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!–Tennyson, Ulysses
I don’t often think of Tennyson as eminently quotable, at least not at Shakespeare bon mot levels, probably because I’ve never thought of myself as much of a fan, other than for a specific work or two. But he’s growing on me with age and experience. After all:
“I myself must mix with action, lest I wither by despair”–Locksley Hall
“A smile abroad is oft a scowl at home”–Queen Mary and Harold
“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers”–Locksley Hall
“God’s finger touched him, and he slept”–In Memoriam A.H.H.
“He makes no friends who never made a foe”–Idylls of the King
“By blood a king, in heart a clown”–In Memoriam A.H.H.
“Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”–In Memoriam A.H.H.
“The mirror crack’d from side to side”–The Lady of Shalott
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”–Ulysses
“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean”–The Princess
“Theirs not to reason why; Theirs but to do or die.”–The Charge of the Light Brigade
“A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies”–The Grandmother
And so on.
Not to mention a personal favorite, one which doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue, but which appears in a scene in a classic movie:
Ah. Marianna in the Moated Grange (that proemium Tennyson borrowed from the aforementioned Shakespeare), and his own words were immortalized later by Alan Jay Lerner, embroidering on the work of George Bernard Shaw.
Alfred Tennyson was born 212 years ago, on August 6, 1809, the third of eleven surviving children of a church rector and his wife in Lincolnshire, England. His father, who encouraged all his children in a love of education, reading, and writing, was an abusive alcoholic whose death at a fairly young age threw the large family into not-quite-penury, ended Alfred’s university studies, and left the young poet struggling financially. His first attempt at publication suffered much mockery and criticism, but after picking himself up and dusting himself off, he tried again with more success for his second volume (1842)–which included Ulysses. Still, it wasn’t until 1850–after a few more poetical steps forward followed by what seemed like inevitable reversals–with the publication of In Memoriam A.H.H., that Tennyson really hit his stride.
In later years, Tennyson, whom Victoria had named Poet Laureate that same year, became friendly with the Queen, and began to regret his fame and (relatively speaking–we’re talking about nineteenth-century England) his public visibility. He spent much of the rest of his life trying to escape it, retiring eventually to an estate in the south of England where he found a level of privacy that suited him and where he lived until his death in 1892. In 1883 he’d been elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Freshwater, and has been known ever since as Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Back to the quote of the day. It’s from Ulysses, a poem I’ve always liked because it reminds me of several members of my family–not all male, but not least of all, my Dad. A man who never stopped striving and seeking, even as his horizons closed in at the end of his life, and above all, a man who never yielded. (Mr. Right wasn’t exactly a piker in this regard, either. These tendencies made both of them, on occasion, difficult to live with, but never dull.)
Do you believe we’re “part of all we have met?” I do. Well, obviously, there are exceptions (which I think only prove the rule). People we meet so glancingly or so rarely, or so inconsequentially, we hardly meet them at all. But those who make an impression in our lives, sure. They affect us. The good, the bad, the indifferent; the angels, the devils; the saints, the sinners; the grasping, the generous; the cruel, the kind; the virtuous, the evil; the truth-tellers, the liars; the narcissists, the empaths (sometimes two sides of the same coin). The humans, and those who seem to have checked their humanity at the door. They make a mark. They become a part of us. And we, no matter how they protest and insist otherwise, become a part of them.
Perhaps, looking back over two hundred years from Tennyson’s time, I think of this quote as his “No man is an Island,” moment.
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee–John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624)
Or, looking forward a little more than a hundred years from its date of publication, maybe it’s his “Gandalf” moment:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of The Ring, 1954
I guess, as I dodder into senility (67 next month), I’m increasingly concerned, not so much A) with what sort of legacy I’ll leave behind, but simply B) with deciding “what to do with the time that is given [me]” Because it’s a choice. And perhaps an important one. Having already lived, and finished with, what I think are the most substantial and impactful (shudder) parts of my life, I could revert to self-indulgence, adolescence and immaturity, thinking “really, what’s the point anymore; this is my time to take time for myself,” and go for easy gratification. Or, I could look around for a new purpose or a better purpose, and structure my life accordingly. For some reason, I’m favoring the latter, with the idea that if I take care of “B,” then “A” will take care of itself, at least among the people I care about.
So, in the words of Tennyson’s poem, I refuse
to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
and I look forward to the “untravelled world” and the rest of my life.
Whither next?** Watch this space.
How about you? Do you have a favorite quote, either from Tennyson, or from someone else, on the subject of “[drinking] life to the lees?
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–Ulysses
There I go again. Apologies. Can’t help myself.
**Given the extraordinary longevity of ancestors on both sides of my family (Mr. Right used to call us the Dúnedain), I figure I’ve got about 40 years to go, if I’m not to let the side down.