Monday, February 13, 2012

Would You Ship with Ulysses?

Last week, Jeff Atwood, a founder of the very useful tech site Stack Overflow, signed off from active involvement in it with a post that included the last several lines of Tennyson's "Ulysses". I had not read the poem in years, certainly not since I last read the Odyssey. Reflecting on that made me wonder: How could Odysseus recruit a crew--

... 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;

He is old, but his mariners? He sailed to Troy with twelve ships, and left with twelve. At the second stop, his crews were nearly decimated in a battle. He lost a few men as meals for the Cyclops, then lost eleven of his ships to the Laestrygonians. A few in the remaining boat went as food to Scylla, and all the rest in shipwreck off Sicily. As a bonus, the Phaeacian ship that brought him back to Ithaca was turned to stone, with its crew. Growing old does not seem to have been a problem for Odysseus's mariners.Would you ship with the man?

Tennyson's Ulysses owes something to Dante's; yet Tennyson knows that Odysseus made it home to Ithaca, which Dante seems to have forgotten. Tennyson himself prefers to forget the gentle death, away from the sea, that Tiresias says in store for Odysseus.

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