One of My Favorite Poems

Although I rant a lot about old-fashioned poetry, particularly that which rhymes for no good reason, one of my favorite poems is blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) by one of the most dead-white-male old-fashioned poets in English literature, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 to 1892). And the poem is about one of the most old-fashioned themes in European literature, ancient Greece. The poem, of course, is “Ulysses.”

I think the draw is the beauty of the language, the stateliness of the blank verse, and especially the topic: heroism. Throughout my life I have had difficulty sleeping from time to time. When I was little I amused myself in the dark hours by retelling myself the stories Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, usually making these princesses ride around with their swords saving beleaguered princes. In Japan I studied kendo, and back in the states I have studied iaido, and also forms for the Chinese jian, straight sword, and dao, broadsword. I have not found a beleaguered prince to save, but I keep looking, because you never know, and at the very least my studies have given me great Halloween costumes.Samurai Sue

Meanwhile, I often find myself binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Beyond the idea that a small blond wisecracking woman is kicking vampires in the face on a regular basis (did I mention I have also studied karate and kung fu?) and facing an apocalypse that regularly falls at the end of the school year, the thing I like best is the way the show constructs not just the lone hero (which is a very male construct) but the heroic community, a group of friends who study and fight together, who sacrifice for each other and keep each other accountable. Tennyson’s Ulysses describes his heroic community:

My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me–

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine… (l. 45-48)


Then there are times when I end up binge-watching Xena: Warrior Princess. This show, known as much for its camp style as its very stylized Hong Kong cinema martial arts, is a joy to watch. I like that while Xena sticks to her sword and chakram, her sidekick Gabrielle uses a staff for the first five seasons and sai for the last season. (Yes, I have studied the staff. The sai, not so much but I have a pair to use for wrist strengthening exercises. Us martial artists, we loves us our toys!) I like the partnership between the two main characters, which becomes more and more equal as the show goes on.

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 honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. (l. 11-17)


I recently read an essay that suggested that the 130 or so episodes between Xena’s beginning and conclusion looked at her predicament as a tragic hero seeking redemption “from different perspectives while doing little to advance it” (Jones 165). I disagree. The heroic journey, like life, is its own point. As Ulysses says:

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, and when

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: (l. 6-11)

But getting back to the idea of useful poetry, I was thinking about how the best bit, the ending, was used a while back in the Bond movie, Skyfall. I have always loved Judy Dench and the chemistry between her and Daniel Craig is incredible. I was dismayed to find out that she was being replaced, presumably due to age. Certainly her age is highlighted in that film to a distressing extent. I think that may be why she gave her all to speaking the final lines of the poem: