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.)