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Thursday, August 8, 2013


I have just finished reading J. K. Rowling's new detective novel, The Cuckoo's Calling.  It is splendid, and I look forward to a series of Cormoran Strike mysteries from her pen.   I shan't spoilt the book for any of you who might be inclined to read it by revealing the ending, but I do want to say one or two words about the very last lines of the novel.  Rowling concludes with six lines of poetry.  She does not identify their source, relying on a literate readership to recognize these very famous words.  I blush to admit that I had not a clue, but Google identified them immediately as coming from Tennyson's poem Ulysses.  Let us just admit that I had an inadequate education. 

When I read the entire poem, I was deeply moved by it, for it spoke directly to the situation in which I now find myself.  I hope it will be clear to you what I mean by this.  Here, without further commentary, is the entire poem:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and
know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
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,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, 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;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis 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
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
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.


Kiniry said...

Hmm...Judi Dench, playing M, read those very same six lines in scene in "Skyfall" in which she was testifying before a British sub-committee on intelligence failures at MI6. The scene was enhanced by cutaways to Bond (Daniel Craig) running at full speed through the streets of London, trying to thwart an attempt on her life by the terrorist Silva (Javier Bardem). The underlying theme of the film was the relevance of a Cold War relic like Bond to the modern-day high-tech world of intelligence gathering and operations.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That's fascinating. You figure Rowling must know that, right, even if dopes like me don't. Or are those six lines so famous? I would have thought the opening lines, or maybe the very end of the poem, would be more often quoted.

Kiniry said...

It's interesting that those very lines from Tennyson would appear in a film and a novel that were released about the same time. Not sure if they're the UK equivalent of our "Two roads diverged..." I took the lines from Tennyson as a sort of metaphor for the modern-day relevance of the UK. Who knows, Tony Blair might've promoted them as part of his "Cool Britannia" campaign. ;-)

Acastos said...

These five final lines were also quoted by (1) Ted Kennedy in 1980 after losing the Democratic nomination for president, and by (2) Rod Blagojevich after being impeached by the Illinois House of Representatives in 2009. Everybody seems to fancy that defiance is always heroic.....

Robert Paul Wolff said...

All right. Now I really do feel stupid! Apparently I am the last person on the planet not to be familiar with the poem. Yikes! Rod Blagojevich? That really takes the bloom off the rose.

I assume you have been feverishly googling.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

By the way, Rowling quotes the first six lines of the second stanza, not the last lines. The section that concludes "I am become a name."

Acastos said...

Actually, I know the poem well, having taken up Harold Bloom's challenge to his students whenever he teaches it to learn it by heart. I tend to take notice of mentions in popular culture (the final line was carved in letters 3-feet high on a low wall in the Olympic village for the London 2012 Olympics), and am constantly amused by the self-serving mis-interpretations suffered by this darkly ambiguous verse. (As Bloom points out, the final lines are positively Satanic - in the Miltonian sense). Another poem that seems defenceless against grotesque mis-interpretations by the popular mind is Frost's "Road not Taken". Ego-projection is a powerful thing.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Acastos, I would LOVE a guest post on this whole subject, if you wanted to undertake it. By the way, I stand in awe of your ability to memorize an entire poem longer than six lines. In high school we were required to memorize the first ten lines of Marc Anthony's well-known speech [Friends, Romans, countrymen ...] and it damned near kept me from graduating.