Like Ulysses, Tithonus is a figure from Greek mythology whom Tennyson takes as a speaker in one of his dramatic monologues (see the section on “Ulysses”). According to myth, Tithonus is the brother of Priam, King of Troy, and was loved by Aurora, the immortal goddess of the dawn, who had a habit of carrying off the beautiful young men whom she fancied. Aurora abducted Tithonus and asked Zeus to grant him immortality, which Zeus did. However, she forgot to ask that he also grant eternal youth, so Tithonus soon became a decrepit old man who could not die. Aurora finally transformed him into a grasshopper to relieve him of his sad existence. In this poem, Tennyson slightly alters the mythological story: here, it is Tithonus, not Aurora, who asks for immortality, and it is Aurora, not Zeus, who confers this gift upon him. The source of suffering in the poem is not Aurora’s forgetfulness in formulating her request to Zeus, but rather the goddesses referred to as “strong Hours” who resent Tithonus’s immortality and subject him to the ravages of time.
Tennyson wrote the first version of this poem as “Tithon” in 1833, and then completed the final version for publication in 1859 in the Cornhill Magazine edited by William Makepeace Thackeray. The 1833 version contained several significant differences from the version we know today: the poem began not with a repetition but with the lament “Ay me! ay me! The woods decay and fall”; the “swan,” which here dies after many summers was not a swan but a “rose”; and immortality was described as “fatal” rather than “cruel.”
The 1833 poem was initially conceived as a pendant, or companion poem, to “Ulysses.” “Ulysses” alludes to the danger that fulfillment may bring—”It may be that the gulfs will wash us down”; “Tithonus” represents the realization of this danger. For the character of Tithonus achieves that which Ulysses longs for and finds himself bitterly disappointed: Ulysses wanted to sail “beyond the sunset” because he sensed “how dull it is to pause”; Tithonus, in contrast, questions why any man should want “to pass beyond the goal of ordinance where all should pause” (lines 30-31). “Tithonus” thus serves as an appropriate thematic follow-up to “Ulysses.”
This poem was one of a set of four works (also including “Morte d’Arthur,” “Ulysses,” and “Tiresias”) that Tennyson wrote shortly after Arthur Henry Hallam’s death in 1833. Whereas Hallam was granted youth without immortality, Tithonus is granted immortality without youth. Tennyson developed the idea for a poem about these themes of age and mortality after hearing a remark by Emily Sellwood, Tennyson’s fiancée: Sellwood lamented that unlike the Hallams, “None of the Tennysons ever die.” Appropriately, in depicting the futility of eternal life without youth, Tennyson drew upon a timeless figure: the figure of Tithonus is eternally old because he lives on forever as an old man in the popular imagination.