Tithonus, by everyone’s favourite Tennyson, is one of those classic poems, which is to be read by everyone and, preferably, thoroughly enjoyed.* Although it is one of those hip – for the 19th century – blank verse poems, it is well worth the read. The poem is, simply, a fairly magnificent poem, building from a slow, sombre introduction to a description of the pain of immortality, returning to the frantic pleading of a broken man to be released from Aurora’s warm love. The poem contrasts Aurora’s youth and beauty with Tithonus’ own decay quite well, throughout most of the poem, and, in its various own ways, shows to us plainly Tithonus’ own desire for death, and an end to his age. Part of what it is most appealing about the poem, at leas according to my opinion, is the nostalgia for Tithonus’ youth, coupled with his realisation that, essentially, ‘man wasn’t meant to live forever.’
Right from the start, one understands Tithonus’ suffering:
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.
I’ve always loved the description of ‘cruel immortality’ consuming, and it couples well with how Tithonus withers; a bleak contradiction to all our own ideas of immortality. The last few lines of this section establish Tithonus, as a shadow in Aurora’s beautiful, sunny halls, and we immediately see how he does not fit. Already, Tennyson shows the decrepit man in opposition to Aurora: we see how immortality contrasts with the beauty of youth, which is better to have in its fullness than to live forever in decay.
–And it goes on, describing how Tithonus was ‘so glorious in his beauty’, only for ‘the strong Hours indignant’ to beat, mar, and waste him, leaving him
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes.
Once again, the contrast of the immortal age mocked and saddened by the presence of immortal youth, leaving Tithonus ‘in ashes’ (which is a great description, by the way).
This contrasting language, while beautiful and establishing well the main strength of the poem, is, for me, nothing beside how one comes to fear Tithonus’ fears, nothing beside the warmth of Aurora’s glowing beauty when Tithonus was young, and their beauty and love.
–But the crux of the poem comes through in the lines
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?
Although the poem from hereon in is pleasant, and, as I said, the descriptions are powerful, it could end here. Essentially, the poem’s real strength comes out here, for me at least, as it highlights Tithonus’ desire for mortality. Something which is reminded to us in all pieces of literature, but is always pleasant to be reminded once again. The final stanza reinforces this well. I won’t quote the whole passage, but it describes the pain of immortality, as Tithonus frantically begs Aurora to let him go, and allow him to go to his grave. Once again, the contrast of his painful immortality and her immortal youth is well done, as Tennyson describes the coldness of Tithonus in Aurora’s ‘rosy shadows’ and ‘glimmering thresholds’.
All in all, Tithonus is one of those great 19th century poems which everyone should read. It’s not my favourite poem, but it’s high up on the list, due to its well-done contrasts and beautiful language. By far the most appealing aspect of the poem, for me, is Tithonus’ nostalgia for his departed youth (I haven’t described that here for reasons of space), and the way one comes to feel Tithonus’ loathing for his immortality, and the desire to live a mortal life. I would recommend every one of you, who read this, to go and read it here!
* If you haven’t heard of Tithonus before, never fear, for I am here! Tithonus, in Roman and Greek mythology, was a lover of Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, and she promised him anything. He asked for immortality, and they both, foolishly, forgot about eternal youth, so Tithonus was left to age forever but was unable to die.