I love the poem Ulysses,* the driving rhythm of the poetry, the solitary courage of the speaker — even the arrogance speaks to me at a certain level. I hear its lines in my head many times throughout my day. I guess in a way, we all want to be Ulysses.
But it wasn’t always like this. When we were learning the poem in high school English class, the teacher asked us whom we identified more with, Tennyson’s hero or The Lotos Eaters.(She was the cool teacher.)** Full disclosure here, I hadn’t actually read the latter poem; I was going totally on my memory of that section of Little Town on the Prairie where Laura finds the Tennyson book hidden away in her mother’s sewing.
Even so, I was firmly in the camp of The Lotus Eaters, even if it was a little tl;dr. Now it was the 70s, so slacker culture was in full swing, but it was more than that — I actively hated Ulysses.
When I was younger, the question had been easy: “Where are the girl characters in this book?” Now, my cool girl persona didn’t permit me to ask the question out loud, but I had an awkward feeling when I read the third line, the only mention of any woman in the poem. “Matched with an aged wife I mete and dole” –I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable when I heard these words, but there was no accessible way to articulate or even make sense to myself of what I felt.
It’s like when I studied Anglo Saxon in second year university. Again I wanted to ask, “Where are the girl characters?” but nobody was asking that question at U of T in the early 80s.* ** I dealt with my anger by avoidance, and getting an extremely poor grade in my Old English course.
In those days, I didn’t consider myself a feminist: I was a cool girl and I didn’t need women’s rights. I could keep pace with the boys around me. I would rather get a C in an English course than admit what was bothering me.
All this changed when I had my first child. Suddenly equality was not a given: it became something I had to fight for. And I realized that feminism was simply that.
So there’s a whole chunk of the story that deserves its own blogpost, or even its own blog, but here I am, 47/50 on the Buzzfeed Feminist Scale. **** It’s been a journey through feminism, and also through reading, and I’m not sure how it happened, but now I love Ulysses. It’s become part of the fabric of my life as I age. *****
*Tennyson here as opposed to Joyce. The latter work is the source of its own dysfunctional relationship, but I’ll save that for another post.
**for which I hated her.
*** and yes I know now that the Angelina Jolie monster does actually play quite a large role in Beowulf. In university, though, I never made it far enough through the thorns and swords to find out.
**** Well who can honestly say that she has never criticized another woman’s clothes or makeup?
***** (I just had to squeeze this in because it makes me so happy.) For my parents’ 50 th anniversary, my father wrote this poem, which recuperates and reclaims the original Ulysses in a true love song.