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In his poem “Ulysses,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson emphasizes the title character’s great endurance and insatiable curiosity in a number of ways and in a number of passages, including the following:
Line 1 implies already that Ulysses does not enjoy being an “idle” king – idle either physically or mentally. His disappointment in his “still hearth” (line 2) also implies his desire for adventure.
Line 3 implies his disappointment in the physical and mental passivity of his people, who, apparently, spend much of their time sleeping.
Lines 5-6 are especially relevant to his insatiable curiosity as well as to his powers of endurance, especially in light of the dangers of travel during this time:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees . . .
Line 8 mentions that Ulysses has “suffered greatly,” thus implying his powers of endurance. Lines 9-11 explain where and how he suffered.
Line 12 mentions Ulysses’ “hungry heart,” a phrase which implies his emotional yearning for new experiences. The ensuing few lines give specific examples of his wanderings.
Lines 19-21 again seem especially relevant to the topic of Ulysses’ curiosity:
. . . all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
This is a man who loves not only travelling but also encountering new experiences. The next few lines elaborate on the sentiments expressed so clearly in lines 19-21.
Line 28 is the next line that expresses very explicitly Ulysses’ yearning for “new things” and that thus implies his insatiable curiosity.
Lines 31-32 make his curiosity especially explicit; he seeks
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
By the time the poem is halfway done, then, Tennyson has repeatedly emphasized Ulysses’s curiosity. This emphasis continues in the second half, but in that half of the work Tennyson also implies Ulysses’ great endurance.
Thus Ulysses speaks of his men, who have “toiled” and “wrought” with him (46). He mentions having encountered “thunder” (symbolic of storms) at sea (48). He reminds us that he intends to sail and risk his life even though he is “old” (49), and he explicitly announces that “Old age hath . . . his toil” (emphasis added). He wants to perform “Some work of noble note” (52; emphasis added), and he thinks of himself as a person who has challenged the Gods (53).
He reminds us of the work involved in rowing a ship (58-59), and he indicates that he does not plan a brief voyage but a lengthy and distant one, which will require physical and mental strength and physical and mental endurance (60). He calls attention to the possibility that he may die from shipwreck (62), but he takes heart in thinking about how he and his men have endured in the past (65-66). He admits that he is not as physically strong now as he once was, but he claims that he is just as strong in willpower (69-70).
In short, if the first half of Tennyson's poem tends to emphasize Ulysses’ insatiable curiosity, the second half tends to emphasize his great endurance. By the time we reach the end of the poem, Ulysses strikes us as being brave, intelligent, noble, inspiring, and determined. His curiosity leads him to travel, and his travel leads him to many physical challenges which he must endure. He seems, in fact, aperfect combination of mind, body, and spirit.
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