Discuss Tennyson’s treatment of the theme of triumph of life over immortality in Tithonus

Discuss Tennyson’s treatment of the theme of the triumph of life over immortality in Tithonus.

Tithonus is one of the most beautiful conceptions of the mythological Greek mind beset in a harmonious verse. It may be interpreted as a fable of the desolate sadness that would be the penalty of surviving or as a parable upon the melancholy futility and disappointment that may follow the coupling of blooming youth with extreme old age. The poem teaches us the truth that man should not desire to “vary from the kindly race of men nor seek to “pass beyond the goal of the ordinance”. Tennyson does not rail cynically at human life, nor does he condemn it as worthless, as a mere “orchestra of the victim, shriek, and pain” Rather Tennyson, the poet is aware of the good and beauty of human life, hence sings of triumph of life over immortality in Tithonus.  

Tithonus may also be seen as the expression of a vain yearning for release from the burden of living. It contrasts youth and age, love and death. The pathos of Tithonus’s life is rendered with compelling pity and tenderness. Tithonus was loved by Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, who gave him immortality but omitted also to give him eternal youth. Withered in his extreme old age, like Eliot’s Gerontion. Tithonus finds immortality no longer a blessing. Below the surface of his lament about the fading of youth, there lurks a sense of foreboding about a possible loss of everything he once enjoyed. He lives a paradoxically unnatural life within the beauty of nature, and the opening of the poem memorably conjures up the natural cycle to which the hero can never returns-it is that which is already lost:

“The woods decay, the woods decay, and fall,

The vapors weep their burthen to the ground,

 And after many a summer dies the swan,

Me only cruel immortality


A white-haired shadow of roaming like a dream”

Tithonus is thus marginalized by his immortality, torn between the antithetical images of light and dark which energize the poem. The almost grotesque love scene portrays the wasted old man’s body in the arms of the goddess:

“Can thy love

Thy beauty, make amends” 

For Tithonus, though existing in perfect stillness; remote as the lotus-eaters from the turmoil of ordinary life, has no will, no energy. His condition makes it possible for the poet to recapture the Keatsian mood, “half in love with easeful death”. The old man does not speak cynically about life; he is neither bitter nor gloomy about anything other than his own ‘cruel immortality’. On the contrary, he envies the kindly race of men and there still lives in him an aching sense of the beauty of earth and sky, of Eos and of himself in former times. 

Since the goddess forgot to ask for the perpetuation of her lover’s youth and beauty, Tithonus grew frightfully old and enfeebled, so much so that his life became insufferable. He, then, requested the goddess to take back her gift and let him die but Aurora was helpless as even “God themselves cannot recall their gifts” Hence, Tithonus endeavors in vain y secure release from the burden of living. Even if she wished to restore him to his happy human condition, she could not do so Her tears frighten him. for they remind him of her helplessness and his own eternal suffering as an old man. Hence. Tithonus’s futile invocation to secure release from the burden of living:

“Release me, and restore me to the ground,

Thou seest all things; thou will see my grave;

Thou will renew thy beauty morn by morn,

I earth in earth forget these empty courts.” 

Tithonus realizes that the limitations of human life should be accepted, for any desire to circumvent them is likely to result in divine punishment as in the case of him. Thus, the poem is neither an expression of a death wish, nor a condemnation of life, nor is it a poem of escape, but a powerful plea for an acceptance of life with all its beauty and glory, as well as with all its limitations. Immortality is of no use without having eternal youth and beauty. Hence, Tennyson spins out a philosophy in Tithonus that death is not to be shunned as something evil but to be welcomed as a means through which life renews itself.

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