The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Though often printed as a separate poem, “Tears, Idle Tears” is actually part of The Princess (1847), a long poem in which Alfred, Lord Tennyson explores questions of feminism and the proper roles of the sexes. In fact, the lyric is not titled at all in the original publication; rather, the first words of the opening line have come to serve as an identifying tag for the poem.

While one need not be familiar with The Princess to appreciate “Tears, Idle Tears,” some understanding of the dramatic situation in which the lyric is presented may help explain its theme and account for its particular imagery. This lyric is sung by one of the maidens residing at the castle of Princess Ida, an independent young woman who has retreated from society with some of her female colleagues to found a school from which men are excluded. She is pursued there by the Prince, who is in love with her; he infiltrates her castle disguised as a woman. At the moment in The Princess when this song is sung, Ida, her friends, and the Prince are relaxing at sunset. Hence, the mood of this lyric, that of sober melancholy, seems appropriate for the setting in which it appears.

Even if one is not familiar with The Princess, however, “Tears, Idle Tears” can be read as a powerful statement about the impact of the past. In the poem, the speaker laments the passing of time that has robbed him of the chance to relive cherished...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One might expect that if a poem’s first line speaks of tears, the poem would be about uncontrolled emotion. Perhaps Tennyson is relying on such an initial response to create a certain tension in “Tears, Idle Tears,” for there is little sense of wild abandon in these lines. On the contrary, all the formal devices and literary tropes suggest a great sense of emotional restraint.

As he does in most of his compositions, Tennyson relies on several formal devices to convey a note of restraint. The blank-verse lines and the extensive use of enjambment create a meditative, conversational atmosphere. Each of the stanzas is linked to the others, however, by a closing phrase: “the days that are no more.” This refrain develops in readers a sense of anticipation and fulfillment and establishes a common thread to each of the images described in the stanzas: All are intended to remind the reader of the passing of time and the losses that come with such passing; by implication, the reader is reminded also of the inevitability of death.

Even more than these formal devices, the imagery of “Tears, Idle Tears” focuses the reader’s attention on the melancholy calm and the sense of irony that comes with the mature contemplation of life’s passing. Each stanza concentrates on a single example that illustrates a sense of loss. In the first stanza, the poet presents an individual looking out at “happy Autumn-fields” (line 4)—certainly a time for...

(The entire section is 554 words.)