Alfred Lord Tennyson“Tears, Idle Tears”
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather in 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-awakened 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 remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
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 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
This poem is written in blank verse, or
unrhymed iambic pentameter. It consists of four five-line stanzas, each of
which closes with the words “the days that are no more.”
“Tears, Idle Tears” is part of a larger poem
called “The Princess,” published in 1847. Tennyson wrote “The Princess” to
discuss the relationship between the sexes and to provide an argument for
women’s rights in higher education. However, the work as a whole does not
present a single argument or tell a coherent story. Rather, like so much of
Tennyson’s poetry, it evokes complex emotions and moods through a mastery of
language. “Tears, Idle Tears,” a particularly evocative section, is one of
several interludes of song in the midst of the poem.
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. This paradox is complicated by the
difficulty of understanding the phrase “divine despair”: Is it God who is
despairing, or is the despair itself divine? And how can despair be divine if
Christian doctrine considers it a sin?
The speaker states that he cries these tears while “looking
on the happy autumn-fields.” At first, it seems strange that looking at
something happy would elicit tears, but the fact that these are fields of
autumn suggests that they bear the memories of a spring and summer that have
vanished, leaving the poet with nothing to look forward to except the dark and
cold of winter. Tennyson explained that the idea for this poem came to him when
he was at Tintern Abbey, not far from Hallam’s burial place. “Tintern Abbey” is
also the title and subject of a famous poem by William Wordsworth. (See the
“Tintern Abbey” section in the SparkNote on Wordsworth’s Poetry.) 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,
Thus, although both Wordsworth and Tennyson write poems set
at Tintern Abbey about the passage of time, Wordsworth’s poem takes on a tone
of contentment, whereas Tennyson’s languishes in a tone of lament.
“Tears, Idle Tears” is structured by a pattern of unusual
adjectives used to describe the memory of the past. In the second stanza, these
adjectives are a chiastic “fresh...sad...sad...fresh”; the memory of the birth
of friendship is “fresh,” whereas the loss of these friends is “sad”; thus when
the “days that are no more” are described as both “sad” and “fresh,” these
words have been preemptively loaded with meaning and connotation: our sense of
the “sad” and “fresh” past evokes these blossomed and withered friendships.
This stanza’s image of the boat sailing to and from the underworld recalls
Virgil’s image of the boatman Charon, who ferries the dead to Hades.
In the third stanza, the memory of the past is described as
“sad...strange...sad...strange.” The “sad” adjective is introduced in the image
of a man on his deathbed who is awake for his very last morning. However,
“strangeness” enters in, too, for it is strange to the dying man that as his
life is ending, a new day is beginning. To a person hearing the birds’ song and
knowing he will never hear it again, the twittering will be imbued with an
unprecedented significance—the dying man will hear certain melancholy tones for
the first time, although, strangely and paradoxically, it is his last.
The final stanza contains a wave of adjectives that rush
over us—now no longer confined within a neat chiasmic structure—as the poem
reaches its last, climactic lament: “dear...sweet...deep...deep...wild.” The
repetition of the word “deep” recalls the “depth of some divine despair,” which
is the source of the tears in the first stanza. However, the speaker is also
“wild with all regret” in thinking of the irreclaimable days gone by. The image
of a “Death in Life” recalls the dead friends of the second stanza who are like
submerged memories that rise to the surface only to sink down once again. This
“Death in Life” also recalls the experience of dying in the midst of the
rebirth of life in the morning, described in the third stanza. The poet’s
climactic exclamation in the final line thus represents a culmination of the
images developed in the previous stanzas.
In this task, you will write an analysis (suggested length
of 3–5 pages) of one work of literature.
• Alfred Lord
Tennyson, “Tears, Idle Tears.” 1847
Once you have selected and read the work, you will create a
paragraph of descriptive writing with your personal observations about the
work. This paragraph must be written before you do research on the work, the
author, and the period it comes from. You will need to be quite detailed in
your description of the work.
The next step will be to research the work, the life of the
artist, and the period. You will then be ready to create your analysis. This
process of analysis will require you to discuss the historical context of the
work, pertinent aspects of the author’s biography, themes and/or stylistic
characteristics of its historical period, and finally, the relevance of this
work for audiences today.
The final requirement of the task will be to reflect on this
process of analysis and describe how your perception of the work changed.
A. Record your
initial reaction to the work (suggested length of 1 paragraph or half a page)
by doing the following:
1. Describe your
initial thoughts and/or feelings about the work.
2. Describe in detail
at least one aspect of the work that most interests you.
B. Analyze the work
(suggested length of 2–4 pages) by doing the following:
1. Describe the
historical context of the period in which the work was written.
2. Discuss insights
into the work that can be gained from the author’s biography.
3. Analyze how this
work explores a particular theme and/or stylistic characteristic from its
4. Explain the
relevance of this work for today’s audiences.
C. Discuss how the
deeper knowledge you gained through your analysis has informed or altered your
thoughts and/or feelings about the work (suggested length of 1 paragraph or
half a page).
D. When you use
sources to support ideas and elements in a paper or project, provide
acknowledgement of source information for any content that is quoted,
paraphrased or summarized. Acknowledgement of source information includes
in-text citation noting specifically where in the submission the source is used
and a corresponding reference, which includes:
• Location of
information (e.g., publisher, journal, or website URL)
Note: The use of APA citation style is