Tears, Idle Tears by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remember’d kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

Summary

The speaker sings of the baseless and inexplicable tears that rise in his heart and pour forth from his eyes when he looks out on the fields in autumn and thinks of the past. This past, (“the days that are no more”) is described as fresh and strange. It is as fresh as the first beam of sunlight that sparkles on the sail of a boat bringing the dead back from the underworld, and it is sad as the last red beam of sunlight that shines on a boat that carries the dead down to this underworld.

The speaker then refers to the past as not “fresh,” but “sad” and strange. As such, it resembles the song of the birds on early summer mornings as it sounds to a dead person, who lies watching the “glimmering square” of sunlight as it appears through a square window.

In the final stanza, the speaker declares the past to be dear, sweet, deep, and wild. It is as dear as the memory of the kisses of one who is now dead, and it is as sweet as those kisses that we imagine ourselves bestowing on lovers who actually have loyalties to others. So,too, is the past as deep as “first love” and as wild as the regret that usually follows this experience. The speaker concludes that the past is a “Death in Life.”

Analysis

One of his most famous lyrics, “Tears, Idle Tears” was published as one of the three“songs” in Tennyson’s ‘ The Princess’ in 1847.Although the poem is written in blank verse ,one does not really notices the absence of rhyme. Readers tend not to feel the lack of rhyme probably because of the richness and variety of the vowel sounds Tennyson employs.

Tennyson was inspired to write “Tears, Idle Tears” upon a visit to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales, an abbey that was abandoned in 1536. Tennyson explained that the idea for this poem came to him when he was at Tintern Abbey, not far from Hallam’s burialplace. “Tintern Abbey” is also the title and subject of a famous poem by William Wordsworth.Wordsworth’s poem, too, reflects on the passage of time and the loss of the joys of youth. However, whereas Tennyson laments “the days that are no more” and describes the past as a “Death in Life,” Wordsworth explicitly states that although the past is no more, he has been compensated for its loss with “other gifts”:

That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense.

The present poem like many of the other Tennyson’s poems , evokes complex emotions and moods through a mastery of language. In the opening stanza, the poet describes his tears as “idle,” suggesting that they are caused by no immediate, identifiable grief. However,his tears are simultaneously the product of a “divine despair,” suggesting that they do indeed have a source: they “rise in the heart” and stem from a profoundly deep and universal cause.

Tennyson is obviously very passionate about what he is writing about. He has himself said of the poem: “This song came to me on the yellowing autumn-tide at Tintern Abbey, full for me of its bygone memories … It is what I have always felt even from a boy, and what as a boy I called the `passion of the past.’ And it is so always with me now; it is the distance that charms me in the landscape, the picture and the past, and not the immediate today in which I move.”

Tears, Idle Tears is very effective in the way in which it describes emotions. The fact that it is written in blank verse helps because it is the only verse form that is able to convey the natural rhythm of spoken English, therefore making the poem more realistic. The images are described very vividly and are used to represent the feelings of the speaker. The following lines aptly describe the significant characteristics of the poem: “the melody, the vision and the passionate wail of ‘Tears, idle Tears’ the most moving and finely wrought lyric Tennyson ever wrote.” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature). The speaker is saying that as well as he being sad, he finds it strange not to be able to go back to the “days that are no more”. He says that the days that are now gone are as dear to him as the kisses of loved ones that are now dead. There is a sense of deep regret about the past in the last two lines:“deep as love, Deep as first love, and wild with all regret; O Death in Life, the days that are no more.” Tennyson is talking about the emotion of love here, and firstly says “deep as love” but then extends it to “deep as first love” to suggest that first love is even deeper. The word ‘wild’ is a very powerful one that Tennyson uses to describe the regret that the speaker feels. The last line is powerful because he compares life and death and says that his memories of the past feel like a death to him. There is a sense of mystery in the poem as it seems that the speaker knows more than what he is telling us. It seems as if he has deep regrets about the past that are haunting him. Also, Tennyson does not make it clear who the speaker is as regards the gender.The speaker is sentimentalising about the past, and Tennyson sentimentalises in the way that he writes the poem. He deals with many different emotions such as despair, sadness, happiness,love and regret, which he qualifies with images to help the reader understand them. It is the last stanza of the poem where there is most emotion and sentimentality; a great yearning for something that will never happen again and about lost time. “Dear as remembered kisses after death”, the speaker is saying that the memories of dead loved ones are both sad, and fresh in his memory, and remind him of the days that are gone.

Figures of Speech

Simile is a comparison between two distinctly different things by the words ‘like’ or‘as’. In the second stanza, Tennyson says: “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,” The freshness of memories is what is being described here and Tennyson uses an image of the sun shining on a boat’s sail to emphasize it.

Lyric poetry refers to either poetry that has the form and musical quality of a song, or a usually short poem that expresses personal feelings, which may or may not be set to music. Greek writers identified the lyric as a song rendered to the accompaniment of a lyre. The term basically refers to any fairly short, non narrative poem presenting a single speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of thought and feeling.

Alliteration is the repetition of speech sounds in a sequence of nearby words; the term is usually applied only to consonants, and only when the recurrent sound occurs in a conspicuous position at the beginning of a word or of a stressed syllable within a word. The alliteration of the consonant ‘d’ in the phrase divine despair creates a very sombre and melancholic tone, whilst also creating a sense of rhythm. The word ‘divine’ has religious connotations as it means heavenly or sacred, but ‘despair’ seems opposite as it means to lose all hope;the poet is describing very powerful emotions.

Personification is a literary device in which either an inanimate object or an abstract concept is spoken of as though it were endowed with life or with human attributes or feelings.In the ‘happy autumn fields’ the autumn fields is modified by the adjective happy which is a human trait so autumn fields have been given the attributes of humans. By the use of personification, the poet makes it seem as if the fields themselves are happy, although it is just the feeling they evoke in the speaker. Tennyson here also uses a paradox because he is describing emotions that contradict each other, despair and happiness.

Paradox is a statement which seems on its face to be self-contradictory or absurd, yet turns out to have a valid meaning.The contrasting descriptions of the tears which are “idle” and which yet come from deep within the narrator and the “happy autumn-fields” inspiring sadness are examples of paradox. The paradox points towards the disparity and contrast between the past and the present and add to the poignancy and immediacy of appeal.

Oxymoron– If the paradoxical utterance combines two terms that in ordinary usage are contraries, it is called an oxymoron. ‘O Death in life, the days that are no more, is an example of oxymoron.

Refrain is a line, or part of a line, or a group of lines which is repeatedly used in the course of the poem. In this poem we find the phrase ‘the days that are no more’ being used repetitively. All the four stanzas of the poem end with ‘the days that are no more’.

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