was met just north of the shops by the town’s central cross street, Tennyson Avenue.

That’s a remarkable piece of trivia isn’t it? Think of how many suburbs and housing developments were similarly planned and platted in the centuries since in the United States. How many of them had main streets named for contemporary poets? Milton and Byron had their streets along with Shakespeare in Strafford, but even Byron was 50 years dead; but here was Tennyson, a man still in his career across half a continent and one ocean away, and here this proud avenue in a farming town was written down to bear his name.

The problem with being a big-thing Victorian, as Tennyson was, is that our Modernists came after them. Came after them in time and eventually, opposition. Even though you can see the influences of the Victorians on the early work of some Modernists, you can also see the things they came to reject in search of an art for their own time. In those scattered small settlements where page poetry is still read or studied, we are now more likely to be reading Hopkins or Hardy for the English, or Dickinson or Whitman for Americans, or hinge figures like Yeats who spanned the eras, than Alfred Lord Tennyson, the once leading poet of his age.

Besides the street in my tiny town, Tennyson lives on in a handful of phrases from his poems that have become commonplace mottos such as “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”words well-enough known even as their author’s fame and esteem has faded, that many people think they must be Shakespeare’s.

Today’s words come from another section in the same long poem or collection that premiered the “loved and lost” phrase, Tennyson’s broad meditation on loss and perseverance “In Memoriam A.H.H.”  If we’ve forgotten Tennyson, this makes it possible for him to be new again, and this is a piece, as I recast it, that seems very appropriate for our age—even for this year. The New Year’s bells ring in a new year, but they also chase away the devils of the old one.

So, enjoy the music I wrote and recorded for “Ring Out Wild Bells”,  but you may be surprised at how well Tennyson’s sentiments fit as you sing along with them while 2017 ends. The player for the audio piece is right below this.