Tithonus: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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      Tithonus was written about the same time as Ulysses (1833-35), to which it is a kind of pendant. It was however not published till 1860, when Thackeray asked Tennyson for a poem for his Cornhill Magazine. The story of Tithonus is told in one of the Homeric hymns, and Virgil mentions him several times. Aurora (the Greek goddess of dawn) gave to her lover Tithonus immortality, but did not give him eternal youth as well. As the gifts of the gods could not be recalled. Tithonus was in mercy transformed into a grasshopper. The keynote of the poem is struck in the lines:

Why should man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

      As in the Holy Grail in one way, and in Maud in another, Tennyson is here expressing the danger of abnormality, of the desire to be 'not as other men are.'

Tithonus was written about the same time as Ulysses (1833-35), to which it is a kind of pendant. It was however not published till 1860, when Thackeray asked Tennyson for a poem for his Cornhill Magazine. The story of Tithonus is told in one of the Homeric hymns, and Virgil mentions him several times. Aurora (the Greek goddess of dawn) gave to her lover Tithonus immortality, but did not give him eternal youth as well. As the gifts of the gods could not be recalled. Tithonus was in mercy transformed into a grasshopper.
Tithonus by Alfred Tennyson


      Tithonus is immortal but as he is rapidly growing old, he laments over his fate. All other objects ripen, decay and fall. But he is to hover forever like a shadow over the Eastern Horizon in the hands of his lover Aurora.

      All the pristine vigour and glory of his youth has faded. Time has wrought havoc on his form. He is a pale shadow, a grey-haired old man beside the immortal youth of Aurora. He repents. Men should not ask for a change in the ordinary life of a human being which naturally comes to a close after some time.

      The gradual appearance of the dawn is then described. First through a break in the cloud, Tithonus sees a glimpse of the earth. Then the veil of glimmering twilight is withdrawn and the dawn, pure and fresh, begins to reveal itself. Soon the eastern sky grows red and bright though still the stars are visible, till at last dawn fully appears and the day is begun.

      Tithonus repeatedly requests Aurora or Dawn to take back her gift. But she sheds only tears and departs. Even "the Gods cannot recall their gifts."

      Tithonus is at a loss how to reconcile himself to the enormous change that has come over him, Tithonus being the son of Laomedon, King of Troy, may be supposed to have been present when Neptune and Apollo who had been condemned by Zeus to serve Laomedon for one year, built the walls of Troy or Ilion. Classical myth avers that the stones of the wall were charmed into their places by the sweet sound of Apollo's lute.

      Tithonus is conscious of the fact that immortal age cannot dwell beside immortal youth. The old natural sympathy between the two must die out thorough the changes wrought upon Tithonus by time. No longer, as in his youth does he feel his blood glow with her glow. He wishes her to release him from his doom of immortality and give him back to earth and death and burial in the earth from which he sprang.


Based on Classical Myth

      Tithonus is based on a classical fable. Aurora, the goddess of Dawn, fell in love with a handsome youth, Tithonus by name. At the request of the goddess. Zeus conferred the gift of immortality on Tithonus. The goddess, however, forgot to ask for the perpetuation of her lover's youth and beauty. With the passage of time Tithonus grew frightfully old and enfeebled, so much so that his life became insufferable. He, then, requested the goddess to take back her gift and let him die, but Aurora was helpless, as even "gods themselves cannot recall their gifts".

      Tithonus is presented in this poem as a pathetic character who endeavours in vain to secure release from the burden of living.

A Dramatic Monologue

      The poem occupies a high rank among the dramatic monologues of Tennyson. It is spoken by "another man — i.e. Tithonus — than the poet. The poem does not attempt to depict so much the characteristics of the individual as the special circumstances in which he is placed. It is one of the poet's most highly finished productions, and is remarkable for its purity of tone, its musical rhythm and its beauty of style.

Various Interpretations Possible

      Tithonus is one of the most beautiful conceptions of the mythologic Greek mind reset in harmonious verse — a fable that may be interpreted variously; whether of the desolate sadness that would be the penalty of surviving, the mere relic of a man, into a strange and indignant generation—

A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream.

      Or as a parable upon the melancholy futility and disappointment that may follow the coupling of blooming youth with extreme old age —

How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rose shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet.

      On the other hand, it is "the passionless bride, divine tranquillity," whom Tennyson's Lucretius, westling with the satyr, vainly woos on earth, preferring at last to seek her by death in the high Roman fashion.

      Tithonus may also be seen as the expression of a vain yearning for release from the burden of living. It contrasts youth and age, love and death. The pathos of Tithonus's life is rendered with compelling pity and tenderness. Stopford. A Broke commenting on this poem remarks "I suppose from internal evidence that this poem, published in 1860, was written not very long after Ulysses. It has the same atmosphere of youthful feeling, the same technical maturity. It seems even finer than Ulysses as a piece of art, indeed, nothing of its kind approaches it in modern poetry, nor anything in which the imagination of Tennyson is at work with greater creativeness, insight, pathetic power, passion, noble sensuousness and simplicity."

Excellent Craftsmanship

      With remarkable craftsmanship, Tennyson creates the imaginary land where Tithonus is supposed to abide. The description of the wakening of Aurora, the glimmer on her brow, her sweet looks slowly brightening before they dazzle the stars, the wild team of horses shaking off darkness from their manes, and her departure are all beautifully realized. Yet though the place is far removed from the world of men, Tennyson has invested Tithonus with supreme human pathos. "Immortal age tied to immortal youth, the gift love gave of immortality, the curse of him to whom it was given, the memory, in decay, of youth and of love once passionate, the dreadful inability to love, the dreadful inability to die" — all is wonderfully expressed.

      The very movement of the blank verse is tender, according to S.A. Brooke, with the irreparable woe of Tithonus. Tennyson has expressed a familiar theme with exquisite tenderness for man, and made the victim think gently of his own race, and truly of their fate:

Why should man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Of happy men that have the power to die.

      In Tennyson's poem, the infinitely aged immortal speaks, weary and yearning for death as a release. Inspite of its subject this is not one of the 'dark poems'. The old man does not speak cynically about life; he is not bitter or gloomy about anything other than his own 'cruel immortality'. On the contrary, he envies the 'kindly race of men' and there still lives in him an aching sense of beauty — of earth and sky, of Eos and of himself in former times. The poem is one of the most beautiful poems that Tennyson wrote. What does seem significant and characteristic is that the best poetry should again be drawn from him by just such a subject. For Tithonus, though existing in perfect stillness, remote as the lotos-eaters from the turmoil of ordinary life, has no will, no energy. His condition makes it possible for the poet to recapture that Keatsian mood, 'half in love with easeful death', which had inspired him to write his best poetry in Mariana. He never wrote better then in the first lines of Tithonus:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

      Sound and image combine to enforce sense: to represent age and the sorrows of age, natural law and the beneficence of it. The heavy regular beat of Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath emphasises the kindly security that the natural rhythm of existence brings to the normal man. Aldous Huxley asks what the swan is doing in the picture and calls it a 'luminous irrelevance'. F.L. Lucas has answered that it is not: it is a symbol of age, and the whiteness too reflects the 'white-hair’d shadow' that the old man now is, sitting here at the quiet limit of the world.

      In either case, as Huxley says, 'Tennyson knew his magician's business'.

Comparison with Ulysses

      Both poems are dramatic monologues based on classical legend and spoken by old men. In other respects they are antithetical. Tithonus longs for death; Ulysses craves 'life piled on life'. Where Ulysses is active ('Old age hath yet his honour and his toil...some work of noble note may yet be done'), Tithonus decays, will-less, a 'grey shadow, once a man'. For Ulysses, a new world opens up as he looks about him to the horizon

My purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars.

      But for Tithonus, 'the gleaming halls of morn' bring only the painful renewal of an existence that is no life. This very existence too is dreamlike, a merely glimmering consciousness, still agonisingly sensitive to the beauty of nature, yet using even this beauty as a sort of anaesthetic to drug the conscious mind into that trance-like condition where reality is bearable. Ulysses is sharp and precise

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail.

      Above all, where Tithonus enervates, Ulysses braces. It does so, moreover, with the command of rhetoric;

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.

      Tithonus can do nothing to compete with this sort of thing.


      L. 1-4. The woods decay.....dies the swan. In these lines from Tennyson's Tithonus, Tithonus begins by surveying the scenery about him and complains that he cannot die. He has every reason for saying so because immortality, in his case, was certainly cruel. When Eos, goddess of the dawn, fell in love with this handsome young man, she went to Zeus, confessed to being in love with Tithonus, and begged Zeus to grant him immortality on earth so that he could always be with her. What she forgot to ask was eternal youth for him as well as eternal life. The request was granted. Tithonus grew older and older but he could not die. He watches everything live out its time and die. Vapour falls to the ground. Man comes and works in the fields until he too dies and is buried beneath the earth he has tilled. And then after every many years the swan dies. It is only he himself who cannot die.

      The lines are really beautiful and echo the sense. They act as a short prelude to the entire poem. In these lines Tennyson has given the agony of Tithonus.

      L. 18-22. But thy strong hours.....immortal youth. Tithonus was granted, immortal life, but Time himself, annoyed at the idea of anyone being made immortal on earth, took his revenge on Tithonus He spoiled everything for Tithonus and wasted his body. Although he could not kill him, he left him crippled to live beside the immortal youth of Aurora, his lover.

      In these lines, Tennyson suggests that one can even conquer death but not the influence of Time. The idea is that Time can devour or eat up everything. Time can do what he likes. Tithonus was granted immortal life but could not maintain immortal youth. Time was exasperated at Tithonus' immortality. His immortality was a sort of challenge to Time. So Time exercised his utmost power upon him. He impaired. Tithonus youth, diminished his strength and spirits by slow degrees and. finally made it hard for him to move about. Time could entirely destroy him, but he left him crippled, to dwell in the company of immortal youth, namely the goddess of Dawn. The "strong hours" indicate Time.

