Penelope

In 1993 I took a paper at university called Romantic and Victorian Literature.  It was probably the most eye-opening course I took as an under-graduate because it introduced me to a lot of the so-called greats that I would not have otherwise gotten around to, and (this is the crucial thing) I found that I loved them.

The main poets on this course were Woodsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron and Shelley (the Romantics), and Tennyson, Browning and Arnold (the Victorians).  Of those last three only Arnold did very little for me overall but, of course, he wrote Dover Beach which is one of the great poems of genius and – like The Second Coming by Yeats – leaps across time and seems to speak directly to the modern soul, regardless of how out of fashion the poet’s work has become in general.

What was curious to me about this course was who I responded to.  Keats meant a lot to me at the time, and he has a lot of romantic cache, but of the other Romantics it was probably Wordsworth that I liked the most, closely followed by Coleridge.  Shelley and Byron did very little for me even though they are the flashier pairing.  To me though their dramas seemed contrived, and overblown.  I admired some of their poems, but not them or their work overall.

Wordsworth and Coleridge though seemed closer to my own heart.  They look back at themselves, and they look quietly but hard.  Wordsworth may have become a bore, and Coleridge a has been, but their first work is moving and resonant.  A good friend bought me a book on Wordsworth’s sister which is a wonderful book, and an insight into a life that seems almost alien in its simplicity, and yearning and unrequitedness.

The Victorians are not so different.  Browning is certainly fantastic, but the surprise for me was Tennyson.  It was Tennyson that I fell for, and it was because he was so damn sad and wrote about it so well.  The story of his friend Arthur Hallam’s death is an unhappy one, although we can be glad many years later to have the poetry that came from it.

Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasped no more –

Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

That final line.  Always gets me.

Of all his poems though it was and will always be Ulysses.  When it was introduced to me in a lecture I was floored by it; it astonished me with its sadness, and idealism, and delusion, and beauty.  It is a poem that imagines Homer’s hero Odysseus after the events of the Odyssey.  Having spent ten years at war at Troy, and a further ten years trying to get home again the Odyssey ends with Odysseus slaughtering all of the men who have been vying for his wife, Penelope’s, hand in marriage.  Order is restored, the king is finally home after twenty years, reunited with his wife and his son Telemachus.

Tennyson, however, imagines that after twenty years on the road living the most incredible adventures with a band of brothers that Odysseus might be, well, a little bored by the quiet life at home that he finally achieves.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end…

Honestly, I could just go on quoting because line after line are phrases that you suspect this poem has made famous: “I am become a name; For always roaming with a hungry heart”, “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”, and so on, and so on. 

Finally, Odysseus imagines pushing off in his boat again for one last adventure, and the poem comes to its end in a way that I cannot read without welling up even though, or maybe because, this glorious vision he expresses is at least half pure folly,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with the Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle on the rocks;

The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep

Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends.

‘T is 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.

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.

And yet.

What of his wife, Penelope?  She who waited twenty years for him to return, and stayed true and wept on his return?  How would she feel if she heard this speech?

That is what I imagined when I wrote this song: the bitterness and sorrow of Penelope.  The first verse is Penelope before Odysseus gets home, imagining what it will be like when he finally returns.  She is in bed, listening to the drunk suitors downstairs in the banqueting hall.

The days accumulate

In the same way

I lie in bed

Listening to them fighting

My sore heart

Who’s the fool who said we get wiser as we get older

They were either wrong, young or a liar

When you come home

We’ll walk though the night out of the dark and into the light of the morning

And you’ll take my hand finally understanding how much you owe me now

In the second verse Odysseus has returned.

Your heart’s still out there

Somewhere on the waves

Now you’re home do you know

Who you are, and who I am?

Who’s the fool who said we get wiser as we get older

They were either wrong, young or a liar

When you came home

We walked though the night out of the dark and into the light of the morning

Everything we talked about, you didn’t understand how I just wanted you to say:

“Love, my love, I’m home… at last”

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