Alfred Tennyson Poems Summary and Analysis of "Tithonus"
Tithonus speaks to his beloved, the goddess Eos (or Aurora). The woods are decaying, men work the land but then die and lie beneath it, and the swan dies after many years. Tithonus, however, lingers on in “cruel immortality.” He has become immortal, but he is old, withering in the arms of his beloved on the eastern edge of the world, and feeling like a wandering shadow.
He was once a man, he says, feeling “glorious in his beauty” and in being chosen by this goddess. He asked for immortality, and she got it for him, yet he still aged and aged. Meanwhile she is eternally young, so their existence is “immortal age beside immortal youth.” Is her love enough to overcome this horror? Why should anyone want this kind of special treatment and avoid the normal death of mortals?
When a soft breeze parts the clouds, Tithonus can see the Earth below. He sees the glimmer in his beloved’s brow, her cheeks reddening, her eyes brightening, at the prospect of bringing dawn with her horses and chariot.
The constant renewal of the dawn brings her to tears when she looks at Tithonus in contrast. Tithonus is afraid that it will be true that “the Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts,” that his situation will continue forever.
He remembers, as if from another life or as another man, when he used to love the experience of the dawn: the outline forming around her, the “sunny rings” of hair, his own blood glowing as the day would warm, the feeling of the dawn kissing him. She would whisper something otherworldly, like “that strange song I heard Apollo sing / While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.”
He asks her to release him and restore him to mortality and the grave because his nature can never truly mix with hers. He experiences the coolness of her “rosy shadows” while the men below are still warmed by the day. These men are happy and possess “the power to die,” and are even happier in death. By letting him go, she would still be able to see his grave eternally. By returning to the Earth he would forget “these empty courts,” while she would continue to bring the dawn on her silver wheels.