Mirrors of death - the reflection of Tithonus’ will to die in Tennyson’s Ulysses
Jerome H Buckley asserts that, unlike the popular interpretation of Tennyson’s Ulysses as a man longing to live life away from ‘a still hearth’, he is in fact aching to depart to ‘an Elysian retreat from life's vexations’. This immediately resonates with those familiar with poet’s depiction of Tithonus in another of his classical poems. It is therefore worth considering the values that are central in these monologues when looking at the collection of Tennyson’s poems in the ‘Aspect of Narrative’ paper. The connections suggested between texts by Section B of the paper could certainly look at these ideas of death and it is important to be aware of more than just the apparent diversity between the poems.
On a superficial level it appears that there is a great divide between the desire of Ulysses ‘not to yield’ to obstacles, of which death would presumably seem to be one, and Tithonus’ idolisation of ‘happy men that have the power to die.’ However, the attitude of the central protagonists by themselves, and therefore by Tennyson, is one that aligns them far more closely. It is clear that Ulysses knows that his journey will be his final adventure, because he disassociates himself from his previous life. This sense that ‘I am become a name’, and the dehumanising process implied by this transformation, is one also reflected in Tithonus’ declaration of himself as a ‘grey shadow, once a man.’ The sense of striving in Ulysses can therefore be seen as the same yearning that Tithonus feels: a desire for the end of a journey, not the beginning of one. As such, both protagonists can be seen as essentially as having the same longing, for finality. The over analysed context that produced both Ulysses and the early version of Tithonus (Tithon in 1836) is that the death of his best friend Arthur Hallam made Tennyson think much more about death, and this could be used to support the notion that both mythical heroes are asking to depart the known world and venture beyond its ‘quiet limit’.
The yearning for death that both protagonists voice in the dramatic monologues can be seen because they consider themselves already dead in any meaningful way. This is explicit in Tennyson’s violent description that when Tithonus transformed from a man to an immortal being, some of his humanity was destroyed. He recounts how they ‘beat me down’ because he was ‘so glorious in his beauty’. However, the real sense that Tithonus perceives this as a form of death is when he repeatedly refers to himself in the third person. It is notably not ‘my beauty’ but ‘his’ and therefore that person doesn’t exist for Tithonus as a living entity. In fact, Tennyson later draws the reader’s attention to this detachment specifically when he exclaims ‘if I be he that watched.’ The element of possibility when he says ‘if’ shows that Tithonus does not know who he is anymore. As a result, the reader feels an understanding of why the ‘kisses balmier than half opening buds’ that he experienced seem not a memory but a dream and therefore something so intangible. Readers sympathise with Tithonus’ desire to stop being a ‘white haired shadow’ as he is now, because we understand that the man who ‘seemed to his great heart none other than a God’ is already dead to him.
Applying this same logic to Ulysses then, it can be clear that Tennyson’s hero is not a man who is attempting to ‘find’ and ‘seek’ but one who has realised that he is already dead. Ulysses, like Tithonus, reflects on the glories of personal history where he has ‘enjoyed greatly.’ When Ulysses is recounting those deeds of long ago, he has to use the past tense and this distances him in some way from events. However, it is the much more powerful sense that Ulysses has undergone (like Tithonus) a fundamental change in his nature that means he cannot align himself to that identity anymore, and thus that person is dead. The image Tennyson uses to indicate Ulysses’ change is one of metal – he notes that now he is ‘to rust unburnished, not to shine in use.’ This image suggests a change in Ulysses’ chemical make-up and his function as he understood it. Like Tithonus, he sees his younger self as one who ‘strove with Gods.’ Yet the power of this image is subsumed as Ulysses notes metaphorically that the ‘long day wanes’ and therefore the inevitable approach of the end.
The decision by Tennyson to choose to have both characters appeal to the reader through first person monologues is a conscious one. This can be seen as he uses narrative recounts in other poems, such as Godiva and The Lady of Shalott. This suggests that he wants to establish a distinction between a public declaration or narrative and a personal reflection which is something incredibly relevant when comparing the narrative techniques for Section B. Within this, it is the sense of their internal honour being tarnished that causes both protagonists pain. This unhappiness in their current positions therefore features in their desire for death. Whilst not being an entirely internalised thought processes – at one point Tithonus address Aurora directly when he asks her ‘Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears’ – the choice to voice these thoughts are part of a grieving process for both Tithonus and Ulysses. It is a chance for them to come to terms with their current desires and, in a sense, make them more real. Tithonus’ use of cosmic imagery in ‘the silver star’ is later displaced by a more down to earth focus. This gives the sense therefore of how the monologue has developed Tithonus’ understanding of his own situation. His depiction of a particularly human burial like those in ‘grassy barrows of the happier dead’ suggests that he has contemplated not just the unattainable nature of death but the reality of it too.
For Ulysses, however, it is this cosmic side of death that appeals. It is his reputation and abstract sense of honour that Ulysses wants to protect in death. Whereas his son Telemachus is the epitome for him ‘common duties’ of leaders in a domestic sphere, Ulysses still wants to glorify in ‘old days’ where he ‘Moved earth and heaven.’ Though he concedes that he is ‘made weak by time’ and therefore accepts that ‘to strive’ will not include victory, it does include an ending that he is now prepared to admit. However, the concession that it is death that he seeks comes earlier in the poem when he talks of ‘that untravelled world’. This phrase has deliberate echoes of Hamlet’s ‘undiscovered country’ and therefore suggests he is contemplating death itself. Ulysses knows that ‘of one to me/Little remains’ but he desires that in his death he will be able to protect the reputation gained in previous years from ‘windy Troy.’ Like Tithonus, Ulysses articulates his thoughts on death through the cosmic simile of ‘like a sinking star’ but the awareness that his star is falling suggests an ending that he desires. The sibilance is echoed in his later description to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ which is a particularly appropriate and romanticised view of the ‘death [that] closes all.’
The narrative structures of both poems are introspective confessions, which are told through the use of iambic pentameter to reflect a real sense of speech. In making these people sound like real characters, Tennyson advocates the personal nature of the voices and their views. Ulysses and Tithonus are the most conflicted of Tennyson’s poetic heroes. The philosophical questions that they pose in their narratives concern the decisions which have dictated their entire lives and as a result, they way in which they choose to end those lives. The conclusion that both reach, that of death as a genuinely appealing option, is one guaranteed to evoke sympathy and sadness from the readers. Crucially though, the same idea is seen from both protagonists and, therefore, the desire for death should be considered in Ulysses’ words as much as in those of Tithonus.