The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In seven blank-verse paragraphs, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Tithonus” reflects upon the strange and tragic fate of its speaker, the doomed lover of Aurora, the goddess of the dawn in Roman mythology. According to legend, the Trojan prince Tithonus received the gift of immortality from the gods at Aurora’s request. Because the goddess neglected to obtain for him the gift of eternal youth, however, Tithonus continued to grow old, without “the power to die,” until he was turned into a grasshopper. In the poem, Tennyson’s ancient Tithonus laments his alienation from human community, provides a requiem for his lost youth and beauty, and vainly implores the goddess to release him from love and life. By using Tithonus as an object lesson, Tennyson suggests that eternal life may be more of a curse than a blessing.

“Tithonus” begins with what appears to be a traditional lament on the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. However, the speaker refers to death as an unexpected blessing from which he alone, of all living things, is doomed to be exempt: “Me only cruel immortality/ Consumes.” Tithonus also portrays himself as the dawn’s emasculated victim, an insubstantial “shadow” of a man who “wither[s] slowly” in the infinite void of its heavenly prison.

In stanza 2, memory heightens Tithonus’s sense of physical and sexual loss, as he recalls his “glorious” youth, when the goddess made him her...

(The entire section is 516 words.)