The Poem

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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 “chosen.” Ravaged by time, Tithonus blames his lover for his fate, although he also shows his willingness to accept responsibility for choosing to become immortal. He repents his proud though human desire to transcend earthly limits, telling Aurora to “take back” her poisoned gift.

Tithonus vividly describes the awakening dawn in stanza 3 as an anthropomorphic goddess who brings light and heat to the world in her chariot. He emphasizes that Aurora is as much woman as divinity by depicting her sensual beauty, including her “redden[ing]” cheek and “sweet eyes” that brighten like the rising sun. As Tithonus reveals in stanza 4, their brief communion follows an all-too-familiar pattern, with Aurora refusing to answer him before her departure, leaving behind only her tears on his cheek. After her apparent disappearance, Tithonus gives voice to the dawn’s sadness and silence in stanza 5, revealing his own fear of Aurora’s powerlessness; as he suggests, “‘The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.’”

The erotic sixth stanza revisits the speaker’s distant past, as Tithonus explains how the dawn’s appearance and embrace once inflamed his desires. Then, her love was fresh and new; now, she fails to elicit a sympathetic response but only makes him “cold,” as the final stanza shows. Feeling isolated from even his lover, the world-weary Tithonus returns to thoughts of those “happy men” who are mortal or already dead. In the last five lines, Tithonus looks to the future and prays to be released by his omniscient, if not omnipotent, goddess. In death, Tithonus seeks not only forgetfulness but also deliverance from the burden of endless recurrence, as represented by the dawn’s cyclical and eternal return.

Forms and Devices

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Even among Tennyson’s innovative dramatic monologues, “Tithonus” is unusual in many respects, beginning with the implied listener herself. Unlike the human auditors of other monologues, Aurora is a goddess. Surprisingly, Tithonus never calls his lover by name, although he addresses her throughout the poem. She seems to have departed by stanza 6, leaving the speaker entirely alone, thereby making the rest of the poem into a soliloquy. In her presence and absence alike, Aurora’s divine silence speaks resoundingly. Whereas the listeners of other dramatic...

(This entire section contains 467 words.)

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monologues stay silent by convention, Tithonus expects Aurora to answer his prayers, and her speechlessness becomes a reason for him to despair.

Through the poem’s extensive use of personification, Tennyson transforms Aurora from a natural phenomenon into a supernatural being. Aurora is, literally speaking, the dawn itself; thus, Tithonus refers to the morning star that precedes sunrise as Aurora’s “guide.” He also imagines the morning dew as his lover’s tears, lending the dawn a personal and emotional aspect that is mirrored by the “weep[ing]” vapors, or storm clouds, of the opening section. Tithonus even describes the dawn’s radiant body at length in the third and sixth stanzas, which together form a blazon, or hymn of praise. Tennyson extends the personification of nature to time itself when Tithonus refers to Aurora’s “strong Hours” as agents of resentment and revenge.

Tennyson also incorporates the traditional form of the aubade, a morning song which either welcomes the dawn’s arrival or denounces it as a nuisance. Like John Donne in “The Sun Rising” (1633), Tennyson depicts his two lovers lying together in bed at daybreak. For Tithonus, his lover and the dawn are one and the same, so his ambivalence about Aurora suggests his divided attitude toward the return of day. In stanza 3, the luminous Aurora rises like the sun itself; the “old mysterious glimmer steals” from her brows and shoulders as she lights up their chamber and then the sky. Morning brings with it the speaker’s regret, unlike the days of old described in stanza 6, when Tithonus basked in dawn’s warm glow.

In terms of its rhetorical devices and effects, the poem creates a sense of slowness and weightiness through its balanced repetitions and parallelisms, including such lines as “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall” and “Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn,/ I earth in earth forget these empty courts.” In addition, Tennyson uses a number of grammatical inversions, as in “a heart renewed” and “cold/ Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet,” to provide a sense of emphasis and elevated expression. He also relies on frequent antithesis and contrasting images of light and dark, heat and cold, and youth and age to reflect the opposite natures of Aurora and Tithonus.