Tears Idle Tears: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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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.


      The poem is part of the fourth Canto of The Princess. It was composed on an autumn visit to Tintern Abbey, the scene of Wordsworth's famous poem. The sadness of the song is not real woe, as "some people might suppose, it is rather the yearning that young people occasionally experience for that which seems to have passed away from them for ever" (Tennyson). More specially it is the yearning of a love that has passed away for ever, a love that never attained fulfilment, and which is now irrevocably entombed in the days that are no more.


      Here we have the yearning for a past happiness which has passed away for ever and is part and parcel of the dreadful past. It is induced by the sight of the autumn fields which suggest the thought of vanished happiness. The recollection of past days is both fresh and sad-fresh as the light of morning on a happy day which brings our distant friends to us, sad as the subdued light of the setting sun shining upon our friends who leave us for distant shores. The thought of the past is sad and strange, as is the twittering of birds in early dawn to a dying man who knows that it is his last morning on earth, and to whom earthly sights and sounds seem far away. The yearning for a past joy is as sweet as the recollection of the loving kisses bestowed upon us by our beloved ones who are no more. There is a strange mingling of sweetness and passionate sadness in the yearning for the past. The days that are no more are past; they are dead; but our yearning for them revives them and they become part of our life. They thus become 'a death in life'.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      Tears, Idle Tears was composed on an autumn visit to Tintern Abbey, the scene of Wordsworth's well-known poem. Tennyson calls it a blank-verse lyric, and says that it gives 'the sense of the abiding in the transient'. That description would apply also to Wordsworth's Lines, and one may note, in this connection, the difference between the two poets. In Wordsworth's poem the thought becomes metaphysical; in Tennyson's 'the sense of the abiding in the transient', is suggested by concrete images.

      This poem is one of the most representative lyrics of Tennyson's, and indeed nowhere, in the whole range of English poetry, is to be found a better example of a metrical arrangement of words into musical passages than in this short poem. This poem, though it has been described by the poet as a blank-verse lyric, has such rhythmic movement, and charm of music that none perhaps can miss the rhyme. The most striking feature of this poem is its melancholy note — the undercurrent of pathos — which touches every heart and finds a sympathetic-echo. This note of melancholy has been rendered all the more effective by the recurring cadence in every line, the solemn march and the sweet melody of its lines. The images and similes are wonderfully suited to the sentiment: they contribute to the atmosphere of mist and vagueness that is created by the poem. The tender melancholy of feeling that life may be passing without love, vague regrets and longings, has never been more sympathetically expressed than in this song, with its refrain of "the days that are no more." And indeed, this sense of abiding in the transient and the regret for the past is quite in keeping with the aspiring vein of Shelley and his 'pining for what is not'.

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