The step is not as quick. The swing is not as crisp or as powerful. In the career of every great athlete, there comes a moment of profound reckoning: Should you continue when your skills have clearly diminished? If you can't be the absolute best anymore, should you settle for just being really, really good?
This week, beloved New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter announced that the 2014 season will be his last. Age and injuries have done what opponents rarely could: Stopped Jeter from excelling. And I imagine he faced a question that all renowned athletes eventually must ponder, from professionals like Jeter and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, now in the waning days of his career, to Olympians like Michael Phelps: Should you retire at the top of your game or hang on for a few more tries?
Alfred Tennyson had an answer. In "Ulysses," the 20th century British poet with a beard worthy of the Boston Red Sox argued that we should keep going, keep pushing forward, even as twilight settles in. He was writing about a king, but it could have been a famous shortstop: "I am become a name; / For always roaming with a hungry heart / Much have I seen and known ... and drunk delight of battle with my peers." Nothing is worse, Tennyson implied, than sitting in the stands when you could be out on the field: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!"
The poet's big finish might just be enough to persuade Jeter to reconsider: "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."
In other words: Batter up.
Julia Keller is an author and critic. Her latest book is Bitter River.
You can read "Ulysses" in full at the Poetry Foundation.
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