Aurora Taking Leave of Tithonus. Francesco Solimena. 1704
In classical mythology Tithonus was a Trojan prince with whom Eos (Aurora to the Romans), goddess of the dawn, falls in love. This deity, whom Homer calls “rosy-fingered,” captures Tithonus and sweeps him off to the home of the gods and asks Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality. Eos, however, forgets to also ask for eternal youth. Even though Tithonus is immortal, he grows old and frail. Sappho, in her “Tithonus” or “Old Age” poem uses him as a metaphor to illustrate the effects of her own aging (translation is my own):
Old age has already taken from me my once soft skin,
and my hair, at one time so dark, has grown white.
My spirit has grown heavy, my knees, which used to be
nimble enough to dance like fawns, no longer carry me.
I mourn these things but what can I do about it?
It is not possible for men to be ageless. For at one time
they say that Eos, smitten by love, carried off Tithonus in her
rosy arms to the edge of the earth, he who was handsome
and young; but in time gray old-age took hold of him who
was a still a husband to an immortal wife.
In Ovid there is a brief mention of Tithonus as Aurora and some of the other goddesses complain that they cannot stop the aging of their mortal lovers )trans. my own): “Aurora, daughter of Pallas, mourned the old age of her own husband.” But, as Sappho says, what could she do?
What is missing in these myths is Tithonus’s own words. Tennyson’s brilliant poem about the Trojan prince gives him that voice: “Let me go: take back thy gift,” Tithonus begs her. He laments his inevitable aging, recognizes that as humans we must accept this fate, and pleads with Eos to release him from his immortality. I offer here one of my favorite stanzas, but please do read the entire poem:
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?
I was also reading Robert Musil’s Thought Flights over the weekend and one of his short narratives struck me as a similar commentary on aging, how we see ourselves and how others see us. In “Susanna’s Letter,” a married woman is writing to a friend about a train journey during which she reflects on her changing body as she ages. Her chin was “once energetic” she notices, and her neck used to be straight. But despite these physical reminders of her age, “It is all downward going from here on out, but every step becomes calmer and more secure.” And my favorite passage, bitter sweet—both hopeful yet sad—from the story is the one in which she connects her aging body to her spouse (trans. Genese Grill):
My husband much have seen every details of my body by now, and he loves me anyway; he loves me as I am. Sometimes that makes him unbearable to me. For it takes all my power from me. I should say, it takes all the fantasizing out of my body. Then I am like a finished book, one that has already been declared to be very beautiful; for, the fact that a book is beautiful is no consolation for its having already been read.
On one final, positive note, in Cicero’s philosophical treaty De Senectute (On Old Age), he writes (trans. my own):
I follow and obey nature who is the best guide as if she were a divinity; it cannot be true that she has arranged well the other parts of our lives but then, like a bad poet, neglected the final act of the drama. It is necessary, however, that there be a certain kind of end, frail and withered with a timely maturity, just as the berries on the trees and the fruits of earth, which wise men must gently endure. To fight against nature would be as useless as the giants rebeling against the gods.