26 June 2020: Poet’s Day 13
This week, I have chosen poems about kings and emperors.
“Ulysses” examines the ennui of a roaming hero forced into the tedious business of rulership and his longing for the voyages and deeds of his youth.
“Ozymandias” shows that all the glories and trappings of rulership eventually decay and even the kingdom can be forgotten.
“Kubla Khan” is a dream-inspired vision of the magnificence of an Oriental emperor.
Poem 37. Ulysses
“Death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”
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
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;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever 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 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 gray 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 thro’ 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 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.
Ulysses is the Roman name for the Greek hero Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, whose name is the basis for the term odyssey, meaning a prolonged voyage. After the siege of Troy, it took him ten years to travel home, during which he encountered Polyphemus the Cyclops, the cannibalistic Laestygonians, the sorceress Circe who turns half of his men into swine, and negotiated the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis. When he gets home, he has to prove his bona fides and defeat a number of men wishing to marry his supposed widow who has remained faithful to him during his long absence (the same can’t be said of him, apparently).
Having had all these adventures, is it any wonder that Tennyson imagines him fretting and complaining against his idleness, anxious to be looking at a new horizon as he has so often done in his travels. His son Telemachus can take the throne and Odysseus (or Ulysses if you prefer) can gather his old shipmates and set out to sea again. He has little thought for his wife, describing her only as “aged”—hint to husbands: that wouldn’t look like gratitude even if you were blind.
If the closing lines of this poem seem familiar, you may perhaps remember that Judi Dench as M recites them as part of her closing remarks to the inquiry panel in “Skyfall”, emphasising that although the younger generation of politicians and civil servants have written off the Secret Service, it is still active, willing and capable of protecting the country against all comers.
What I like about this poem is the hero’s expression of his indomitable will and desire to live his life on his terms: “I will drink life to the lees” show his desire to enjoy the life he desires and “vile it were for some three suns to store and hoard myself” his dislike of living a mundane existence; he admits to his age, but says, “Death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.” He and his men worked miracles in the past and are still capable of much before they must pay Charon to cross the Styx.
His purpose is most clearly stated when he says, “my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die.” This is what we expect of mythic heroes, the flourish as they vanish over the horizon in search of a new adventure. Odysseus isn’t satisfied with retirement, a safe pension and tedious comfort; he doesn’t want a happy ending, he wants more adventure. Odysseus is an epic hero: he scorns the safe, human life and his ambitions and outlook are truly superhuman.
Tennyson was Poet Laureate during Queen Victoria’s reign and is still very popular now, perhaps because of his knack for coining phrases; according to Wikipedia, he is the ninth most frequently quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. His other poems include “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. You might think that as Poet Laureate and a writer much admired in his own lifetime, he was a happy man but sadly he suffered from depression for much of his life, a trait that comes through in some of his other verse. T.S. Eliot said that Tennyson was “the saddest of all English poets”, though W.H. Auden was less than complimentary.
- You can watch Dame Judi Dench’s performance on YouTube.
- You can read about the poem on Wikipedia.
- You can read about Odysseus on Wikipedia.
Poem 38. Ozymandias
“’My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’”
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ozymandias is actually the title of two sonnets which have the same subject; they were written by Percy Bysshe Shelley (this one) and his friend Horace Smith (1779—1849) in a friendly competition. Shelley’s Ozymandias is the better known of the two.
Ozymandias is a Greek name for the pharaoh Ramesses II, the greatest pharaoh of the New Kingdom: taking the throne in his late teens, he is thought to have lived to the age of 90 (a rare feat in the 1200s BCE).
This sonnet impresses me with the imagery it conjures: I can see in my mind’s eye the shattered statue amid a sea of sand, and I imagine the haughty look on the carved face and the gigantic legs with the proud inscription beneath. Time has erased this great king’s achievements and all his domain is now a barren waste. How are the mighty fallen, indeed.
The Greeks called it hubris, meaning the sort of extreme pride or overconfidence that challenges the gods and usually attracts their unwanted attention. According to legend, the Greek gods were not prepared to accept that anyone might be their equal and made sure that everyone knew it—or at least, everyone who survived the thunderbolt.
Ozymandias is the superhero name Alan Moore gave to his anti-villain Adrian Veidt in the Watchmen miniseries of graphic novels. Moore’s Ozymandias also has the fault of hubris. The poem was also used as the teaser trailer for the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad: Bryan Cranston, who plays the protagonist Walter White, recites the entire poem, and its name is the title of the fourteenth episode of the fifth season, with the images of the poem reflected in the action of the episode.
Ozymandias (aka Rameses II) was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and is now on display in the Egyptian Museum. In this way, it seems that life imitates art: for all of his great achievements and the pomp in which he was buried, he is now displayed as an antiquity.
As a final note, this seems like a tenuous link with last week’s interview between archy and the Pharoah; this is an unintended coincidence.
- You can read about the poem on Wikipedia.
- You can read about the Breaking Bad episode on Wikipedia.
- You can see Bryan Cranston’s performance of the poem on YouTube.
Poem 39. Kubla Khan
“Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread, for he on honey-dew hath fed and drunk the milk of Paradise.”
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And amid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And amid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
The legend that has grown up around this poem is that it was written by Coleridge after waking from a dream, but he was interrupted by a visitor before he could finish, and left the poem incomplete because he couldn’t remember what he’d intended to write. The phrase “a person from Porlock” became a euphemism for an unwelcome visitor who disrupts one’s creativity.
The poem itself has a weird, visionary quality that certainly seems to be dream-like. Since Coleridge himself recorded that it was “composed in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of opium taken to check a dysentry,” it seems as if the effect of the drug might have influenced his mind, creating the most amazing imagery. The printed version of the story, however, omits any mention of opium and refers only to an “anodyne”.
Coleridge thought little of the poem, it seems, only performing it to friends like William and Dorothy Wordsworth from time to time but he was eventually persuaded of its worth by Byron and it was published in May 1816.
Coleridge himself is perhaps one of the most well-known English romantic poets, his reputation mainly resting on this poem, his cautionary sea story “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and “Christabel”, which I have yet to read. He was, as indicated, friends with William and Dorothy Wordsworth as well as Charles Lamb and Robert Southey. He was a poet, critic, philosopher and theologian who influenced many others. He coined the term “suspension of disbelief” which I have always thought of as a phrase derived from the movies, as well as the idea of an albatross around the neck as a mark of penance, the phrase “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” and possibly “all creatures great and small”.
- You can read about the poem on Wikipedia.