Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears" is a brooding lyric as a classic example of poetic suggestion. The poem opens with a paradox. The speaker unexpectedly finds himself weeping when “looking on the happy autumn-fields.” The tears are declared idle, which is to say they seemingly lack any real basis. But are they really mysterious in their origin? Is the speaker weeping?
The poem is loaded with suggestive imagery and situations to answer this question. It might help you to begin by noticing when the poem takes place. It is autumn—the time of harvest and completion. The speaker seemingly cannot help but reflect in this season on “the days that are no more.” Where the poem takes place also reinforces the sense that the speaker is painfully cut off from the past. The speaker weeps while “looking on the happy autumn-fields.”
Seeing them and remembering the past triggers a series of revealing reveries about “the days that are no more.” The first image associated with the past is light on a sail. First, the sail seems “fresh” and dawn-like—bringing “our friends up from the underworld.” The last word of that line, underworld, explicitly brings death into the poem. Any reassuring image of the dead returning to us, however, is quickly reversed as the ship sinks “with all we love below the verge.” The death imagery becomes more explicit in stanza 3 when the dawn song of the birds falls on “dying ears,” and the sun rises to “dying eyes.”
In the final stanza, the intensity of the speaker’s mood heightens appreciably. He speaks explicitly of love—lost love—and the pain of remembering the beloved. By the end of the poem the reader recognizes (at least intuitively) that the speaker weeps from the memory of a dead or lost beloved (both circumstances are stated) and the pain of being unable to recapture the past.