What are the social, psychiatric, and individual implications of the poem “Ulysses”?
Joseph Campbell was well-known for his concept of the heroic journey. As discussed in his 1949 landmark book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero must overcome all sorts of obstacles on their journey. By extension, all of us are on some kind of heroic journey because we all strive to find our purpose in life and to overcome the inevitable obstacles along the way. The obstacles this past year have been many, thanks to the pandemic and other social problems.
One of the heroic journeys, so common in the Greek myths, was that of Ulysses. Ulysses is the Roman name for the Greek hero, Odysseus. In the Victorian era, the well-regarded poem “Ulysses” was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1833. He wrote this poem after the unexpected death at age 22 of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Henry Hallam. This loss of a loved one and the subsequent quest to find the meaning of one’s life seems not only to be timeless, but of particular relevance for us now. In addition, it has particular relevance for me personally, as I have entered the “Golden Years” and am encountering new life-threatening situations, like requiring a pacemaker for a breaking heart.
I came upon this poem, really for the first time that I recall, when Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre sent out one of the periodic updates called Diversions on December 8, 2021. The last item of these Diversions was the reprise of their well-known actor, Jim DeVita, reading excerpts from the poem that he first read on April 2020, as the pandemic began. It now is called “NostalgiaVision.”
Let me try to do something similar, not in reading, but in writing, for I am nowhere near the quality of poetry reader as our resident poet Richard Berlin. I will add what I think are comments on the social psychiatric implications of the passages, as well as their meaning to me. Of course, you can pick and choose what you would like to read and what is relevant to you.
The entire poem connects the thoughts of Ulysses after his and the other Greeks’ journey to conquer Troy and the subsequent 10 years of returning. He is sort of in retirement at home with his wife and son.
Let us begin near the beginning of the poem with my chosen excerpts. The quoted section titles are mine, as are the comments.
“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”
Social Psychiatric Implications: After a few opening lines, Ulysses is feeling that he cannot stop from traveling again after a long life of both enjoyment and suffering. Certainly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, travel has been curtailed, with a desire by many to do so again. We do have 1 travel advantage of sorts that Ulysses did not: We have Zoom and the internet to take us all over the world and to meet people distantly and see online performances.
Personal and Professional Implications: Perhaps due to the constrictions on live get-togethers, as well as increased time at home, my writings and presentations actually increased dramatically over the past year, providing much meaning to my life. I greatly missed live interactions, though, and I hope that the internet will not replace live encounters, but end up as a supplement. That includes professional meetings, because even though most of the educational sessions can be done online, as they have been last year, online sessions do not include the collegial live interactions. Again, on the plus side, being home with my wife even more than usual was a great bonus.
“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 honored 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;”
Social Psychiatric Implications: What a wonderful depiction of the social aspects of working together on a difficult social project, including the delight that can come out of disagreement and debate. In this past year, some of the major psychiatrist projects have come in regard to racism and climate change, albeit mainly online. When we think of leaving a legacy, this reminds us that in some way, we leave part of who we are with everybody. The reverse is true, too, that everyone who has made an impact on us becomes part of us. Another poet, Walt Whitman, writes that so well in his poem “Song of Myself,” summarized by this line: “(I am large, I contain multitudes).”
Personal and Professional Implications: For myself, being called and known as a gadfly and specializing in cultural psychiatry, I have had many disagreements, misinterpretations, and politically correct conflicts with colleagues lately about how to address burnout, climate change, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. I once was called “evil” publicly by a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who later apologized, for being a participant/observer in managed care. Even so, I was honored on occasion similarly to Ulysses, including being deemed a Hero of Public Psychiatry by the APA Assembly in 2002—but that honor is shared by all who joined in the “drunk delight of battle.”
“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unfurnished, not to shine in use!”
Social Psychiatric Implications: This sounds like Ulysses is in retirement, but missing something important to his identity and sense of meaning in life. During the pandemic, many have gone into a sort of retirement, either forced or chosen, as work has often changed in content and place. Finding ongoing joy in retirement is not automatic—it requires meaningful involvement and financial security.
Personal and Professional Implications: For me, I had both relief and guilt during the pandemic and after I retired from my tenured academic work in 2012. By now, I have found how to continue my perceived purpose in life. Nevertheless, I have dreamed, wished, and feared that I was on the front lines of the pandemic. Somewhat surprisingly, the word “pause” in the poem gave me much pause, but for a different reason than Ulysses suggests for himself. I recently discovered that the beating of my heart has had worrisome pauses, at times veering on dangerous territory.
“To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
Social Psychiatric Implications: In a time of alternative facts and science skepticism, finding knowledge is sinking out of virtual sight to some extent. Regardless, the quest for knowledge, including self-knowledge, seems like an unending one.
Personal and Professional Implications: Personally, I am so grateful to be a psychiatrist, for we still have much to learn about our brain and mind. Moreover, our knowledge and skills can be applied to all aspects of life.
“This is my son, mine own Telemachus . . .
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.”
Social Psychiatric Implications: We elders know that the younger generation has been the most responsible for the technological advances in society. We hope we have taught them the right values to apply, but some of that now seems in question.
Personal and Professional Implications: For those of us who have children, we tend to hope that they will do better than us and continue our values. Fortunately, I have children who work on areas overlapping psychiatry, these being religions and career counseling.
“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;”
Social Psychiatric Implications: The pandemic time so far has been especially risky to elders, particularly those with certain preexisting medical conditions and those from minority backgrounds. Ageism was overcome to some extent by having the vaccines available first to this age group.
Personal and Professional Implications: For me and many others in older age, our physical strength and wellbeing are diminished, but perhaps this is balanced by more wisdom.
“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.”
Social Psychiatric Implications: In our divisive times, elders need to be strong and heroic in overcoming our societal obstacles. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”: The will provides the psychological energy to try to find the ways.
Personal and Professional Implications: From now on, I think I will adapt this phrase, which ends the poem: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Although there is a focus on older age in this poem, it really is for anyone, with its message of how to live life to the fullest. Even if the physical heart and other organs deteriorate, if the brain retains its abilities and the psychological heart is willing, there is always something to try to accomplish. Even with great losses, like that of Tennyson’s friend, resilience and psychological strength can increase by introspective processing of what has been lost, the support of others, and a vision for the future—a vision conveyed in this poem. The poem also conveys how to approach death not with resignation, but with exploration.
Heroic journeys occur all through life. It is just that, collectively, due to the rare viral pandemic, most all of us have faced new obstacles. The obstacles are many. In this poem, the main obstacle for Ulysses seems to be his inability to feel comfortable at home with his wife and family. He is ready and rallying his friends to sail off once again. Joseph Campbell once said about heroic journeys: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
Maybe Ulysses needed to see the treasure that was right in front of him: his wife, his son, and his home. That was his blind spot—his Achilles heel, if you will. In our current studies of happiness, the people who reported the greatest levels of happiness were those with the strongest ties with family and friends, with a fulfilled commitment to spend time with them. Ulysses fulfilled half of this commitment. Look for where you stumble; that may be the key finding in your life journey.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.