It is largely through experience, for example, that one begins to understand that Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is not a pep talk or fight song. It takes real loss in real life to read that poem and, rather than feeling inspired to rage, instead hear the defeat in Thomas' voice as he begs fruitlessly for his father to live another day.
A reader might be similarly inspired by Tennyson's Ulysses. After all, it is the screed of a triumphant hero, conjuring up the courage to continue shaping the world despite the fact that his time has nearly passed.
However a closer reading tells us something much different. We might just wonder to whom Ulysses is speaking? Himself? Some poor servant who brings him his soup and has to hear this rant every evening?
Ulysses hates his home, is no longer interested in his wife and holds the people he rules in disdain:
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.
If he is not surrounded by people who love him, then he must be alone. Those are "both" scenarios in his mind:
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;
He recounts his adventures and makes sure to point out that he, himself, was the most important ingredient in every chapter:
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;
In the second part of the poem, he talks about his son, yet another important person in his life for whom he feels astonishingly little:
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.
Well-loved of me? Blameless? He works his work, I mine?
In short, here is a man with little connection to the present. He's something of an ego-maniac who feels trapped in an old body and wants nothing more than to relive his glory days fighting the last war. He has little interest in actually governing, which he essentially equates with a delicate act of taming animals. Ulysses knows his days are numbered, but he refuses to let go. He sees in the ships one last opportunity to go out with divine glory:
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
He rallies the troops he no longer commands:
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.
And he understands that there's a pretty good chance that, this time, he'll command a sinking ship, but he doesn't care.
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.
Though he's completely self-absorbed and living in former glory, Ulysses does know how to lead. What fantastic language at the end! The kind of language speechwriters mimic and borrow all the time.
Which brings me to the point of this post. At the Wellstone's Donkey Democratic Club in Second Life tonight, the General played Ted Kennedy's speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention. Anyone who was listening then will remember that speech. It was one of the greatest in political history.
Kennedy understood that his campaign was over, but even more, that his presidential ambitions were over. It was in this context that Kennedy chose to end his speech with Tennyson's words:
And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:
"I am a part of all that I have met
To [Tho] much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are --
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.
For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
Kennedy was to continue fighting, though the time for his greatest personal ambitions to be realized had passed. His campaign was finished, but there was time, yet, for "the cause," for "hope," for "the dream" to live on.
In recent days, we have heard Tennyson borrowed once more: John McCain's first general election ad.
Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Stand up. We're Americans. And we'll never surrender.
This is how McCain begins his first commercial. Think about that for a moment. Kennedy recognized in these words the value in persisting even at the end of a campaign. McCain is launching his general election campaign with the furious call to action of a man whose time has passed.
This is a candidate who is as quick to drop names ("foot soldier in Reagan's army") as Ulysses ("see the great Achilles, whom we knew"), despite the fact that neither should need to reaffirm to anyone their worth through past relationships.
This is a candidate who sees a "transcendental battle of our time" in the same inflated way Ulysses seeks to strive with Gods.
This is an man would be the oldest president, still fighting the battles of the last generation and refusing to "surrender."
This is a candidate relatively uninterested ("The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should") in "the sphere of common duties" and focused primarily on the terrific and glorious battles across the sea.
This is a man who left his first wife upon returning from battle and is now "matched with an aged wife" who learned, the hard way, not to mention his thinning hair ("At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you c**t.")
This is a presidential hopeful who doesn't care if the "gulfs will wash us down." He's ready to double-down on the war in the Gulf, despite the last six years' carnage.
McCain truly is Ulysses.
This election (I assume Obama will be the nominee) will be a stark contrast between the past and the future. No speech in recent memory invokes the theme of change and progress more than JFK's inaugural.
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Just last week (as Hillary Clinton was associating herself with a dark episode in the Kennedy family history), Obama was speaking to Cuban-Americans and reminded us that it is time, once again, for a new chapter in America:
[I]t is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There must be careful preparation.
You can learn a great deal about a candidate by looking at the language he or she uses or borrows. You can learn quite a bit about who they think they are and who they want to be by surmising what they think the words they use really mean. I think it's clear why Ted Kennedy wants Obama to be the next president.
I also think it's clear why McCain would be a disaster.