No one, I assume, has ever consciously wanted to join Tithonus, though the essential force of the dramatic monologue makes us live for a time with his dilemma. Tennyson talked of this poem as a "pendent" to "Ulysses," (Memoir, I: 459) but it is more than a companion or even a contrast to the heroic poem; it is a bleak parody of its impulses. "Tithonus" gives an embittered view of what lies "beyond the sunset" Ulysses had so grandly proposed as the heroic destination. It is, in fact, a total comic parody, not only of the proud defiance of "Ulysses", but also of the opposite pole, the regressive urge to be warm and protected expressed in "The Lotos-Eaters": instead of a luxuriant sensual escape, Tithonus laments, "I wither slowly in thine arms" (l. 6). [45/46]
Jacob Korg argues convincingly that "Tithonus" "demonstrate[s] the danger of fulfillment" (Korg, p. 9) itself. Thus, this complete inversion of comedy is instructive as a purified form of Tennyson's ironic art. The symbols of imprisonment, cosmic treachery, and death-in-life form the bases of his main ironic themes. The predicament is a variation on one the poet had worked out quite early: man is caught between his precisely equal needs to live and to die. In a further darkening of this point, Tithonus is made a slave to life, not death, suggesting the grotesque argument that man is born to shun the single friendly act of nature, his destruction.
Such an argument calls up very strong instinctive resistance, and the major artistic problem here is to generate sympathy in order to bypass our urgent need to judge. Most generally, Tennyson manages to do this by making the poem one of the most impassioned and self-absorbed of dramatic monologues. The speaker has very little perspective on his own situation and is mastered by his single obsession with release. Thus, we are not ourselves encouraged to find the detachment that more self-control or variety would allow. Even more important, perhaps, is the effect of the fine opening, where the "pure" poetry of incantation subversively draws us into the poem. The repetitions, the regular iambs lengthening into anapests 20, the very sense of natural acceptance implied in the repetitive ands — all tend to mask the subject of these lines and set us up for Tithonus's violent argument:
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes" [ll. 5-6]
The basic inversion has by now been accomplished, and Tithonus can proceed.
The tension between sympathy and judgment is further increased by incongruous echoes from the comedy of manners. The whole poem is cast as a lovers' quarrel, filled with bizarre flattery and sly wheedling, The simplest logic behind Tithonus's argument is the strategy of pure pressure: keeping up a steady stream of words, even the same words, until the opponent yields from exhaustion. The ending lines can be seen, in this light, as a grotesque bribe, combining flattery and an implied promise to keep still:
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave: [46/47]
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels. [ll. 72-76]
The echo of the comedy of manners and its accompanying comfortable and assured values jars horribly with the genuine sound of Tithonus's anguish. He is forced to plead for precisely what cannot be granted, and he is subject to a caricature of renewal and growth, a daily reminder of his loss. He is tauntingly placed at the center of comedy, with sexual beauty, promise, light, energy, and eternal renewal. Of course these hopes do exist in the well-meaning and quite real Eos, but comedy here is the source of torment. "Tithonus" is Tennyson's purest irony: it confronts comedy directly and argues that the comic vision is itself the final trap,
"St Simeon Stylites"
"St Simeon Stylites" represents the extreme of this rhetorical irony. Even the tendency of commentators, from Leigh Hunt on, to treat it as a satiric poem, acting in one way or another to condemn its speaker, is expressive of the strength of the ironic tension in the poem and our desire somehow to resolve it. For the poem deals with a monstrous parody of Christianity, a parody that is both ludicrous and profound. "St Simeon Stylites" may present a blatant self-advertisement, but it is also a lament or confession, depending on our angle of vision. There is no single or easy response allowed. St Simeon is, of course, both disgusting and funny; the ways in which he gives himself away are so numerous and obvious they need not be recounted. But the absorbing energy of the poem and the great intensity of its speaker urge a sympathy and association that combat the satiric or judgmental response. The basic problem seems to be that St Simeon is not only bizarre but typical; he exists both at the end of the spectrum of human impulses and at its exact center. To view the poem as satiric twists it into a petty attack on a target [47/48] that is trivial and far too easy. It also oversimplifies by responding to the pride, the confidence, and the monstrous in St Simeon and ignoring the humility, the painful doubt, and the voice of simple humanity. The whole poem is a tortured utterance as well as a smug one.
To take just one example, the chief characteristic of St Simeon's language is enumerating excess:
Patient on this tall pillar I have borne
Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow [ll. 15-16]
There is a clear, naïve delight expressed here, a proud ticking off of torments. He has a childish faith in quantities, a belief that he can prove his case by sheer weight. He displays throughout an absurd dependence on numbers:
Then, that I might be more alone with thee,
Three years I lived upon a pillar, high
Six cubits, and three years on one of twelve;
And twice three years I crouched on one that rose
Twenty by measure; last of all. [ll. 84 - 88]
There is no end to his belief in the power of arithmetic. Or almost no end, for behind the jejune confidence is both a note of doubt — "I think that I have borne as much as this — / Or else I dream" (ll. 91-92) — and, even more important, a tone of petulant anger, as if the mere thought that all his trials might not be rewarded fills him with rage:
O Jesus, if thou wilt not save my soul,
Who may be saved? who is it may be saved? [ll. 45-46]
There is an incipient sense of injustice, then, that pervades his argument and lends a poignant and serious note, even to his enumerations. St Simeon is isolating and exposing to view a central tendency of Christianity, the exaltation of pain: "Show me the man hath suffered more than 1" (l. 48). He expresses the terrible logic of injustice that, as Camus says, pervades Christianity (Camus, p. 34): rather than erasing or explaining irrational torment, God demonstrates, by suffering Himself, that He too is subject to absurd pain. Suffering becomes a sign of sanctity, and beneath St Simeon's humorous surface is his dim perception of the fact that the comic symbol of mercy and forgiveness also becomes the ironic symbol of uncaused torture, the "life of death" (l. 53) that St Simeon typifies.
As is usual with the dramatic monologue, the ending of the poem climaxes this theme and its careful balance of the humorous and awful, the detached and immediate. This time there is not a single [48/49] ironic capping but a series of them. First, there is the reestablished image of the ludicrous side of St Simeon, now heightened by his assumption of the crown of Paradise and his exultant confidence (ll. 205-08). Then he is suddenly struck with a flash of pathetic doubt, a perception of impending trickery; "Ah! let me not be fooled, sweet saints" (l. 209). The immediacy of pity is soon qualified as St Simeon returns to his old habit of exact totting up, even in regard to his own death: "I prophesy that I shall die tonight, / A quarter before twelve" (ll. 217-18). In the very last lines he turns to the audience with a grotesque benediction and comment on his own rhetoric: "Let them take / Example, pattern: lead them to thy light" (ll. 219-20). On one hand, we certainly cannot accept this "example"; on the other, we cannot avoid recognizing it as the inescapable "pattern" of our lives. The case is both absurd and ironically true.
These ironic poems are accompanied by a new and very interesting development in comedy. The 1842 Poems presents Tennyson's first extended attempts to mix the two genres within a single poem. More and more, the comic resolution arises from — or is placed upon — an ironic situation, so as to provide a kind of negative comic catharsis. The sense of freedom is almost solely a sense of release from irony, produced not by the power of a comic narrative but by the mere snapping of tension. The feeling is not so much one of recapturing Eden as having been released from prison.
Last modified 28 March 2001