»  Tennyson's "Tithonus"



by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892


•  Background

"Tithonus" is an exquisitely beautiful poem that unfortunately is suffused by a certain mood, a certain view of life, that was fashionable for a few decades in the mid 19th century but which now seems strange, perhaps even a little disordered. That mood has been described by one commentator as "morbidly elegiac." Its essence is a fond dwelling on the peace, the silence, and the release — that last is a key word — brought by death.

I don't know why that particular period should have been so death-haunted. Life expectancy was in fact increasing in Tennyson's England; the poet himself lived to be 83. The place was buzzing with vitality. There you are, though: These are the mysteries of culture.

Tennyson was actually born in 1809, the same year as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Nikolai Gogol, and Edgar Allan Poe. "Tithonus" was written around 1834 or 1835, so the poet would have been 25 or 26.

You need a little background to the underlying mythology here. The speaker of the poem is Tithonus, son of Laomedon, king of Troy. Tithonus was so handsome that Aurora, the Goddess of the Dawn (Greek Eos), fell in love with him. She took him off to her palace in the east, from which she rides out every morning with a team of horses to raise the Sun.

So infatuated was she that she managed to persuade Jupiter, king of the Gods, to grant Tithonus immortality. However, Aurora, who we are given to understand was somewhat scatter-brained and flighty, forgot to specify that Tithonus should also enjoy eternal youth. So the poor guy lived for ever but got older and grayer, more and more wrinkled, more and more shrunken, his voice degenerating into a feeble squeak.

Aurora naturally lost interest, but she let him go on living in her palace. At last, in a spasm of pity, she turned him into a grasshopper. Being immortal, I suppose he is a grasshopper still; so next time you see a grasshopper, take care not to hurt him — it might be poor Tithonus.

•  Notes

"Ilion" — Troy, whose walls were supposed to have arisen in response to Apollo's music.


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•  Text of the poem

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-haired 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 seemed
To his great heart none other than a God!
I asked 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 worked their wills,
And beat me down and marred and wasted me,
And though they could not end me, left me maimed
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, though 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 renewed.
Thy cheek begins to redden through 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 loosened 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 watched —
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 crimsoned 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 kissed
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 seest 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.