“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's (mis)reading of Tennyson is awash in dramatic irony.
"Widely believed to harbor corrupt ambitions, impeached, and accused of soliciting bribes, the governor of Illinois has defended himself by quoting a poem that amounts to a resignation from executive office." Stephen Burt finds irony in Rod Blagojevich's reading of Tennyson.

Rod Blagojevich defends himself after impeachment on January 9. Image: Getty Images

Until a few weeks ago the story of Rod Blagojevich—the foul-mouthed, thick-haired governor of Illinois accused of (among other corrupt activities) trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat—didn’t seem to have much poetry in it: suspense, yes, and farce (How did he get elected?), but little of the dignity or verbal nuance we associate with serious poems. W.H. Auden defined poetry as “memorable speech”; the most memorable words from the disgraced governor were words most newspapers would never print.

Blagojevich changed that in December, when he quoted Rudyard Kipling's “If—” in a defiant press conference; journalists took note—some even learned the history of that frequently quoted poem. The governor looked to another British poet in another speech on Friday, January 9. Again, he made national news. Just impeached by the Illinois House of Representatives, but not yet convicted by the state senate, “Blago” said that he would fight to remain in office, just as he fought for ordinary Americans. He concluded with a ringing quotation from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Victorian poet laureate who also wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” (Some headlines read “Gov. Rod Blagojevich Quotes Tennyson.”) The governor used the same poem, he noted, that Senator Ted Kennedy cited in 1980, after losing the Democratic presidential nomination: “Ulysses.”

The governor quoted lines from the end of the poem, in which the hero of Homer’s Odyssey declares, in resonant blank verse, that he and his comrades still have strength to fight:
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.
Resolute, determined, unwearied—appropriate, no?

Yet for anyone who knows the poem, Blagojevich might as well have quit on the spot. Tennyson’s great monologue is not a show of defiance but a speech of resignation from office, by a ruler who admits he is unfit to rule.

How could a resignation sound so defiant? How could Blagojevich’s speechwriter get this famous poem so wrong? Tennyson’s poem does not take place during the Odyssey. Nor does it take place during the Trojan War, in which Ulysses (whom Homer calls “crafty,” polu-metis) distinguished himself for inventive tactics (or, from the Trojan point of view, for dirty tricks): he was the Greek who devised the Trojan Horse. This Ulysses speaks years after the Odyssey ends, after he has rejoined his queen, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, and re-established himself as the ruler of his native Ithaca. Ulysses begins by explaining that he no longer enjoys his job:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
He’s bored with his work and his home. (Blagojevich, who became governor six years ago, allegedly considered sending himself to Washington if he could not make the right deal for that Senate seat.) “I cannot rest from travel,” Ulysses says: he is famous all over Greece (“I am become a name”) “for always roaming with a hungry heart.” So, he says, he will give up his throne to his 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 thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered 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.
Telemachus has just the virtues that Ulysses lacks: put simply, Telemachus will follow the law.

Having resigned, Ulysses and his fellow sailors (“Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me”) will take to the seas in search of new adventures: they will “follow knowledge like a sinking star,” and “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die.” He may never come back—not until he has found and conquered all the secret places of the world. The end of the poem (the part Blagojevich quoted) indeed amounts to a show of defiance—but what Tennyson’s Ulysses defies is neither a host of enemies, nor a volley of accusations, so much as the limits to all human life.

Tennyson did not take this story from Homer, but neither did he make it all up: the British poet found his material in canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno, where Ulysses explains to Dante and to Virgil how lust for discovery kept him from staying home. Dante’s Ulysses died, with all his sailors, in a shipwreck at the edge of the known world. He belongs in the Inferno, not for seeking knowledge, but for sins committed during the Trojan War—for tricking the Trojans by building the Trojan Horse, and for stealing the Palladium, a magic statue that protected Troy.

Widely believed to harbor corrupt ambitions, impeached, and accused of soliciting bribes, the governor of Illinois has defended himself by quoting a poem that amounts to a resignation from executive office, spoken by a character who declares himself no longer fit to rule, who says he will leave his home state and never return, and who will, soon after he finishes speaking, probably go to hell for theft and fraud.

