In what way is "Tithonus" a dramatic monologue in an elegiac strain?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Tithonus" is a dramatic monologue spoken by the title figure of myth, but in my view, the term "elegiac" does not precisely apply. An elegy is more specifically a poem for the dead, such as Milton's "Lycidas" or Shelley's "Adonais." Tithonus is lamenting not death, but conversely, his own immortality. The poem carries the tone of grief, as an elegy does, but it's even sadder than a true elegy, because the message of an elegy is that the dead have found a better life, a kind of glory, or simply rest beyond the grave. Tithonus has none of these things, because he is condemned to live for ever.

In mythology, Tithonus is granted eternal life by Eos, goddess of dawn. Hence the repeated allusions by Tennyson to "the East" and to the love which Tithonus and the goddess once had:

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

Tithonus, though immortal, has not retained his youthfulness. Though the fact that he is now a "gray shadow, once a man" is the obvious reason for his lament, there is another factor here. In this, and other poems by Tennyson and his contemporaries, we sense an existential weariness about life itself, a desire to escape it and find peace or oblivion. In Swinburne's "The Garden of Proserpine," the speaker tells us that

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives for ever;

That dead men rise up never;

To me, it is interesting that the Victorians were considered dated, old-fashioned, and irrelevant by the modernist generation of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the others, but much of the message of Tennyson, Swinburne, Matthew Arnold and others is similar to that of the twentieth-century poets. "Tithonus" anticipates the tone of Eliot's "Gerontion." Tithonus himself, in Tennyson's hands, becomes a symbol of man alone in the universe and wishing to be released from life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tennyson's poem "Tithonus" is generally considered a dramatic monologue as it fits within the standard definition of the genre. A dramatic monologue is a poem spoken by a first person narrator with an indefinite addressee, very much like a soliloquy in a drama. Often, the dramatic monologue, as well as voicing the specific issues or concerns of the narrator, acts as a psychological portrait of the narrator. Tithonus is written in the first person voice of a character from ancient Greek myth. He was a mortal lover of Eos, the goddess of the dawn, who asked that Zeus grant him immortal life but for got to ask for eternal youth. The poem is a lament spoken in his voice.

Although it is not an elegy in the sense of being a poem specifically memorializing the death of a person, it is a mournful poem concerned with themes of mortality and inspired by the death of Tennyson's friend Hallam.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial