Tennyson’s use of myths and legends

Comment on Tennyson’s use of myths and legends with reference to his poems.

Introduction: Alfred Lord Tennyson draws legends and myths in his poems according to his motives and thoughts. He mixes classical and medieval legends with classical stories and modern thought. Examples can be found in his poems, Oenone, Tithonus, Lotus Eater, and Locksley Hall. A circumstantial detail will assist us to understand and realize the philosophical facets of Tennyson’s myth and legends.

The destructive facet of outlaws love

The poem, Oenone is compact with the use of myth and legend directly and indirectly.  Oenone is a Greek nymph and daughter of the river god Cebren and Mound Ida. She met the legendary character,  Paris of the city of Troy. The two were married and enjoyed their happy life until Paris ‘ voyage to Sparta where he met Helen, wife of Menelaus.  She eloped with Paris. It caused the Trojan War depicted in Homer’s Iliad. In the poem, after being deserted by Paris, Oenone starts to complain to her mother against him. Another mythical figure Pallas, goddess of wisdom is found in the poem.  She consoles Oenone with a witty statement. There are also references to Hera and Aphrodite. Oenone’s mourn is well detected by the concluding lines of the poem:

“What this may be I know not, but I know

That, wheresoe’er I am by night and day,

All earth and air seem only burning fire.”

Thus, Tennyson’s myth and legend are starkly universal and related to the fundamental human facets.

The burden of eternal life

Tithonus is the legendary character who fell in love with Aurora, goddess of dawn. According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite,  When Aurora asked Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life, the god consented. But Aurora forgot to ask also for the eternal youth of Tithonus that is why her husband grew old and withered. In the poem “Tithonus” Tennyson portrays the story to signify the blessing of death in old age.

The universality of death

By the dint of myths and legends, Tennyson has attempted to scatter the message that the philosophy of death is universal. It is found in Tithonus’ lamentation and the asking of the mariners in “Lotos Eaters”: they ask if death is the end of life, why would all life be full of valueless struggle and labor? They find that human life is too short and running fast towards death. Man dies in no time and they can take nothing from the world. Besides, after death, they are forgotten soon.

“Death is the end of life; ah, why

Should life all labor be?

Let us alone.”

They remember their long journey of life, dead friends, and terrible experiences. They think, perhaps the dead bodies of their fellow soldiers have been converted into dust. Besides, they left their families twenty years ago. In their absence, their children must have taken over the responsibilities of their homes. So it would be unwise to go back and disturb them. They imagine the disorder and chaos of their homeland developed in their absence. Now they are old and their eyesight is weak. They would not be able to play any active role and bring order again there.

The inner spirit and determination of the human soul

The inner spirit of the human soul – adventurous, curious, and restlessness in nature. In this poem, Ulysses argues in favor of his further adventure in the sea. Ulysses has returned home in Ithaca after twenty years of wandering – in Trojan War and on the sea. He speaks to are the unidentified audience that he is unwilling to lead a lazy life. He thinks that such vegetable life in Ithaca is not for him. He is by nature adventurous and that there is no point in his staying home. He declares:

“I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees:”

He recalls his past life and finds that he has lived a stirring and adventurous life and gained experience and knowledge of men and things. But his temptation for knowledge and adventure is still fresh and there are many more places, things, and experiences that are still untouched. In his calculation, human life is too short but knowledge is vast and unlimited. A single-life is not enough to gain all knowledge. He has already spent much of his time and he has only a few years left of his short life. Therefore, he makes up his mind to make the best use of every moment of the remaining amount of time by following knowledge like a sinking star.

Materialism as giant

After a few lines in Locksley Hall, there is a reference to Orion and Pleiades. In Greek mythology, Orion is a giant who relentlessly pursued the seven Pleiades, daughters of Atlas. The names of the Pleiades were Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra,  Maia,  Merope, Sterope, and Taygete.  Zeus, the king of the gods, changed the Pleiades into stars to put them out of Orion’s reach. Orion may be interpreted as the speaker while the Pleiades as Amy, his beloved. Like the Pleiades, Amy is out of reach to the speaker because of her selfish materialistic outlook. Despite this, he has to adjust to ordinary life.

Conclusion: Thus, the myths of Tennyson and the treatment of old legends are unique. He doesn’t change the basic facts with them he makes great best poems. He highlights the past to highlight the present.

SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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