How far do you agree with one reader’s view that “the men in Tennyson’s poems are whining, selfish and arrogant, with little to recommend them”?
In Tennyson’s poem Tithonus, some may see him as self pitying. In the first stanza it begins with how man is born, works on the earth, then dies and is buried underground. However, the speaker, Tithonus, is cursed to live forever, “Me only cruel immortality consumes”. Tithonus then goes on to tell Aurora, goddess of the dawn, “I wither slowly in thine arms”. He expresses a passionate grief about this while he is now a “gray shadow” that was once a glorious and beautiful man chosen by Aurora to be her lover. He remembers long ago that he had asked Aurora to grant him eternal life, but the hours that accompanied Aurora were angry at Tithonus as he was able to resist death. Now, though he cannot die, he remains forever old and has to endure waking up to Aurora who is able to renew herself every morning, consequently stays forever young.
In the third stanza, just before the sun rises, Tithonus tells us that he can see the “dark world” where he was born and was a mortal being. Aurora is told by Tithonus that she always grows beautiful, but she then leaves suddenly without having answered his request, “In silence, then before thine answer given departest, and thy tears are on my cheek” which tells us the sadness he feels about his curse of being old but never dying. He also questions Aurora as to why she must “scare” him with her look of regret as this makes him fear that an old saying “The God’s themselves cannot recall their gifts” might not be true. Tithonus then sighs and starts to reminisce about his youth, and remembered how his body used to come alive when he lay down waiting for the dawn, “..and felt my blood glow with the glow that slowly crimson’d all”.
In the final stanza, Tithonus pleads with Aurora to not keep him imprisoned in the East as the sun always rises in the East, so he has to watch her rise anew each morning, because his eternal old age means he has to endure the overwhelming pain of watching Aurora’s eternal renewal. He asks her how it is possible for his nature to continue to mix with hers as they are both so different now. Tithonus wakes up each morning “cold” and “wrinkled” whereas she rises to “happy men that have the power to die”. He asks Aurora “release me, and restore me to the ground” because he is miserable and can only appreciate life when he is dead. This way, Aurora can see his grave when he rises, and he who is buried in the earth will be able to forget the emptiness of his present state.
Throughout the poem, there is no real sequence or structure to it. Tithonus’ thoughts and feelings jump back and forth; this shows the disorder and confusion in his life as he is immortal and life is a never ending struggle for him. Throughout the whole poem, Tithonus is whining about his immortal curse and how he pleads with Aurora to release him, even though he had asked her to grant him eternal life. This shows how arrogant he really is, because the reason he wanted eternal life was because he had remembered how much of a beautiful man he was. Aurora had given Tithonus what he had desperately longed for, then throughout the poem he had put all his misery, unhappiness and desperation on her as he realised he would stay forever old because the Hours punished him. He is trying to make Aurora feel guilty for what she has done because he has to be in the presence of her eternal youth and beauty.
In Tennyson’s poem Ulysses some may view this as another example of how arrogant and selfish men are. Ulysses announces that he sees very little point in him staying at home “by this still hearth” with his old wife, which shows very little respect for her. He also speaks of his travels and how he intends to live life to the fullest and swallow every last drop of life. He has been exposed to many different types of people and their way of life. They have also exposed Ulysses to the “delight of battle” as he was fighting the Trojan War with his fellow soldiers. Ulysses says that his travels and what he has seen has shaped who he is, “I am a part of all that I have met” he explains.
Ulysses declares it is boring to stay in one place, “how dull it is to pause, to make an end” and to remain in one place is to pretend that all there is to life is simply breathing. He yearns for new experiences that will broaden his horizons and grow in wisdom and learning “to follow knowledge like a sinking star”. Ulysses then speaks to an unknown audience about his son Telemachus and how he will govern the island while he will continue his travels at sea. He speaks highly of his son Telemachus, praising his dedication and devotion to the gods “and pay meet adoration to my household gods”.
This poem is written as a dramatic monologue and is spoken by a single character, which is Ulysses, and his identity is revealed through his own words. The lines are in unrhymed iambic pentameter which gives a natural and fluid quality to Ulysses’ speech. A lot of the lines in the poem end in the middle rather than the end, which is seen as appropriate for this poem because it is about pushing forward in life. Finally, the poem is split up into four paragraphs or sections that each has a thematic unit to them. In all dramatic monologues the character of the speaker emerges from his own words, and it is clear that Ulysses is incompetent as a ruler as he much prefers to travel the seas and embark on new quests, instead of taking care of his present responsibilities.
From one reader’s point of view, Ulysses may be seen as egotistical and selfish as he devotes 26 lines to himself and longing for the travelling life, and another 26 lines to his mariners who travel the seas with him. However, he only devotes 11 lines to his son about how he is to govern his land whilst he is away, and only 2 lines about his “aged wife”. However, in that era, it was the norm for the males to travel the seas and explore the untraveled world, and for the wives and children they would stay at home waiting for the men to return. So one might say Ulysses was doing his duty and what was expected of him at that time.
Another poem by Tennyson is Mariana which is drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure: “Mariana in the moated grange” which is about a woman waiting for her lover Angelo who has abandoned her because of the loss of her dowry. The poem has no real narrative movement and instead is a visual depiction of isolation. One of the most important symbols in this poem is in the fourth and fifth stanzas; the poplar tree can be interpreted as a phallic symbol as it provides a break in a flat and even landscape, “for leagues no other tree did mark”. The shadow of the poplar tree falls on Mariana’s bed at night when she feels love sick, which may suggest her sexual hunger for lover who has not come for her. The poplar tree also comes from classic mythology; Ovid describes Oenone addresses the poplar tree in which Paris carved his promise not to desert her. Therefore the tree has become a symbol of a lover and his broken promise.
The first, fourth and sixth stanzas are the only stanzas that take place in the daytime. They each show an unending present with no sense of time, light and darkness. These stanzas switch from the descriptions of Mariana feeling restless and sad, she does not sleep or wake but she is in a constant dreamy state of mind. Mariana cries in the morning and evening and awakes in the middle of the night. Going back and forth between a flat day and sleepless night creates a sense of torment and confused time. The poem involves no action or progression, and Mariana is locked in a constant state of longing and isolation. Because of the image we get of Mariana, one view would be that her lover is selfish and arrogant because he only ever wanted her for her dowry, but because she has nothing he no longer sees her as valuable. On the other hand, Tennyson wrote the poem from Marianas point of view, so we do not get a complete picture of what has happened.
Overall, one might agree with a readers view that the men in Tithonus, Ulysses and Mariana are whining, selfish and arrogant with little to recommend them. Tithonus is putting guilt on Aurora for giving him immortality, even though he had asked for it. In Ulysses, he is clear that his love of the sea and his travels are greater than that of his wife and child. However, in those days Ulysses was just fulfilling his male role in his society, and this was part of the norm and everyday life for them. In Mariana, we get the impression from the way Tennyson tells the story of Mariana that her lover only really wanted her dowry, but because she has nothing left he is no longer interested and has left her waiting for him, therefore we would sympathise with Mariana. However, the reader is only seeing things from Marianas point of view as Tennyson wrote the poem from her perspective, so we are not getting the full picture of what happened.