As I thought about my own return to the Probation Service last year (1981), I came across the myth of Tithonus. I had made the decision to leave the FWA with great difficulty having spent two and a half happy and exciting years with the agency. The new job meant promotion, and there were other good ‘reasons’ for making the move; yet Tithonus shed light on my decision:
“Then Aphrodite filled the heart of Eos with love for Tithonus. Wishing to be bound to her husband for eternity, Eos begged Zeus to confer immortality on him; but alas she had forgotten to ask at the same time for perpetual youth. As the years passed, the young and handsome lover of former days became an old man with wrinkled brow… Old age gave way to decrepitude. The goddess then shut Tithonus up in a chamber where the impotent old man remained in solitude until the day when the gods took pity and changed him into a cicada.”
This told me that if I were to continue to grow, I could not cling to the present; I would have to let a good time end, allow that growth involves loss. The self destructive urge to escape our mortality is characteristic of many offenders – of many people in general of course. It is marvellously captured by Tennyson’s poem about the Tithonus myth:
“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.
This picture is a disturbing one an yet Tennyson’s ‘quiet limit of the world’ is also perhaps Keats’ shoreline, a place of peace and discovery. The hopefulness acceptance and sadness of his poem is true to the experience of many bereaved people who find they grow through the anguish of grief. I hope if I quote the whole sonnet, it will explain why his image has formed my title.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books in charac’try,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look on thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do shrink.