I first read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in Barnes and Noble, and I had to catch my breath. He wrote of the hero of Homer’s “The Odyssey”, but he may as well have been speaking for me; his words gave voice to the very thoughts, questions, and feelings that I had been struggling with this past year and a half:
“I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees…
“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!…
“Though 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.”
— Alfred Lord Tennyson
I went home that night and insisted on reading the poem in its entirety to my roommate, who has shared many of the same questions. Adventure seeking is all well and good when you’re eighteen and still in college, or at least college-aged. I’m not so very much older than that, but old enough still that I don’t quite feel immortal anymore; my phantom inner clock has begun its haunting tick tock, reminding me that life choices now mean this and not that.
I shouldn’t be surprised that Tennyson can thrill me to my toes; I’ve long cherished a love of “Anne of Green Gables,” and she was obsessed with Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” One of my favorite quotes from the movie version of “Anne of Avonlea” is in the stable scene, when Gilbert proposes to Anne a second time, and she refuses, a second time. She assures him, “I won’t ever marry!” and he rejoinders rather bitterly, “Oh, you’ll marry all right. Some fool who will read you Tennyson by firelight, no doubt. Build you your castles in the sky. I know you.”
And of course I see why Gilbert would associate Tennyson with castles in the sky; Tennyson was undoubtedly an idealist, which is partly why both Anne and I can identify with his words. He writes so beautifully, so achingly: “I am a part of all that I have met;/ Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough/ Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades/ Forever and forever when I move.” Tennyson wrote this poem as a whimsical interpretation of how Ulysses felt after returning from his fantastic voyage from Troy and through the Seven Seas to prosaic Ithaca, where he lived out the remainder of his days as an “idle king.” This same ache of idleness was explored at the end of “Lord of the Rings”, when Frodo returns to the Shire and tries to live a normal life. For a short time he is happy to be back among his friends in the place he loves, but when the rejoicing wears off, the old restlessness of Ulysses sets back in: “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees!” And so he sails with the elves across the sea to join them in immortality, to seek another adventure. He is not the same hobbit he once was; has been changed by what he has experienced, as we all must be, but the more fantastic the experience, of course the greater the change. Imagine Indiana Jones or 007 settling down to have a family and work a desk job. Could such a thing ever come to pass?
I can hardly claim that my life has been as fantastic as all that, though. My best friends since high school have been missionary kids, and so instilled from an early age with a globetrotting instinct. After long association, I, too, caught the bug: I studied abroad in Norwich, England, and the following year moved to Oaxaca, Mexico thinking that I needed to learn Spanish if I was ever going to be a missionary doctor to Latin America. But, I discovered at the last possible second that medicine bored me to tears, and I graduated college with a degree in biochemistry and no plan whatsoever. For a year and a half, I tried desperately to leave the country, the state, or at least the city, and/or return to school in just about every field known to man, and each time I was thwarted in rather dramatic fashion. (“Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain,” Psalm 127:1.) Around this time last year, I became rather desperate; I told my friend Doris that if I didn’t get out now, I’d probably meet some guy, fall in love, get married, and have my 2.5 kids and a little white picket fence, and then I would be condemned to living a boring life – undoubtedly my biggest fear. Doris laughed, and told me, “If God changes your heart to want something that you don’t currently want, then you will be ecstatic when he grants it!” And I said pitifully, “But I don’t want to want something that I don’t currently want!”
But, Doris rather knew what she was talking about. She was the singleness poster child through most of college (having attended a school whose unofficial motto was “ring by spring or your money back!”), a missionary kid herself, and one of the most original, spontaneous people I have ever met. She got married a year ago, just had her first child, and now counts her daughter’s every new discovery of the world as a vicarious adventure in itself. Her originality is in no way diminished by this new stage of her life: she is married to a ballet dancer and living in a community house of about 25 other people from her church, only several blocks from the beach in Santa Barbara. What could be more original than that? My friend Omi also got married a year ago and just had her first child, and she is living the typical American dream, but loving every minute of it. It seems she was made for this. All I can say when I see them is, “wow, happy for you, glad it’s not me!”
And yet, what I love about “Anne of Green Gables” is that it follows her story from beginning to end, from headstrong, imaginative idealist who can only conceive of romance as a dark, brooding, handsome stranger, to a more mature woman who admits from experience, “I went looking for my ideals outside of myself, when everything I loved was here all the time.” She seeks the handsome unknown and realizes at the critical moment that what she really wanted all along was the “prosaic reality” of Gilbert Blythe. Adventure in her case did more than merely stimulate; it led to growth and self-discovery.
So here is my question. Is it possible to “drink life to the lees” in a prosaic reality? Ulysses could conceive of no other adventure than that of travel; he puts the word in the same sentence with the phrase of drinking life to the lees. They are intrinsically connected, for him. Anne Shirley could conceive of no other romance than with a dashing, melancholy stranger… but her heart changed, and she was blissfully happy when it did. So though I may say that I can only conceive of a life pregnant with possibility as long as freedom and singleness persist, perhaps that comes only from my narrow-minded and ignorant perception of what the other side may hold. Doris the idealist will find wonder and mystery in any circumstance; life need never be prosaic for her. So I wonder if adventure and romance are more a fabric of who we are than of what we face; perhaps we may choose, in any case, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”