Tithonus by Alfred Tennyson | Critical Analysis

Tithonus by Alfred Tennyson | Critical Analysis

Tithonus Critical Appreciation


Tithonus is one of the most celebrated poems of Tennyson. It was written about the same time as ‘Ulysses‘ (1833-35). ‘Lotos-Eaters‘ and ‘Oenone‘ are the other poems of this group. They are all written on the Greek subject. Tithonus’ is a kind of pendant to ‘Ulysses’. These two poems present a remarkable contrast. Ulysses wants to “drink life to the lees.” He has yearning “desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star”, and possesses strong will “to strive to seek, to find, and not to yield”. He is not prepared to waste his old age in idleness like the Lotos-Eaters. Tithonus is fed up with the old age. He is disgusted with his way life. He laments:

“Me only cruel immortality consumes:

I wither slowly thine arms.”

In this poem, Tennyson is expressing the danger of abnormality of the desire to be not as other men are.

Tithonus: Source of the Poem

The story of Tithonus is told in one of the Homeric hymns. Virgil has made a mention of it several times. Aurora, the Greek goddess of dawn, gave to her lover, Tithonus immortality. In fact she fell in love with Tithonus, a handsome youth. On her request, Zeus conferred the gift of immortality on Tithonus. The goddess of dawn forgot to ask for the perpetuation of her lover’s youth and beauty. With the passage of time Tithonus grew frightfully old and enfeebled. His life became miserable and insufferable. In his utter despondency and sheer helplessness Tithonus requested the goddess to take back her gift so that he could die like any other human being. Aurora was quite helpless. Even gods themselves cannot recall their gifts. That is the predicament of Tithonus. He is presented in the poem as a pathetic character. He endeavours in vain to secure release from the burden of living-

“Why should a man desire in any way

To vary from the kindly race of men,

Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance

Where all should pause, asis most meet for all?”

Tithonus: Greek Mythology

Greek Mythology is extremely rich in myths and fables. Almost all the great European artists-poets and painter have drawn the material for their work of art from Greek mythology.

Tithonus is one such poem. The subject of the poem is based on the very meaning and purpose of life. As such it is replete with so deep thoughts as can be interpreted into several ways. Tithonus is granted immortality, a great gift, indeed. Gods could be extravagantly generous. But, they, too, have got their own limitations. They can grant gifts, but they cannot with draw the gifts so granted. Time has its own laws. Time is ruthless. Nothing can escape the scourge of time Immortality apart, human body, like any other material object, is not immune from the ravages of Time. It is subject to decay and destruction. Tithonus realises this in the state of his pitiable plight. His deep sadness is reflected in the words:

“But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,

And Beat me down and marrd and wasted me,

 And tho they could not end me, left me maim’d

To dwell in presence of immortal youth,

Immortal age beside immortal youth,

And all I was in ashes.

Tithonus is aggrieved at his own miserable sight.

A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream…

Alas! for this grey shadow, once a man

So glorious in his beauty and thy choice.”

Tithonus: The Contrast

The contrast pervades the whole poem. The contrast within himself-what once he was, and we he is now. Youth versus old age, beauty versus ugliness, strength versus weakness, hope and yearning versus despondency and disgust. Then there is the contrast with his own self and his beloved, Aurora, the goddess of dawn. Aurora is as young and beautiful and fresh as the eve was.

Tithonus is old and ugly and stale. He is just a “grey shadow was so glorious in beauty. It was a glory to him that he was chosen by Aurora the goddess of dawn, as her lover. He must have been the proudest man of the world. What a precipitous fall! From glory to shame, to this abject ignominy. How shameful to live in ugliness in the presence of matchless beauty. There is contrast between Love and death.” Aurora still loves Tithonus. But Tithonus is in love with death, “in love with easeful death”.

While Ulysses wants to live, Tithonus wants to die. “Why should a man desire in any way to vary from the kindly race of men”? Man is mortal, so Tithonus must die. Why should he demand immortality? Tithonus looks towards the world. Man is born, lives, and dies. That is the natural way. Tithonus, the great lover of Aurora has come down to the plane of realism in the wake of the grimmest reality of life.

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Realization of stark realism by a lover in the presence of his beloved even while he is still loved by her with the same intensity. Tennyson has blended many colours and shades of human emotions in a very subtle way and made the poem an exquisite piece of literary art. a great masterpiece, indeed. Tithonus speaks. His words reverberates

“Thou wilt renew thy beauty mom by morn!

I earth in earth forget these empty hours!”

Tithonus: Dramatic Monologue

Tithonus is written in the form of a dramatic monologue. It is one of the most famous dramatic monologues of Tennyson. Tithonus is the main speaker. Aurora is supposed to be the silent listener. It is one of the most highly finished pomes of Tennyson. The poet has created the imaginary land where Tithonus is supposed to bide his time.

“Here at the quiet limit of the world,

 A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream

The ever silent spaces of the East,

Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.”

The movement of the blank verse in the poem is tender. Sound and image combine to enforce sense, to represent age and sorrows of age, natural law and the beneficence of it.

Tithonus: Poetic Imagery

Tennyson was a great pictorial artist. His poems reflect his pictorial quality abundantly. Tithonus contains beautiful poetic imagery.

“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and fills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.”

These are the opening lines of the poem. They contain sensuous visual poetic Imagery. They are highly picturesque. The description of the wakening of Aurora, the glimmer on her brow, her sweet looks slowly brightening before they dazzle the stars, the wild team of horses shaking off darkness from their manes, and her departure, is extremely beautiful and picturesque.

“Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold

Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet

Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam

 Floats up from those dim fields”

This is yet another example of beautiful poetic imagery.


Tennyson’s celebrated poem, Tithonus is remarkable for its purity of tone, its musical rhythm and its beauty of style. It is a highly finished production of Tennyson. The two poems – ‘Tithonus’ and ‘Ulysses’ are in many respects antithetical. Ulysses craves for a “life piled on life”. Tithonus longs for death. ‘Ulysses’ braces; ‘Tithonus’ enervates. Despite the sadness on the part of Tithonus, the protagonist, the poem thrills and animates. It is a magnificent piece of poetic art, a great lyric.

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