Walking up the drive to Farringford and catching sight of the huge old cedar reminded me of a poem Tennyson wrote for his friend William Gifford Palgrave; it’s called ‘To Ulysses’ . The poem is about the joys of home and the fascination of travel. The speaker has chosen to stay home while the younger ‘Ulysses’ travels the world. In lines 7 and 8, the speaker refers to his own age:
The century's three strong eights have met
To drag me down to seventy-nine
It was 1888 and Tennyson was 79 years old. He assumes that the younger Palgrave, who was only 62 at the time, would outlive him. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Palgrave died before he could see the poem. There were no details given about his death in his obituary in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography in November of 1888. Though it is implied that because he was used to travelling in warmer climates, or as Tennyson put it ‘below the Line’ (line 5), the cold winter in Uruguay may have been too much for him. Tennyson probably associated Ulysses with him because Palgrave wrote a series of essays called Ulysses.
Farringford in Winter
Tennyson, unlike Ulysses, is ‘tolerant of the colder’ (line 13) weather and spends the middle part of the poem describing, in loving detail, the grounds of Farringford in winter. In the fourth stanza he writes, ‘I ...Who love the winter woods, to trace / On paler heavens the branching grace / Of leafless elm, or naked lime’. Even in the depths of winter he finds the pale skies and barren trees graceful and beautiful.
The next three stanzas are devoted to the evergreens on the Farringford Estate:
And see my cedar green, and there
My giant ilex keeping leaf
When frost is keen and days are brief-
Or marvel how in English air
My yucca, which no winter quells,
Altho' the months have scarce begun,
Has push'd toward our faintest sun
A spike of half-accomplish'd bells-
Or watch the waving pine which here
The warrior of Caprera set,
A name that earth will not forget
Till earth has roll'd her latest year-
The first are the famous cedar and the giant ilex which are still standing . He then moves on to his yucca plant and marvels that it survives in the English climate. In stanza six, he comments that though the shortest day of the year is fast approaching, the hardy plant has still grown toward ‘our faintest sun’. Finally, in stanza seven, Tennyson turns to the Wellingtonia tree, ‘the waving pine’ that was planted by Garibaldi, ‘The warrior of Caprera’, when he visited in 1864. Interestingly, none of the trees or plants Tennyson mentions in these stanzas is native to the United Kingdom. In a sense, he can travel the world without leaving Farringford.
Chained by Age?
In stanza eight Tennyson discusses his decision to stay home when he says, ‘I, once half-crazed for larger light / On broader zones beyond the foam’. He ‘chain[s] fancy now at home / Among the quarried downs of Wight’. He recognises that it is age, in part, that keeps him at home. But the remainder of the poem shows that though his ‘fancy’ is chained, it is still active.
Ulysses keeps Tennyson’s imagination active through his writings. Stanzas nine through eleven list the various exotic places Ulysses writes about. They include: Arabian sands, ‘Oriental Eden-Isles’, Phra-bat (Thailand), the Pontic coast (the Black Sea), Anatolia, Hong-Kong, and Karnac.
Tennyson closes his poem with a self-deprecating reference to Ulysses’ writings:
Thro' which I follow'd line by line
Your leading hand, and came, my friend,
To prize your various book, and send
A gift of slenderer value, mine.
Tennyson has taken such pleasure from reading about Palgrave’s travels that he is sure he must value his Ulysses’ essays more than Palgrave could possibly value his poems.
Do you ever escape into writing about distant places like those Tennyson describes in this poem? If so, I’d love to hear about your favourite writers on such topics in the comments section below.