Summary

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Last Updated June 17, 2024.

Introduction

Alfred, Lord Tennyson began his first draft of "Tithonus" in 1833, but he did not complete the final version of the seven-stanza poem until 1859. It appeared in Cornhill Magazine in February 1860 and later in the poet's 1864 anthology Enoch Arden. It has since been anthologized many times as an example of Tennyson's poetical skill, an adaptation of a Greek myth, and a reflection on death and desire.

"Tithonus" is not just a retelling of the myth of the title character and the goddess Eos, the dawn. It is Tennyson's unique adaptation, a human man who falls in love with Eos. She loves him, too, and makes him immortal, but she fails to give him eternal youth along with that gift. So Tithonus grows old, and Tennyson allows him to speak a dramatic monologue, meditating on his current condition and deep regrets.

Poem Summary

In the first stanza of "Tithonus," the title character laments the "cruel immortality" that prevents him from dying. Everything else goes through its life span and passes away, including the woods, the vapours, the animals and birds, and even man. But Tithonus remains, withering slowly in the arms of his lover, Eos, in the "ever-silent spaces" of her eastern home.

Tithonus continues to lament in the second stanza. Long ago, when he was young and "glorious in his beauty," he made a choice. He fell in love with a goddess and begged for the gift of immortality. Eos gave him his wish, smiling all along, but neither thought he would grow old. He did grow old, and now he is merely a "gray shadow." The hours have worked on him, beating, marring, wasting, leaving him maimed.

Yet Eos remains forever young, and they are now completely incompatible. Even her love and beauty cannot "make amends" for Tithonus' suffering. So he begs her to let him go, to take back her gift. He has made a mistake by reaching for something beyond human nature.

In the third stanza, Tithonus praises Eos as her "mysterious glimmer" spreads across the sky. Her "sweet eyes" shine upon him as she drives her "wild team" of supernatural horses, bringing in the day and scattering "flakes of fire" with their manes. But Eos, Tithonus indicates in the fourth stanza, does not answer his request for death, leaving him with her tears on his cheek.

As the poem moves into its fifth stanza, Tithonus explains why the goddess is crying. She cannot take back her gift. So Tithonus continues his lament in stanza six. He remembers how he once watched Eos long ago and relished her kisses and presence. He recalls his "mystic change" to immortality, the glow in his blood. It was "wild and sweet" once.

Now, Tithonus sighs as the poem draws to a close in its final stanza; his nature can no longer mix with that of Eos. He is cold and wrinkled; she is still warm and fresh. He envies the "happy men that have the power to die" and looks longingly at their green graves. He begs for release, to be allowed to return to earth and forget all. He is sure Eos would continue to renew her beauty every morning even without him, always returning on the "silver wheels" of her bright chariot even if he can no longer see.

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