Tithonus: nature and poetry


I’m not a voracious reader of poetry, but my favourite love poems and lyrics are part of my life, drawing me back to revisit them at the slightest prompt. This spring, I witnessed the culmination of the weird lifecycle of cicadas in Jackson, Mississippi. These creatures spend 13 years underground as nymphs before emerging together for a brief period of sunlight, flight, singing and mating to continue the cycle.

As we drove around the neighbourhood with the windows down, lured like the lady cicadas to listen to the loud chorus centres of males in local groves of trees, lines from one of my favourite poems – Tithonus by Alfred, Lord Tennyson – drifted back into my mind.

Tithonus, the poem

Technically it’s an interesting format – a dramatic monologue – addressed by a Trojan prince, Tithonus, to his lover Eos, the dawn. Tennyson was thinking about mortality while struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of his dearest friend (and sister’s fiancé), Arthur Hallam, at the young age of 22. Tennyson handles his subject deftly, writing musical poetry, rich with emotion.

We overhear as Tithonus pleads with Eos to be released from the burden of immortality, laying out his predicament in a series of vivid scenes and flashbacks.

I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.

His wish may have been granted, but Eos made a mistake. Gradually they realise he has not been given eternal youth, like his lover, but:

Immortal age beside immortal youth
And all I was in ashes.

He asks to be released:

Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men…?

then watches as Eos, in silent tears because she cannot take back her gift, prepares to leave with her ‘wild team’ of horses on her daily mission to bring dawn to the earth:

Thy cheek begins to redden thro’ the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen’d manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.

Despite the seriousness of the subject, the romance of the poem speaks to me most clearly, for example, when Tithonus nostalgically remembers the feelings aroused by his goddess lover:

Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch—if I be he that watch’d—
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson’d all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss’d
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.

Tennyson adapts the myth and does not explain the outcome – many of his Victorian readers would have been familiar with it. He leaves us with the appeal, frozen in the moment. In the myth, Tithonus continues to age, wither, shrink and endlessly complain until he is transformed into a buzzing cicada.

Links for Further Reading

For the full text of Tennyson’s Tithonus, visit the Poetry Foundation.

Read more about Arthur Hallam on Wikipedia.

Lovers of classic poetry – and literary mysteries – may enjoy this related snippet about Sappho, a celebrated ancient Greek poetess whose work survives only in fragments.

For more reading on dramatic monologues, check out this piece from The Guardian.

8 Replies to “Tithonus: nature and poetry”

  1. All of these shots are amazing, but I’m most captivated by the Cicada emerging from it’s “shell.” I’ve found the shells, but never witnessed the act. In my part of Mexico, the song of the Cicadas is deafening in the weeks before the first rains of the rainy season. People here call them “Rainbirds.”

  2. Oh what a wonderful story in photos…and your words sharing the experience.
    I once knew a woman for who the singing of the cicadas was so loud that she fled her home and put it on the market for sale.
    Really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    1. I can imagine the sound close by can be unsettling. It seemed so apt to see your birthday post explaining your philosophy for getting older in my Reader just after posting this!

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