Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

The genesis of “Tithonus” is important to understanding its meaning. Tennyson explained that he originally conceived of the poem as a pendant or companion piece to “Ulysses” (1842), which he wrote soon after the 1833 death of his cherished friend Arthur Hallam. However, the first version of “Tithonus,” called “Tithon,”...

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The genesis of “Tithonus” is important to understanding its meaning. Tennyson explained that he originally conceived of the poem as a pendant or companion piece to “Ulysses” (1842), which he wrote soon after the 1833 death of his cherished friend Arthur Hallam. However, the first version of “Tithonus,” called “Tithon,” underwent extensive revisions before its publication in 1860, more than twenty-five years after it was begun. Because of Tennyson’s emotional distance from his personal loss, the final version of “Tithonus” presents a more detached view of death and immortality than its predecessor.

Even though “Tithonus” does not respond in an immediate way to Hallam’s death, it can still be read as an extension of and an alternative to “Ulysses.” In both poems, Tennyson looks to a classical story for insight into the problem of mortality. His aged and alienated speakers share a similar predicament in their dissatisfaction with a life that has become monotonous, and both pursue death as a means of transcending this sort of existence. Ultimately, though, the two men are distinguished by their very different attitudes toward life. Unlike Ulysses, who clings to life and sets out for more adventures, Tithonus has given up on life and longs for oblivion in the grave.

Consequently, Ulysses is active, defiant, and hopeful, whereas Tithonus is passive, resigned, and despairing. As such, these two speakers represent antithetical aspects of Tennyson’s own attitude toward life and death. With its origins in Homer’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” (c. 8th century b.c.e.; Eng. trans, 1624) and Horace’s Odes (23 b.c.e., 13 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1621), “Tithonus” further shares its tradition and themes with Tennyson’s other classical monologues, “Tiresias” (1885) and “Oenone” (1832), which reflect upon dying and the danger of loving a god, respectively.

As a personal response to mortality, “Tithonus” is also related to Tennyson’s elegiac In Memoriam (1850), in which the poet addresses Hallam’s death explicitly and at length. Like this extended elegy, “Tithonus” considers the relation of humanity to nature and God. As a liminal figure who is neither human nor divine, Tithonus finds himself excluded from the natural order of things, in which “Man comes and tills the fields and lies beneath.” As someone who ages without dying, Tithonus is exiled from humanity, caught between “that dark world where [he] was born” and the eternal “halls of morn.”

Alienated from even his former self, “once a man,” Tithonus seeks to provide himself with a sympathetic companion in either nature or God. In his descriptions of the dawn, he tries to endow the natural world with human warmth and compassion. By attempting to combine sensuous immediacy with permanence in his portrait of Aurora’s “immortal youth” and beauty, Tithonus recalls not only “that strange song [he] heard Apollo sing,” but also such Romantic odes as John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” published with the verse drama Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (pb. 1820).

Despite his efforts to reach out, both nature and divinity seem cold and unresponsive to Tithonus, who experiences a crisis of faith as a result. In showing the apparent indifference of the gods to human destiny, Tennyson suggests that God, like Tithonus’s Aurora, is not immanent but transcendent. At the end of the poem, then, a chastened Tithonus comes to accept that his place is not with the gods, but rather with living and dying humanity.

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