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tearing the rag off the bush again
Blagodysseus PDF E-mail
    As a professor of Victorian literature, I’m always glad to hear Browning or Wilde, or more infrequently Swinburne, quoted in the media by a public figure. Most of the time we have to settle for a nugget from Kipling’s “If” or Henley’s “Invictus.”
    Recently, Rod Blagojevich has trotted out several authors, including Kipling and Alan Sillitoe.  
    Just last week, good old Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Queen Victoria’s mild-mannered and myopic poet laureate, was invoked by the ill-mannered and beady-eyed Governor of Illinois to seal his impeachment press conference with what he thought was just the right tone of defiance and unconquerable will.
    Citing the closing lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which he had evidently memorized some time back for just such an occasion as this, Blagojevich intoned with school-boyish pride:
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.
The beginning of the poem would be more appropriate for one who has tried to auction off Obama’s senate seat: “It little profits that an idle king…”
    Blagojevich seems to be prone to letting his real feelings show by his literary allusions. After Blago said that he felt like the runner in “Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” blogger Kari Andren pointed out that he left unsaid that Alan Sillitoe’s story “is about a petty thief who runs his races from inside a detention facility.” If he keeps this up, we’ll have to invent a new literary term, along the lines of the Malapropism or the Freudian slip, maybe the Blagopropism or the Blagoslip.
     Blagojevich, who seems unwilling to step down, doesn’t seem to realize that Tennyson’s poem is a valediction, that Odysseus is saying farewell to political power and worldly influence. For Tennyson’s ex-hero, the new epic journey promises to be inner, personal, reflective, and intellectual—“To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.” The goal is spiritual, not the cushy job on a corporate board or ambassadorship the Illinois Governor was angling for. As one critic has put it, Tennyson’s hero is “stripped of [his] potency” because he is presented at the moment that “he turns his back on society and worldly action.”
    Like Odysseus, King of Ithaka, Blagodysseus, Governor of Illinois, looks down on his constituents as a “savage race,” who “hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.” For Ulysses, this meant that his people could never realize what made his great heart tick, not having seen what he saw in his twenty years away from home, going to and returning from the Trojan War. For them he has just “become a name.” So has Blago, or B-Rod, for other reasons, and the people of Illinois don’t appreciate all he’s done for them, a hero in his own eyes.
    Blagojevich might have done better to compare himself to another version of Homer’s hero, the “lawless pirate” of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Kazantzakis takes up where Tennyson left off, following Odysseus’s journey after his return to Ithaka. In Kazantzakis, Odysseus turns out to be the reckless, sensual and immoral adventurer we always suspected him to be, one who was not so much waylaid on his way home to Penelope as a philanderer who seduced, procrastinated and plundered his way home, finding his “aged wife” Penelope to be a bore and his son Telemachus a prig, so he decides to elope with the still dangerous Helen of Troy to start a second Trojan War. Now that sounds more like our Governor Invictus of Illinois.
    I was surprised by Blagojevich’s choice of Tennyson. When he said he had a poem he wanted to quote, I expected it to be Henley’s “Invictus,” another Victorian poem often cited by scoundrels looking for high-minded sound-bytes to justify their antics. Henley thanks “whatever gods may be” for his “unconquerable soul,” holding high his head, “bloody, but unbowed,” and ends by claiming: “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.” Blagojevich is just original enough, though, to fascinate us with his moral, political and poetic choices—at least until the next scandal erupts and a new scoundrel resorts to the Victorian poets for his spin.
    Maybe next time he’ll use a modern poet like Philip Larkin who famously said, “Faint of heart never fucked the pig.” (Larkin too was lifting a quote at the time.) Then again, he might try to commandeer any one of us who has a few verses in print. Now that’s a truly scary thought.
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