One equal temper of heroic hearts

LIFE is unfair. People who are resourceful and courageous in solving problems and overcoming obstacles, sometimes end up with more problems and bigger obstacles in their path.

Take Odysseus the legendary Greek hero in the Trojan War. He was the one who came up with the idea of the wooden horse which resulted in the final defeat of the Trojans and the end of the 10-year-long conflict.

But while many of the Greek heroes quickly returned home after the war, Odysseus was forced by the god Poseidon (called Neptune by the Romans) to wander the seas for another 10 years, enduring storms, hostile tribes and unfriendly monsters (including a one-eyed giant, Cyclops, who caught and ate most of his crew). Today, this kind of long drawn-out voyage where one is faced with tough problems, is known as an odyssey.

A famous poem, Ulysses (the Latin spelling of Odysseus’s name) by Tennyson in the 19th Century depicts the hero’s robust, gung-ho outlook on life. Lines of the poem were regularly quoted by the plucky people of Victorian England as they left their little island kingdom to conquer and colonise much of the world.

Today, we are more concerned with heroics of the mind. We want to build up our skill set and develop internal resources to overcome life’s difficulties. For most people this personal odyssey probably starts at age 9 but doesn’t end even when they reach 90.

There is a memorable scene in the recent James Bond movie, Skyfall. James Bond’s aging boss, M (played by Judi Dench) quotes the closing lines of Ulysses to prove that older folks, though weak in physical strength, are just as mentally robust and capable as the young:

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.

“What I like about the poem,” says one movie-goer, “is that it perfectly summed up both M and Bond. Two people aging, weakening, but still strong in spirit and resolve – to the point where they could retreat into the mountains, board up in some old house with a handful of improvised weapons, and still manage to defeat a small army of heavily armed terrorists. The capacity to wholeheartedly confront and defeat something larger than yourself – this is the essence of courage.”

Several decades ago at a much younger age, I decided that the only meaningful activity in life was the pursuit of knowledge, as encapsulated in two lines from the poem:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

But when I left school and entered the working world I was told by employers to follow their organisation’s vision, mission and marketing mantras. Even at that tender age, I could sense that this corporate stuff was insincere, poorly-written and as underwhelming as radio jingles. I made up my mind not to let such mediocre text dumb me down to the same level of stupidity as advertising copywriters.

So, you do what I have done: don’t swallow the stuff that big corporations and big brother figures try to shove down your throat. Armed yourself with the intrepid thoughts, imaginative ideas and soaring visions of great thinkers and poets of old (whether they be Homer, Confucius, Milton or Tennyson).

Begin with Tennyson’s Ulysses; memorise the entire poem by heart:


Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892)

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.
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: 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.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

        This is my 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, centred 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.

        There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. 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, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
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;
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.