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Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and the Representation of Basic Emotions

Issue: Vol 4 No. 3 (2008)

Journal: Linguistics and the Human Sciences

Subject Areas: Writing and Composition Linguistics

DOI: 10.1558/lhs.v4i3.223


Tennyson took a hint from Odysseus’ last voyage in Dante’s Inferno, and fashioned ‘Ulysses’ as a ‘sequel’ to Homer’s Odyssey. The 70 line poem is divided into four paragraphs of different lengths. In the first paragraph (a single clause, ll. 1-5), Ulysses complains about running his kingdom; in the second (9 clauses, ll. 6-32), he reminisces about his inspiriting past; in the third (3 clauses, ll. 33-43), he commends his kingdom to his son Telemachus; and in the fourth (18 clauses, ll. 44-70), he exhorts his mariners to join him in a last voyage. Tennyson was very clear about what the poem meant, i.e. despite his grief over the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, he was determined to go on rather than give up, but literary critics have been dissatisfied with Tennyson’s interpretation of his own poem. Nevertheless, ‘Ulysses’ is all about emotion, and the representation of Tennyson’s ‘felt experience’ (Downes 2000). A better understanding of Tennyson’s grief comes from Panksepp’s (1997) account of basic emotions in the context of affective neuroscience. That the patterning of experiential and interpersonal meanings in ‘Ulysses’ is congruent with Panksepp’s SEEKING system is strong evidence that Tennyson did in fact represent his felt experience in the poem.

Author: James Dimon Benson

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