Homer, Tennyson, and Escaping the Cubicle

“How dull it is to pause, to make an end

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

The world can be awesome (see last week’s blog), but sometimes adulthood looks pretty bleak. Don’t get me wrong, being financially secure and comfortable is a great place to be, but the day-job working world (from the outside) seems like an incredibly dull place. I suppose it’s just the way Western society works that makes us subsistence-centric, but it’s sure enough to make a guy wish for some old-fashioned (and I mean old) adventure. Fortunately, books have always had my back when I want to travel, and this time is no different. For one of literature’s greatest adventures, I only had to go as far as the bookshelf next to my desk!

Homer’s Iliad (which, in fairness, is a poem rather than my usual prose) has all the elements of a great adventure (and, honestly, defined those elements, being one of the oldest things ever written): Prophesies, epic quests, great battles and heroic characters that make working in a cubicle seem laughable. Much of the poem’s attention is on Achilles, the famous hot-headed, half-divine warrior with the foot problems. For anyone unfamiliar with the story of the Iliad, we find ourselves on the plains of modern-day Turkey, at the foot of the walls of Troy, where the Greeks are laying siege to the Trojans to reclaim the Spartan king’s wife, Helen. The majority of the plot develops in the tenth and final year of the siege, when the (presumably impatient) besiegers and besieged do quite a lot of battling and tricking one another. The gods are present too; Zeus and Apollo are Trojan supporters, while Poseidon and the rest of the gods favor the Greeks. The details of the story are too extensive to even summarize, but a few of the most important characters should make an appearance in this case for reading Homer.

First, Achilles. Half man, half god, Achilles spends the latter of the Iliad rampaging around the walls of Troy, slaying enough men to stop a river with their bodies as a result of his grief over the death of his comrade Patroclus. His rage proves itself enough to actually defy fate itself (which was kind of a big deal in those days) and his love for his countrymen is pretty inspiring. Homer treats Achilles as the main protagonist of the poem, so you’ll get to know him well.

As interesting as Achilles is (his name is a Greek conjunction of “grief” and “people,” yet he embodies the idea that war is glorious CONTRADICTIONS EVERYWHERE), I’m personally an Odysseus fan. Odysseus conquers the Trojan War in basically the same way I try to conquer things like breakfast or homework: with equal and very large doses of eloquence and badass. The timeless Trojan Horse ploy was his brainchild, and he alternately rallies/calms the other Greeks as the situation calls for – Odysseus embodies leadership at its finest.

Now, as an aside – it’s been at least two weeks since I’ve written about a male British author from the 1800s (far too long), and one of my favorites has a word or to say about Odysseus (Ulysses) – Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson’s Ulysses is, without a doubt, my favorite poem of all time. To talk at length about the Iliad but leave out this excellent piece of supplementary literature would be a disservice to all three readers of the blog. Ulysses finds Odysseus an aged king, sitting on his throne in Ithaca, wishing to once more journey forth in the face of peril. Behold!

Come, my friends,

T is not too late to seek a newer world…

…To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.”

There is absolutely no way to not feel inspired by this poem.

Homer introduces us to the epic heroes of the Greeks, to the classic mythology that shaped a civilization and that still has the power to stir us today. Even a few pages of The Iliad are enough to cure the stalest cubicle-dweller of complacency (and replace it with restlessness). Homer is (sort of) like the most highly regarded self-help author of all time. If you can accept that premise, then:

1.       Read The Iliad (and The Odyssey when you’re done).

2.       Enjoy this second (and incredible) passage from Tennyson’s Ulysses, which is like the much shorter sequel to Homer’s self-motivation poems:

“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.”

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