In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Tears, Idle Tears,” the phrase “Death in Life” occurs in the very final line and epitomizes, in many ways, the ambiguous, ambivalent, paradoxical language and tone of the poem as a whole. The phrase is relevant to the rest of the poem in a number of different ways, including the following:
- The phrase sums up one of the poem’s key ideas: that as we live our lives, we are always haunted by the realization of death – both the death of others and the inevitable death of ourselves as well.
- The phrase implies that even our happiest times in life are tinged with melancholy as we realize that those times are inevitably temporary – that they cannot last, if only because death is inescapable.
- The phrase suggests that the realization of death’s inevitability is, ironically, a realization that gives meaning and beauty to life. Wallace Stevens, the great American poet, would later write his poem “Sunday Morning” that “Death is the mother of beauty,” in the sense that our realization of death leads us to create beautiful things that will live on when we die, and also in the sense that our realization of our own mortality leads us to appreciate the beautiful things in life that are only temporary. Tennyson’s speaker seems to have the same kinds of basic ideas in mind when referring to “Death in Life.”
- The phrase helps explain why the speaker is tearful: he recognizes that life inevitably ends in death, and he realizes that this fact helps make our lives seem precious and beautiful. His tears, then, can be seen both as tears of sadness and as tears of joy. Such tears
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. (3-5)
In these lines, as so often elsewhere in the poem, Tennyson suggests both the beauty and the pain of life and the ways those two emotions are intermingled.