If that's not dramatic irony, I don’t know what is—and dramatic irony is exactly what Tennyson's sort of poem invites. Published in 1842, Tennyson’s poem helped invent the genre of poetry now called dramatic monologue: in it, we hear only the voice of a single character, explaining his life and justifying his ways. Sometimes (as in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”) the character is flat-out evil: sometimes (as in Browning’s great “Andrea del Sarto” or Tennyson’s “St. Simeon Stylites”) he might be self-deluded, or insane. As we listen to speakers in dramatic monologue, we learn things about them that they themselves cannot know: we acquire perspectives that they cannot have, seeing motives they hide from themselves, or else condemning the very actions they praise. (W.S. di Piero explained how to read Browning’s monologues here.)

Few readers of Tennyson condemn Ulysses. After all, courage has value, and there is something noble in Ulysses’ determination to follow his nature, even if we think that nature (as Dante did) incompatible with virtue, and even if it leads to his doom. And few readers think Ulysses ought to stay and rule Ithaca: Ulysses himself knows that it is time to resign. Most Illinois voters want Blagojevich to resign too—a few weeks ago, according to one poll, 84% did. If only the governor read his Tennyson closely, he might have learned what Ulysses already knew.
Originally Published: January 14th, 2009

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

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  1. January 15, 2009
     Greg Drozdek

    Maybe he should try Frost's "The Road Not Taken" next time?

  2. January 16, 2009
     Tom Allen

    I would like to see Blago's story--it is certainly begging for it--handled by a poet. Poet, I say, not a critic.

  3. January 18, 2009
     Robert Weisman

    He should have used "Invictus"

  4. January 26, 2009

    Lovely criticism. What a fantastic ass this man has made of himself.

  5. January 27, 2009

    It's also worth noting that this poem has

    one of the all-time literary mistakes:

    Ulysses "comrades" who are going to set

    sail with him again--Ulysses doesn't have

    any "fellow sailors"--everyone who set sail

    with him the first time died. Ulysses

    returned alone. As has been pointed out,

    the Ithaca office of the Veterans of the

    Trojan Wars had only one member.

  6. January 27, 2009

    Meh - mediocre article. First, for rhetorical momentum, Burt declares that the monologue is "not a show of defiance", only to reverse his position later, saying that the end of the poem "indeed amounts to a show of defiance." So, which is it? Is this sloppy celebrity journalism which announces one thing at the start of an article for the sake of a hook and then turns about for the sake of argument? Yikes. I'm put off, too, by the criticism's argument for conflating the poem's history with the poem's general reading: "who will, soon after he finishes speaking, probably go to hell for theft and fraud." I strongly disagree with the idea that knowing the poem's auctorial history somehow enforces a particular reading. I've never read into Ulysses the eventual condemnation of the speaker and I still believe that, even with regard to Inferno, the poem's tone raises new possibilities for the speaker.

    I'm not defending Blagojevich. Being in California and having read only a little about the Illinois scandal, I really don't know much about Blagojevich. Is he foul-mouthed? So are a lot of politicians and, quite frankly, a number of poets. I've not the faintest idea about what that has to do with Ulysses or poetry. But I do feel, from the article's overall stance, that the article is itself only incidentally related to Ulysses and poetry. Hey, I'm all for mixing art and politics -- I assume that that's inevitable. But it seems that the article's own history was immediately preceded by three or four beers and a shot of tequila -- in the future a more sober and consistent analysis might carry more weight.

  7. February 5, 2009
     Steven Fama

    I appreciate the point that the whole poem ought to be considered, but the concluding lines of Tennyson's "Ulysses" are generally quoted for exactly the purpose Blag did, including by Ted Kennedy in 1980. The general phenomena -- of lines having a life of their own, beyond the context in which they first appeared -- is not unusual.

    And Mr. Burt's use of "foul-mouthed" in the first sentence reminds me of the style associated with People magazine or some such smarmy hypocritical attention- seeking pandering "reporting."

  8. February 8, 2009

    The "foul-mouthed" comment is a reference to the audio from the federal wire-tap (it is quite seasoned with "bleeps."), not an indictment of choice of language, even if the rest of the article is one of character.

    I am surprised that some appear to take issue with this, and the article entire, without any apparent understanding of some of the very public information regarding Blagojevich's impeachment.

    As to diference in critical interpretation of the poem and quoted verse itself - interesting comments so far.

  9. May 11, 2009
     bang mcbangbang

    u klike poems alot and people who read poems like poems and everything is like a box of crayons you just have to pick out your favorite kind of ecstasty

  10. January 14, 2010

    Great article! Insightful and entertaining.