In March 2011 the final line of Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’ – ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’ – was selected as the inscription for a wall in the athlete’s village at the 2012 London Olympic Games. The line, it was hoped, would motivate athletes to strive for success in their events, and would continue to inspire the residents of east London once the village was converted into housing after the games. The adoption of the line as a sort of Olympic epigraph, and its subsequent quotation in speeches by David Cameron and editorials in The Times, testified to the enduring popularity and cultural resonance of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue (first published in 1842), but there was a danger that the adoption of the line as a monumental pronouncement of optimism, isolated from its context within the poem as a whole, might threaten to rob Tennyson’s poetry of its nuance. This danger was lessened, however, by the subsequent decision to lengthen the inscription to incorporate the final three-and-a-half lines of Ulysses’ monologue:
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.
In this form the inscription restores the ambivalent tone of Tennyson’s poem: it appeals to a collective and communal identity founded on equality and heroism, but at the same its acknowledgement of the ravages of ‘time and fate’ casts doubt on its effectiveness as an inspirational motto. The closing lines of ‘Ulysses’ have been widely quoted (and misquoted) throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, and while the history of their reception and appropriation reveals a persistent desire to enlist Ulysses’ speech as a rousing affirmation of undimmed fortitude, it also demonstrates that these lines can be read as an admission of defeat as much as an assertion of will. The tension between these two readings is especially evident in the last two lines of the poem, which raise a series of interpretative questions. Where should the expressive emphasis be placed in the penultimate line: on the weary opening of ‘made weak’, the pivotal self-checking qualification of ‘but’, or the rallying cry of ‘strong in will’? And, perhaps most crucially, how can the concluding, and possibly negative, metrical stresses on ‘not’ and ‘yield’ in the final line be reconciled with the stirring infinitives that precede them?
The particular ambiguity of this final line is highlighted by a poignant coincidence of dates in 2012. As well as taking in the Olympics, this year marks the centenary of the death of Robert Falcon Scott and his team inAntarctica. Before the survivors of Scott’s expedition left Antarctica in January 1913, they erected a memorial cross to Scott; inscribed on the cross were the names of the dead and the final line of ‘Ulysses’. Although testifying to the ambition and endurance of the explorers, this epitaph is far from an unambiguous assertion of optimism and aspiration. Instead, it draws attention to the underlying scepticism of Tennyson’s line, its awareness that, however strong the will, heroic ambition might result in failure and futility. In this context, Tennyson’s words sound similar to Scott’s famous statement in his final journal entry, dated 29 March 1912: ‘We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far’. Both Scott and Ulysses acknowledge that seeking and finding might not guarantee success or triumph, and that, in the end, striving against insurmountable odds might be the same thing as yielding to them.
Despite the inherent ambiguity of Ulysses’ words, the sonorous and eloquent blank verse of his monologue has, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved consistently popular with politicians. The Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel admired the poem, and it was also a favourite with US President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. In 1980 their younger brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, closed his speech at the Democratic national convention, in which he announced his withdrawal from the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, by quoting the final lines of ‘Ulysses’. But he missed out the phrase ‘made weak by time and fate’, editing Tennyson’s lines and presenting them as an unambiguous call to unceasing struggle in the face of adversity. Other quotations by American politicians have been less edifying: in 2009 the corrupt Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, impeached for illegally trying to sell the vacant senate seat of newly-elected President Barack Obama, read the lines during a press conference at which he announced his intention to fight the charges (unsuccessfully, as it turned out).
The readiness of politicians to appropriate Tennyson’s lines, often for self-serving ends, invites a sceptical reassessment of the inspirational power of Ulysses’ words: however affirmative and persuasive the poem’s final lines might be, they are also full of doubt and equivocation. As Tennyson himself suggested, confidence and doubt are equal elements of his poem’s meaning: he said that it ‘was written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end’. The struggle between the sense of loss and the desire to fight life out to the end remains unresolved at the end of the poem. The resulting tension between striving and surrender is not straightforwardly in keeping with the aspiration, expressed in the Olympic motto, to be ‘faster, higher, stronger’, but it is the source of much of this poem’s intellectual and emotional power.
Read Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ in full here: