A summary of a classic poem
‘Tithonus’ is not as famous as some of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s other dramatic monologues – ‘Ulysses’ enjoys considerably more popularity – but it is worth analysing because it offers something different from much other poetry. As the poet-critic William Empson put it, ‘Tithonus’ is ‘a poem in favour of the human practice of dying’, because the poem exposes the horrific reality of what it would be like to live forever.
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.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a 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?
A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renew’d.
Thy cheek begins to redden thro’ the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen’d manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.
Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.
Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
‘The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.’
Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch—if I be he that watch’d—
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson’d all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss’d
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.
Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.
‘Tithonus’ is based on the myth of Tithonus who was in love with Aurora, the goddess of the dawn. Aurora asked the gods to make Tithonus immortal, so they could be together forever, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth; Tithonus was therefore destined to get older and older with each passing year, while his lover remained young and beautiful. In summary, Tithonus addresses his lover, Aurora (Eos in Greek myth; Aurora in the Roman version), but also tells us the ‘back story’, outlined above. Now, having been ‘maim’d’ and aged beyond recognition by his longevity, Tithonus yearns to be released from his endless life and find peace in death. But Aurora, crying, has already told him that ‘The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.’ Even the gods, it would seem, cannot undo Tithonus’ immortal ‘gift’ – even though it has now become more of a curse. All Tithonus can do is lie coldly in the warm arms of Aurora and long for a death that he can never know. (Aurora is described as being on ‘silver wheels’ because she was the goddess of the dawn, and was ‘personified’ as the sun rising in the sky.)
This is the story that inspired Tennyson’s poem, but does it possess any other meanings? Can a biographical analysis of ‘Tithonus’ help to elucidate the poem?
Well, Tennyson wrote ‘Tithonus’ in 1833, shortly after the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, who also inspired a number of Tennyson’s other poems, most famously his long elegy In Memoriam (1850). But although Tennyson wrote the poem in 1833, he didn’t publish it until 27 years later, when it appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. Tennyson may have been prompted to dust off this poem, begun more than a quarter of a century ago, by a letter he received from Benjamin Jowett in 1859. Having recently visited Hallam’s grave, Jowett remarked, ‘It is a strange feeling about those who are taken young that while we are getting old and dusty they are just as they were.’ This remark, in essence, is the core of ‘Tithonus’. And whilst it would be a reductive analysis that sought to declare Tennyson = Tithonus and the forever young Arthur Hallam = Aurora (because, having died young, he will be preserved in his prime forever and never grow old), this biographical fact seems to power Tennyson’s poem about death, ageing, and immortality.
This biographical background helps us to pinpoint precisely what makes ‘Tithonus’ unusual among Tennyson’s poetry: rather than being a celebration of life, it is a poem about a longing for death. Rather than revelling in the idea of immortality (whether of an imagined literal kind or the sort of afterlife that poetry can give an individual, as expressed famously in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18), it is a poem that turns away from immortality in disgust. In doing so, Tennyson prefigures such twentieth-century explorations of death-in-life as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which has an epigraph (from the Roman writer Petronius) that tells a very similar story to that of Tithonus (namely the Cumaean Sibyl, who also asked for eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth).
Tennyson’s poem continues to be relevant and is likely to remain so, especially in an age where human beings are living longer and longer lives, even though we are often transformed almost beyond recognition (or literally beyond our own recognition, in the tragic case of Alzheimer’s disease or senile dementia) and end up living yet not living, the older we become. There is a heartbreaking aside in ‘Tithonus’ which captures such horrific transformation. Tithonus, talking about himself, says, ‘if I be he that watch’d’. Is he the man he once was? ‘Tithonus’ addresses this almost-taboo issue: is it always better to choose life? Or is there something to be said for ‘the human practice of dying’?
Image: Eos (Dawn) pursuing Tithonus, detail from an Attic red-figure oinochoe, via Wikimedia Commons.