      Tennyson's poetry is the music of thought, conveyed to his readers in the music of language. These lines show Tennyson's art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the imagination. He does by means of words, what the painter does by means of colours.

      L. 27-31. Let me go.....meet for all. In Tithonus, the speaker reveals his own mind. He is sick of an immortal life in which he grows older and older. He is in a gloomy mood. When he got the gift of immortality, it never occurred to him that he would not stop growing old. So he is disillusioned. He no longer finds any charm in Aurora, his beloved. He finds that nature changes and is always changing. The forests decay. The dew drops fall to the ground. The swan dies. But he alone lives on as a silent witness to the changes that happen in nature. Ho has lost his lustre. His youth is gone and with the fading of his youth his personal charms are also gone. He has fallen into grief and untold suffering. He wonders at his own form. He is now what he was not. His present form is a mockery of his youth, when Aurora loved him and granted him the boon of immortality. But now he wants to be free. He requests her to take back the gift she had given him and let him go back to earth. He does not like to be an exception to the rule of mortality. He wants to die and not to live and suffer the passage of time for ever.

      L. 37-42. Thy cheek begins.....flakes of fire. These lines have been taken from Tennyson's Tithonus. This passage describes how the dawn begins to reveal itself. The goddess of dawn is represented by the poet as driving a rose coloured chariot drawn by white horses. In these lines Tithonus tells Aurora that she is the goddess of the dawn and her cheeks will begin to redden as Apollo appears in his chariot. He tells her that her lovely eyes, so close to his own, begin to get brighter actually before they begin to obscure the stars. Her eyes are so bright that they make the brightness of the stars become pale and they gradually become invisible. At the moment of dawn the wild horses belonging to the dawn-chariot begin to shake the darkness from their loosened manes and to beat the semi-darkness into little bits of fire as the sky gradually becomes light. Tithonus tells Aurora that these wild horses of hers love her and impatiently wait for her to mount the chariot so that they can drive across the sky before Apollo even thinks of following her for the sunrise.

      These lines suggest that the veil of twilight is withdrawn, and the dawn, pure and fresh, begins to reveal itself. Soon the eastern horizon will grow rosy and bright and the dawn will appear and day will begin.

      For minute observation and vivid painting of details of natural scenery, Tennyson is without a rival. Every phase of Nature is painted by him, with the accuracy of a scientist and the skill of a good artist. Tennyson does not feel, like Wordsworth, that Nature is alive. Nor does he sing like Shelley, that nature is the revelation of the spirit of Love. To him Nature is a realm of beauty. He has described Nature as a background for the ever changing feeling and emotions of the human heart.

      L. 46-49. Why will thou.....recall their gifts. In Tithonus the speaker reveals his own mind. He has fallen into eternal old age and decrepitude. He has no physical capacity or mental attitude to enjoy the love of Aurora. He is growing old every moment. He wants to be free from her embrace and to return to the earth which bore him. Through a chink in the clouds he sees the earth. At the same time Aurora casts her rosy tint upon him, as her chariot sweeps along its path in the sky. She looks, as usual, lovely with her beauty and youth. He finds her in tears, which trickle down upon him. She weeps and then goes away. "Let me go: take back thy gifts" — these words spoken by Tithonus remain unanswered. Her tears are frightening; perhaps they indicate her helplessness; they indicate that even gods cannot take back the gifts once given.

      L. 50-63. Ay me! ay me!.....rose into towers. Tithonus recalls the ardour with which he used to observe the transformation of Aurora when the hour came for her to get ready to start her daily journey. He cannot now recapture the youthful sensations with which he used to see her dark hair kindling into light at the hour of dawn and the marvellous change that used to come over her at that hour. He recalls the passionate kisses that he used to receive from her in a shower all over his face, kisses which were sweeter than the half-opened buds of April. The vague words of love that she used to whisper in his ears were sweet like the strange music of Apollo which built the walls and towers of the city of Troy. The sweetness of Aurora's whispering voice has here been conveyed to us by means of a lovely and striking comparison. The words "if I be he that watched" in Line 52 refer to the contrast between what Tithonus used to be and what he has now become on account of old age. Old age has changed him beyond recognition. Aurora's love making in those days was a source of pleasurable sensations for him. These are some Of the most beautiful and poetic lines in Tithonus.

      L. 72-76. Release, me, and.....thy silver wheels. In a dramatic monologue, Tithonus reveals his broken heart, having fallen into eternal age. He is not what he was. He is a ghost of his former self. In the past he used to watch Aurora intently. There was a glitter in his eyes, a lustre in his face, and beauty all over. The halo around her face delighted him. As he lay in her lap the clouds which hung on her head glowed with a rosy hue, and she kissed him. But now there is a fall in his life. He has grown old and lustreless. His nature cannot harmonise any more with hers. She is young, he is old. She is beautiful, he is ugly. She is joyful, he is in grief. He is cold and dry; she is warm with sweet emotion. He therefore wants freedom from her. He requests her to send him back to earth where he may die. Over his grave she may glide in the sky with her beauty and youth and pride. He wants death, sweet death and no more eternal life.

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