by Alfred Lord Tennyson
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 was written, Tennyson said, as a 'pendant to Ulysses,' and the sense of isolation and grief that pervades the poem clearly brings out the underlying darkness present in the earlier poem, and shows the consequences of human desire.
Tithonus warns of the dangers of immortality, but its real message seems to be a suggestion that man cannot hope to aspire to the permanence of nature. The cyclical manner in which nature operates is shown through the iambic pentameter in the first stanza, which gives a regular, rhythmic sound to the words. The polysyndeton in the third line, and symmetrical structure of the first line support this effect, which although slows the poem down, gives a sense of harmony to the language and sound. This harmony is shattered when the lines "Me only cruel immortality/ Consumes," are introduced.
These lines have a profound effect on the stanza because they destroy the meter and introduce irregularity to the poem. The enjambment and introduction of an adjective (the previous lines contain none) further add discord to the stanza, and this echoes the manner in which Tithonus has disrupted the flow of nature, stopping the cycle of creation and destruction, and acting as a Deity. Thus one could suggest the first stanza acts as a warning against hubris, but Tithonus is more than a warning: it goes on to describe the pain that he feels.
Ulysses described the narrator's desire to "strive, to seek, to find and not to yield," but in that poem one detects a sense of melancholy, in that the images of stasis overpower those of action, which are superficial at best - they represent an urge rather than real intention. When we look at this urge more closely, we see that its inability to be fulfilled leads to a sense of loss, and a figure like Tithonus emerges. The constant desire for posterity and exploration eats away at Tithonus and Tennyson represents this as a curse of sorts: the myth upon which the character of Tithonus is based says that Tithonus, in an effort to stay with his wife Aurora, asks Zeus for immortality but forgets to ask for immortal youth, and is left to live forever, slowly deteriorating in health. In the poem, I believe that Tithonus' desire for immortality is a metaphor for man's desire to keep up with nature's continuity and beauty. Yet man forgets that, "The woods decay," and by claiming exemption from death one brings about tragedy.
However brutal the "Hours indignant" are, however, there is some beauty in Tithonus's words, because they are spoken by a dying man - when he says "after many a summer dies the swan," he can only look on longingly at the death, and later he asks to join the "happier dead." As in Mariana, there is a thought that alleviation of pain can only come about through destruction, Tithonus knows his final plea is hopeless, as, '"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts",' yet he continues to speak because he wallows in the self-pity and suffering.
I think that this is a result of Tennyson's post-Romantic attitude: moving on from conventional Romantic poetry that looks at the worth of the individual, Tithonus, as a post-romantic poem, looks at this fallacy, showing us the consequences of trying to surpass the fading "arch" described in Ulysses. Tithonus is of course a self-obsessed character, and there are mythological and medieval allusions so the poem has Romantic aspects but the tone of the poem is darker. The mythological allusions enhance the poem greatly, as they add a layer of depth to an otherwise simplistic poem: as in Mariana and Ulysses, by using characters from literature or folklore the character study becomes clearer, as Tithonus already possesses a history that Tennyson exploits.
Tithonus describes himself as a silhouette, calling himself a "white-hair'd shadow," and says, "rosy shadows bathe me." This image is particularly important, because it suggests that he has somehow assimilated himself with nature, blending into the sky but the true nature of the comparison emerges when his suffering is described. The image in fact shows his insignificance and slow deterioration, as he is left, like a cloud, with little physical presence. The pain is concealed by the "rosy" tint but the abundance of questions and long stanzas in the poem convey a despondent, weary tone.
The silence that pervades the poem also compounds this effect: we do not hear the swan's music, and the quiet, "soft air" replaces the wind described in Ulysses. Aurora grows more beautiful "in silence" and only one reference to sound is made, when Tithonus mentions, "that strange song I heard Apollo sing." The use of the past tense immediately distances this music, and it is then juxtaposed with the "mist" which seems to carry a sense of calm - the contrast leaves us with Tithonus' longing for the music that once filled his mind.
The past, like the mist, is a fading memory, and Tithonus sees himself as a new person: the third person pronoun is used in the second stanza, showing a detachment of mind and body, with Tithonus barley able to recall the days when he was mortal.
Throughout the poem the pronouns 'I' and 'thee' are separated structurally, echoing the tragic situation, and even when the Tithonus says "I wither slowly in thine arms," the phrase "wither slowly in" separates the two words representing the lovers.
The suggestion seems to be that the bonds that connect them have themselves withered, as the line's meter and sentence structure are inconsistent with the rest of the stanza. The tragedy has come about, of course, as a result of Tithonus' naïve belief that he "seem'd/ To his great heart none other than a God." The Gods oblige "with a smile," and leave Tithonus suffering, in the ultimately futile thought that "thou wilt see my grave."
- The critic Jacob Korg says "Tithonus demonstrates the danger of fulfillment." this is true, in that it is an effective renditon of the moral "Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it." Yet the poem is not just about warning man of the dangers of wishing, it also seems to be an ode to time.
- There's a line in Richard II that goes "I wasted time and now time doth waste me," (or something like that, msg me if you know the exact line) and this phrase eloquently shows tithonus' predicament. It is about the power of time.
- Talking about the power of time, I should mention the equally superb poem Ozymandis, which shows us the insignificance of mankind when we come up against the natural world.
- One website (not sure which) suggested "man is caught between his precisely equal needs to live and to die. In a further darkening of this point, Tithonus is made a slave to life, not death, suggesting the grotesque argument that man is born to shun the single friendly act of nature, his destruction."
- The above is a good point, and it reminds me of Freud's death drive and life drive (the 'eros' and 'thanatos' (I think that's what they're called, anyway). Man is torn between a desire for life and death: Ulysses shows the former, Tithonus the latter.
- Any other interpretations would be very interesting, so any more writeups would be great, or if you would like me to add something to this list then msg me.