Sunday, August 30, 2009

"...for my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset..."

Listening to this week’s memorials to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, in the midst of the reflections upon the depth and significance of his legacy and the tributes to his generosity and compassion both as a legislator and as a person, I heard several references to a poem by poet and dramatist Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892). This poem, the moving dramatic meditation of the king “Ulysses”, has had particular meaning for the Kennedy family -- it was his brother, President John F. Kennedy’s favorite verse and Ted quoted from it in his famed keynote (concession) speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. I don’t think many politicians in our current generation could not just fittingly borrow from a nineteenth century English poet but also use that poet to lead and inspire; in place of Tennyson, today we have empty political idioms and clichés that mean nothing to either the speaker or the listener -- mere placeholders for ideas rather than the ideas themselves.

As my own small gesture of remembrance to my state’s late senior Senator, this week’s book is The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate, published by Harper & Brothers of Franklin Square, New York, in 1870. As far as I can determine, this was the first appearance of the “complete” works of Tennyson (to date) in the United States. It came out at a time of great triumph and tragedy in the poet’s life -- in the two decades before its publication, Tennyson saw his appointment as poet laureate and the printing of some of his greatest and most well-loved works of poetry, but also the still-birth of his first child and the passing of his mother. Rather than attempt to distill the life and works of the great Victorian writer, I will refer you to the Literature Network and the Tennyson Page for more details about the man and his poetry.

This is a first edition, second issue of of Harper’s publication (the first issue was bound in red cloth and included “Timbuctoo”, the poem that won Tennyson first prize in the Cambridge University poetry contest); it includes several dozen poems, including over twenty poems that were first published in 1830 but did not reappear in subsequent editions of the The Poetical Works. Though the book’s actual value is only $8-$20, some unscrupulous dealers online are asking for over $100 for their copies of the first first.

The binding is pebbled green cloth with gilded title and decoration on the cover and spine and the publisher’s blind-tooled “HB” stamp on the back. The contents are organized roughly chronologically and includes additional sections of “Miscellaneous” poems and “Experiments”. At the end there are several pages of publisher’s advertisements (approximately one-hundred titles headed “Valuable Standard Works for Public and Private Libraries, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York; the “Gift-Book for 1870” titled The Favorite Poems of England; Thomas Carlyle’s History of Friedrich II; John Lothrop Motley’s The Dutch Republic and The United Netherlands; and Benson Lossing’s Field-Book of the War of 1812, described in the subtitle as “the Last War for American Independence”). Throughout there are black-and-white illustrations by various artists; some are apparently reproduced by plate printing and some in the old-fashioned manner with woodblocks.

The pages measure 16cm x 24.5cm and are of an inexpensive (and not entirely acid-free) paper. Running-titles on each page give the title of the poem that starts on that page and the pagination (which runs [i]-[viii] in the preliminaries and [9]-232 in the book itself; at the end, the publisher’s advertisements are paginated [1]-[8]). The book’s collational formula may be expressed as: [#2] [18]-158 2]; $1 [numeric]. Unfortunately, the condition of my copy is quite poor: the cover is bumped and stained slightly, and hanging to the spine by a thread (literally); the binding is coming apart (showing, again, the paste, stitching, and scrap-paper used to hold the spine together); many pages are folded, torn, chipped, water-stained, and bent; at least one page (33/34) is missing altogether. There is little foxing on the pages, though lots of grubby marks, suggesting it has been well-read.

Some of the poems have small, faint pencil marks (lines, dashes, x’s) showing that they had obviously attracted some early reader’s attention (and were, perhaps, being memorized). On the recto of the illustration leaf facing the title page there is an elegant, penciled inscription by the book’s very first owner, who evidently gave it as a Christmas gift to his wife:

Mary .E. Homer

From her Husband -

Henry Homer -

Dec 1870

Given the ubiquity of these names -- particularly in late nineteenth-century America -- I’ve had little success identifying the owners.

As for “Ulysses” itself (which you can find online in two audio versions: one read by Sir Lewis Casson and one a techno-remix of Casson’s reading, made by Dr. J), it was first published in 1842, following the death of one of Tennyson’s close friends. The poem’s counterpoise of mourning and hope, the delicate balance between the need to both grieve and celebrate life, seems an ideal fit to the story of the Kennedy family, with its own epic intermingling of adversity and accomplishment. The Literature Network states:

This noble poem, which is said to have induced Sir Robert Peel to give Tennyson his pension, was written soon after Arthur Hallam's death, presumably therefore in 1833. "It gave my feeling," Tennyson said to his son, "about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in 'In Memoriam'."

It is not the 'Ulysses' of Homer, nor was it suggested by the 'Odyssey'. The germ, the spirit and the sentiment of the poem are from the twenty-sixth canto of Dante's 'Inferno', where Ulysses in the Limbo of the Deceivers speaks from the flame which swathes him.

The passage in question from Inferno (xxvi.94-126) reads:

Neither fondness for my son nor reverence for my aged sire nor the due love which ought to have gladdened Penelope could conquer in me the ardour which I had to become experienced in the world and in human vice and worth. I put out into the deep open sea with but one ship and with that small company which had not deserted me.... I and my companions were old and tardy when we came to that narrow pass where Hercules assigned his landmarks.
'O brothers,' I said, 'who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the West deny not to this the brief vigil of your senses that remain, experience of the unpeopled world beyond the sun. Consider your origin, ye were not formed to live like Brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge.... Night already saw the other pole with all its stars and ours so low that it rose not from the ocean floor.’

The word “Camelot” has been often summoned up to characterize, not just the Kennedy administration, but the entire aura of the Kennedy style of optimism, intelligence, and liberalism. With Senator Kennedy’s passing, I’ve heard commentators on the radio and Internet chirping rather hollowly about “the end of Camelot”. The very phrase betrays the ignorance of those who use it, for the entire point of Camelot is that it does not end -- Arthur was not the King once, but the Once and Future King; Camelot is not something in the past but an ever-sought after goal for the future. As Ted put it in 1980 and again in 2008: “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Or, as Tennyson put it in his 1830 “Morte D’Arthur”:

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere,
‘Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world;
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.’

And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within Himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God."

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