My cat reads poems!

This is not true. And I don’t have a cat. But I do like to read poems aloud. This is one of my favourite passages in the English language, the opening of “Tithonus,” by Tennyson. This poem is strange for me, as I adore the opening ten lines, and have lately been chanting them from memory on my long night journeys out of north Philly where I teach, taking the late train home among the scattered newspapers, food wrappers, and sunflower seed husks—and yet I have never read the whole poem end to end. I cannot. After these first ten lines, the rest of it seems so painfully less great. My eyes flinch.

Tithonus was an unfortunate Greek who loved a goddess, and, to ensure he could love her forever, he petitioned the rest of the Olympians to grant him eternal life. They agreed. However, he forgot to ask for eternal youth as well, and so he grew older and older and older, forever, while his lover remained unchanged. I amuse myself that Tennyson is suggesting that a really considerable amount of time has passed before his poem begins, not just millennia but epochs, geological ages, that the human race has lived and died out, and Tithonus continues to age, trapped in life.

Here is me reading it with my unfortunate, ever young voice:

Tithonus audio

Here are the words (with spellings slightly modernised):

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burden 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-haired shadow roaming like a dream

The ever-silent spaces of the East,

Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.


4 thoughts on “My cat reads poems!

  1. Hey, Daniel. Thanks for the comment on my blog. I’m so happy to find other Philly writers. I added you to my blog roll. I’ll keep checking back for inspiration like this poem.


  2. Peregrine, yes–there are lots of these sorts of legends. The Swedish writer Par Lagerkvist wrote a haunting novel called The Sibyl, where the wandering jew, cursed to live forever for not helping out Jesus on his way to crucifixion, arrives in Delphi and tries to find an explanation from one of Apollo’s oracles. Glad you like the whole poem more than me 🙂


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