The poem opens with Tithonus despising the curse of immortality bestowed upon him by Eos. The “woods decay”, vapour condenses and the earth takes away its burden, man works on the ground and then lies beneath it, and even the glorious swan dies after “many a summer”. Only Tithonus lives. “Me only cruel immortality Consumes”. He has “wither”ed and is a “white-hair’d shadow” that roams in the “ever-silent spaces” of the lonely East â€” in the silent limits of the world, in “far-folded mists” and in the “gleaming halls of morn”.
Tithonus perceives himself as a “gray shadow”. He was once a man so beautiful and young that he was chosen by Eos; being Eos’ beloved was a joy greater than many joys experienced by Gods. ” ‘Give me immortality’ “. Eos granted him immortal life with a smile, like wealthy men who “care not how they give”. But time and “strong Hours” effected him and “marr’d and wasted” him. And though time could not end him, it left him broken down “to dwell in the presence of immortal youth”.
“Immortal age beside immortal youth”.
Tithonus has immortal life but is “in ashes” whereas Eos is immortally beautiful and young. He requests her out of love and beauty to “make amends” to the wish that was granted to him. At this moment, in Eos’ eyes, which are as bright as the Silver Star, Venus, he sees tears of pity â€” she knows that she cannot help him.
He pleads her to hear him and release him from this prison â€” to take back her “gift”. He then wonders why man desires to bypass the “goal of ordinance” â€” the natural cycle of life and death created by God, where everyone needs a pause, which is death.
He sees a glimpse of the “dark world” where he was born. He sees Eos in the “mysterious” change of the arrival of dawn. Dawn seems to be rising and the light seems to be emitting from her “pure brows”. Her heart begins to beat stronger as she takes the form of a new dawn and is filled with “renew’d” energy. Her cheeks begin to redden in the gloom and her “sweet eyes brighten” up so that they “blind the stars”. Her “wild team” of horses that draw her chariots arise, “shake the darkness” and convert the twilight into bright “flakes of fire”.
Tithonus perceives Eos to “growest beautiful” with the coming of every dawn. Before she is able to answer his questions, she is goneâ€”but her tears are on her cheek. He asks her why her tears fill him with apprehension and forebodingâ€”he feels that these tears remind him of a saying that he had heard on the “dark earth”. “The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts”.
He remembers his “days far-off” when he used to watch the first circle of dawn as she rose. And as she rose higher, these small little curls transformed into blinding “sunny rings”. With her “mystic change” he could feel a sensational joy in his body. Her light “crimson’d” every part of the world and, as this happened, their love grew stronger. He lay in her arms and her light touched every part of his face. He sufficed in Eos’ beauty and her kisses were as warm as the “half-opening buds of April”. He could here loving whispers from her kisses and they reminded him of wild and enchanting melodies like the strange song of Apollo or the Ilion that rose from the fires of Troy.
He now contrasts his present state to his past. He tells her not to hold him in the East forever. How could his nature mix with hers? He is old and withered and she is young and beautiful. Her “rosy shadows”, her lights are now cold to him. His feet are now cold upon her “glimmering thresholds”. He can see the warm steam rising as all men wait for dawn to riseâ€”he feels that they are happy because they have the “power to die”. He perceives the dead in grass-covered graves to be happier than they are because they are already dead.
He asks her to release him and allow him to die. As she sees everything, she would also see his grave. She would renew her beauty “morn by morn” but he would forget these “empty courts” and her returning to the east on her “silver wheels”.
Through this poem, Tennyson vividly reveals to us the meaning of the natural cycle of life and death and the necessity of maintaining the balance. Just as we accept life, we must accept death for immortality and eternal life is not always a blessing, as proved. Through Tithonus, Tennyson means to say that, no matter how fraught the world is with pains and sorrows, man must desire to “vary from the kindly race of men, Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance”.