- "Of happy men that have the power to die":Tennyson's "Tithonus"
1. Tennyson's "Pendent"
"Everything profound loves the mask," wrote Nietzsche, who wanted the new philosopher to be an "attempter," an essayist on the model of Montaigne-in any event, not a dogmatist.1 Like Nietzsche himself, Tennyson had a marked dogmatic streak, but for that very reason he loved the mask. In 1833, the year of Arthur Henry Hallam's death, the year he began writing the poetic sequence that would later become In Memoriam, one of the most opinionated poems in the English language, he also invented the dramatic monologue, a form in which the poet takes on a mask that enables him to give expression to ideas and emotions that might otherwise have remained inaccessible or repressed.2 "We know a good deal about Tennyson's opinions, but his spiritual center still eludes us," wrote Hoxie Neale Fairchild fifty years ago. "From boyhood to old age he was quite as much a doubter as a believer; and his doubts were rooted in that morbid side of his character which stubbornly resisted his desire to be optimistic and edifying."3 If Nietzsche is correct, we are more likely to find Tennyson's spiritual center behind the mask of the monologues than in the opinions he expressed in his own person, particularly those contained in In Memoriam, where he feels called upon to turn his own private grief into a poetry that is responsible to the public and "edifying."4 "It is rather the cry of the whole human race than mine," he said of In Memoriam. "In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of, and hope for, the whole world. . . . There is more about myself in Ulysses, which was written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. . . . It's too hopeful, this poem, more than I am myself."5
The antinomies, real or imagined, of public to private, hopefulness to hopelessness, reality to dream, and life to art run throughout Tennyson's poetic oeuvre; they can be found not only within poems ("The Palace of Art," "The Lady of Shalott," and "The Lotos Eaters" are obvious examples) but also between poems. Tennyson poses In Memoriam against "Ulysses" in the passage quoted above, but when comparing "Ulysses" to "Tithonus" he elevates the [End Page 355] former to the position he ascribed to In Memoriam in the anecdote. "Tithonus," his most profoundly masked and perhaps most profound poem (I agree with Herbert Tucker [p.252] that it is the greatest of the monologues), he said was "originally a pendent" to "Ulysses" (Poems, 2:606), with the implication that it is weaker and of less importance, a pessimistic and dreamy companion-piece (one meaning of "pendent") or antithetical afterthought to a poem that has always been seen as the quintessential expression of Victorian humanism and progressive striving. Tennyson seems to have been ambivalent about the poem from the outset: after beginning it in 1833, along with "Ulysses," he was either unable or unwilling to complete it; he put it aside and returned to it only in 1859, publishing it with a new name in 1860; the original "Tithon" was never published.6
As Daniel Harris emphasizes, Tennyson's "pendent" comment was made with reference to the unfinished "Tithon" rather than the completed "Tithonus" of 1860.7 But whatever Tennyson's attitude to the poem during the long period between its inception and completion may have been (and no doubt it went through all sorts of vicissitudes), his "pendent" comment is of consequence because it connects the poem to Keats's "Fall of Hyperion." Tennyson's spelling is unusual: "pendant" (with an a) is now and was also in the nineteenth century the more common form; but in Keats's "Fall of Hyperion," "pendent" (with an e-Keats was a notoriously erratic speller) occurs twice and in a context that suggests that Tennyson may have been partly dependent upon Keats. Moneta, Keats's prophetic Titaness, distinguishes between those humanists and men of action "to whom the miseries of the...