decorated initial 'F' or what it's worth I always thought In Memoriam concluded with a bit of pre-William James Pragmatism. Is there a life after death? Tennyson asks. We can't know, he tells us, but if it comforts you, believe it. It then becomes — for you, at least — a truth.

My brother introduced me to "Ulysses" when I was a boy not long after WWII and, yes, the interpretation then was about not giving in. But much later it seemed more like a continuation of the spiritual quest of In Memoriam. Ulysses' life's work is done. His son is better fitted to be a king now (taming a savage race, something Ulysses may be unfitted to do given the violence in his own life). His wife? Life ends for all and what is left of life may be better spent in looking for things of the spirit beyond the known world or the world of getting and dying.

Older men in India sometimes abandoned wives and families (having raised their children and left them secure) to travel the country with nothing but a begging bowl as they sought release from the wheel of life.

Yet what strikes me most about this poem, now, is the age of the poet. He was only thirty three and yet was writing about the mind of an old man. I am now closer in age to Ulysses than I am to Tennyson and the poem doesn't really ring true any more. He had a way with words and it is beautifully written: the form is fine, I'm just not convinced the contents mean very much, except perhaps to a Victorian post-Romantic young man.

Poets can be intoxicated by words and the grand gesture. Compare "Crossing the Bar," written forty-seven years later when Tennyson really was an old man, of eighty. Another sea-voyage into the unknown, the same way with words, but also the same boyish enthusiasm. Was the old man any more sincere about belief than the young one had been? Was it perhaps the excitement of again writing of a true poem, which is not all that common? Do the words matter more than what is being said?

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Last modified 5 January 2005