Tears, Idle Tears Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Within the context of The Princess, this lyric provides Tennyson with an opportunity to show the immaturity of his heroine, who rebukes the maiden singing the lyric. Recognizing that the song’s purpose is to remind the listeners of the sadness that comes from reflecting on the past, the Princess rejects that attitude explicitly and vehemently, saying that “all things serve their timelet the past be past.” She even calls such reminiscences “fatal to men” and recommends that the company “cram our ears with wool” to avoid hearing such maudlin thoughts. As the long narrative poem progresses, however, the Princess comes to realize that a mature contemplation of the past is an important attribute of sensitive adults.

Viewing the lyric outside the context of the long poem in which it first appeared, readers should see that Tennyson’s major theme is the sadness and irony that accompanies such reflection on bygone times. There seems little hope or optimism in these lines; every image suggests the futility and even the incomprehensibility (on an emotional level, if not on an intellectual one) of coping with lost time. It is important to note, however, that no image in the poem suggests that these feelings of sadness result from missed opportunity. Rather, the images convey a sense that they come from the realization that pleasurable experiences of the past may never be enjoyed again. Tennyson told his friend Frederick Locker-Lampson that...

(The entire section is 404 words.)