Theme of Passivity in Tennyson’s Poetry, Essay Example

The below analysis is focusing on the use of passivity in Lord Tennyson’s poems: ‘Tithonus’, ‘Ulysses’ and ‘The Lotos Eaters’.All three poems are written after the tragic death of Tennyson’s young friend, Arthur Hallam.  (Cash, 2011) The paper will review the language, use of expressions, patterns and rhetoric tools in order to understand the main stylistic features of the poems, as well as the characteristics of the poet’s language.

The thesis question being analyzed is:

“What is the role of using active and passive language in Tennyson’s poetry when describing decay and death?”


“Tithonus” is a poem that is written in the combination of active and passive tones. The action is performed by a natural force which is active and the passive object. This poem, like “The Lotos Eaters”, was written after the death of Arthur Hallam, who was only 22 at the time. The poem is a personal reflection on death, decay using an allegory of nature’s decay and humans’ as well as a contemplation about immortality. Tithonus in Greek mythology received the gift of eternal life but not eternal youth from Aurora. He grew old and did not enjoy his life any more. According to the Greek myth, instead of dying, he became a grasshopper. The feelings of the poet follow the description of the autumn forest:

“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! “


Repetition is present in the poem in many places, It appears in the first line:

“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,”

in order to emphasize the emotions. Further, we can read the repetition of “immortal”, giving the expression additional meaning:

“To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,”


The woods decaying are just the subjects of a higher force, which is mentioned in the poem. Likewise, the man is only a “shadow roaming like a dream“.Another example of the passivity in the narrative is:

“A soft air fans the cloud apart”. The cloud has no choice but to give in the gentle force, just like people have no choice but to accept death.

Symbols of Death

There are several references found in the poem to death, decay and getting old. The allegories with nature are present throughout the whole

Distance and Passive Death

Tithonus in the poem is an observer of the misery of immortality. While he contemplates on immortality while observing the events, he finds that it is not a blessing. Statements are active in the reflective part of the poem only.

The Lotos Eaters

The Lotos Eaters was written after Tennyson’s visit to Spain in 1829. His companion and friend, Arthur Hallam dies in 1933 and this gives the poem relevancy and depth. It features the events of Odyssey, Book Nine. The reflective poem is a description of men’s escape from harsh reality into a dreamy “land of streams”.It consists of two parts: the narrative and the choric song. However, it is also an exploration of grief and bereavement: the consciousness of one’s feelings about death.

Active Language

The narrative and perspective of voices are hard to identify. The dramatic voice is based on the active use of language. However, this pattern is sometimes broken up with the use of passive description: “ripen towards the grave”. The presence of strong and expressive descriptions is also a sign of active language: “crisping ripples” and “curving lines of creamy spray “


Emotions in the poem are enhanced using different rhetoric tools: repetition and elevated diction. The description of the peaceful and beautiful landscape is in line with the beauty of the men’s emotions,

“How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream! “


The usage of the commonly known classical myth creates the allusion that serves as the base of the imagery. Tennyson pulls images from the original verses. However, the poet also uses contrasts and references to time, death based on classical imagery.

Nature Themes

The simple descriptions of the nature scenes reflect the emotions of the narrator (as well as the poet). The theme of the afternoon is present throughout the poem. When Tennyson states that “it seemed always afternoon” he reflects on his own emotions.

Slow Motion

The pace of the poem is slow, due to the long lines. This is in harmony with the themes of the nature and observations described by the poet. The first stanza says:

”Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.” and further:

“And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.”

This approach towards the events is clearly present in the original poem: Odyssey, Book 9. An outsider (Odysseus) is telling the readers about the events in a past tense, reporting the “foolness” of men. In “The Lotos Eaters”, however, Odysseus has a different role. He tells his men to have courage and they reply explaining their decision through their chorus song in the following stanzas.


The poem is all about hope, coping with grief and bereavement. Comparing the sense of loss with eternity. Using symbols of both Ulysses and Dante’s Inferno, the form is a dramatic monologue.

Contemplation and Passive Voice

The passive narrative voice reflects the mood and feelings of the poet: a quiet contemplation is combined with confession: he has to carry on, just like Ulysses.

“The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”

Mental Paths of the Narrator

There are several parts of the poem where the struggle to understand life and death is expressed through oxymoron and opposites. One example is:

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

“Little remains; but every hour is saved “

is also a poetic oxymoron, used to highlight the fact how complicated life is. Tennyson


The poet (narrator or Ulysses) seems to struggle to answer the question: “Who am I now?” The question is the representation of the poet trying to find his place in the world without his beloved friend and soul-mate. The active voice and first person narrative expresses the inner hopes of the poet to get through grief and carry on.


From the above analysis, it is evident that the powerful method which Tennyson uses to combine active and passive tone in his poetry has a meaning beyond grammar. It is a rhetoric tool that expresses feelings of depression, bereavement and sadness, as well as accepting fate when passive, past or present contemplating tone is present, while hope and looking forward is represented by active verbs, vivid images and the use of present and future tense.


Tennyson, A. “The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson” (1994)  Wordsworth Poetry Library.

Cash, P. (2011) Alfred Tennyson. English Association Bookmarks No. 68