Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

"Tears, Idle Tears" is a poem by English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The work is a lyric poem, which was the primary style that Tennyson used in many of his works. The poem was part of a collection, The Princess, and Tennyson referred to it as a "song." The term is fitting because the poem has a memorable lyrical quality despite the fact that it is written in blank verse form.

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The poem was written after Tennyson visited Tintern Abbey, which evoked a sense of nostalgia for a past long gone. In fact, the poem mainly deals with two ideas: the past and the transient nature of time. The abandoned abbey, in Tennyson's mind, became a metaphor for life in that people and events come and go. The abbey once housed life and religious ceremonies. Likewise, our lives once housed almost-tangible memories and emotions that were sharp and intense, but later fade away like the echoes inside the abbey.

A particular artifact of Tennyson's past that is subtly referenced in the poem is Rosa. She was the daughter of a wealthy family who had a high social ranking. Her family forbade her from pursuing a relationship with Tennyson because his family, particularly his father, had a bad reputation of being a drunkard. Tennyson's family wasn't wealthy either, and a writer at the time was seen as a lowly profession. The poem's first stanza is a lamentation of what he had lost in the past. In Tennyson's mind, Rosa is still present, as if haunting him like the ghosts of the abbey, and this is evident in the vividness of his descriptions.

The poem has a somber tone to it and this is mirrored by Tennyson's reference to Autumn, which has traditionally been associated with death, major changes in life, and the shedding of the past. The pastoral imagery provides the right atmosphere for the lyrics, creating a setting that shows the unforgiving nature of time.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

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 experiences. This meditation is brought on by a sudden unexplained welling-up of tears in the speaker’s eyes. The cause for the speaker’s feeling of sadness cannot be determined, and he never hints directly at what might be the source of his own tears; instead, he tries to explain how he feels by comparing his feelings to a series of events that produce similar emotions in others.

In the middle two stanzas, the speaker focuses his attention on these “days that are no more”—a phrase that serves as a kind of refrain in the final line of each stanza of the poem. He first compares his feelings about bygone times to the experience one has when anticipating the arrival of friends from afar, and then seeing them sail away beyond the horizon as they return to faraway lands. In the third stanza, the speaker likens his emotions to those of a dying man who sees a summer dawn and hears birds piping outside his window. In the final stanza, the speaker compares his feeling for the past to that of“remember’d kisses after death” (line 16)—though it is not clear who has died and who lives on—and to the recollections of one’s first love with all its passion and all its regret.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

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 bittersweet memories, as autumn traditionally suggests an impending ending—and reflecting, as the seasons change, on times past. This reflection brings these “idle tears” to the eyes.

In the second stanza, the sense of loss is compared to the feelings one has when good friends come to visit and then leave. This is the most complex image in the poem. There is a sense of joy at seeing the “glittering on a sail” (line 6) as the ship bringing the friends tops the horizon; that feeling is balanced with the sadness that sweeps over one when those same friends depart. Of particular interest are the words Tennyson chooses to describe the arrival and departure of the ship: the friends appear to be coming “up from the underworld” (line 7), and when they depart, the ship carrying them seems to sink “below the verge” (line 9). This voyage carries symbolic overtones; it is as if the voyage represents the passage of life itself.

That same image is carried forward and made explicit in the third stanza, where the speaker suggests that his idle tears are like those of the dying man who sees a summer dawn. This individual knows that he will not see many (if any) more, and the melancholy produced by that realization is the source of his tears. Similarly, in the final stanza, the tears are likened to those that well up in people who recall with joy and regret a love affair that has ended with no hope of renewal. The individual who experiences such feelings is living a “Death in Life” (line 20): He is alive, but he knows that a part of him—the part that shared those happy times in the past—is gone forever. The realization of his loss is the cause for what appears to be unexplained melancholy and the source for his “idle tears.”

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