Themes

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

"Tears, Idle Tears" is a song sung near the beginning of Canto IV in Tennyson's much longer poem The Princess. In this poem, a prince who was long ago betrothed to Princess Ida, who founded a college, disguises himself as a woman to enter this women's space (as do two of his friends). The poem, in part, can be set in the context of the 1847 opening of the first women's college in England, Queen's College of London.

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At the start of Canto IV, the sun is setting, and Princess Ida leads the prince to a tent. Under this "satin dome," the prince and princess together lean their elbows on "[em]broidered down" before a "fragrant flame." Food, drink, and blossoms are spread before them. In this sensuous setting, the princess commands a song, and a maiden strumming a harp sings "Tear, Idle Tears."

The theme of the song itself is nostalgia and longing for times past. The lyrics mourn

the days that are no more.

The song is unabashedly sentimental, meant to evoke emotions of sadness and desire for the past. The harp-playing maiden recalls dead friends—"up from the underworld." She likens days gone by to the sun sinking into the horizon.

The singer also compares the past to "remember'd kisses after death" and calls these memories "Death in Life." She sings that these memories are "wild with all regret."

As the title indicates, these tears are "idle," meaning they do no good—they are merely sentimental yearnings for what is gone and can't be recaptured. No specific person or situation is mentioned: the message of the poem is generalized regret for times past, and it has a clichéd sound.

The context is important to understanding the meaning of the song. While it dwells on what has gone before and sheds tears for a softened and idealized "set piece" yesteryear of lost love and dead friends, Princess Ida herself roundly rejects this kind of backward-looking sentimentality. She says, after the song is done:

Throne after throne, and molten on the waste
Becomes a cloud: for all things serve their time
Toward that great year of equal mights and rights . . .

In other words, the princess is not about to waste time looking back and feeling sorrow for the past. She states that she prefers to look forward to a better future when women will have achieved equality with men.

Scorning the song, the Princess asks for another song, one that looks toward the promise of the future:

Not such as moans about the retrospect,
But deals with the other distance and the hues
Of promise . . .

The frame of the song encourages us to reject the its message of nostalgia, regret, and tears shed for a rosy-hued past. It invites us to take a critical look at the theme of nostalgia and perhaps to critique as well some of the song's cliched motifs, such as likening the past to autumn. At the same time, we are invited into a dialogue on past and future, and we are asked to question whether the princess goes too far in rejecting memories of days gone by.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

Within the context of The Princess, this lyric provides Tennyson with an opportunity to show the immaturity of his heroine, who rebukes the maiden singing the lyric. Recognizing that the song’s purpose is to remind the listeners of the sadness that comes from reflecting on the past, the Princess rejects that attitude explicitly and vehemently, saying that “all things serve their timelet the past be past.” She even calls such reminiscences “fatal to men” and recommends that the company “cram our ears with wool” to avoid hearing such maudlin thoughts. As the long narrative poem progresses, however, the Princess comes to realize that a mature contemplation of the past is an important attribute of sensitive adults.

Viewing the lyric outside the context of the long poem in which it first appeared, readers should see that Tennyson’s major theme is the sadness and irony that accompanies such reflection on bygone times. There seems little hope or optimism in these lines; every image suggests the futility and even the incomprehensibility (on an emotional level, if not on an intellectual one) of coping with lost time. It is important to note, however, that no image in the poem suggests that these feelings of sadness result from missed opportunity. Rather, the images convey a sense that they come from the realization that pleasurable experiences of the past may never be enjoyed again. Tennyson told his friend Frederick Locker-Lampson that the poem was motivated by “the yearning that young people occasionally experience for that which seems to have passed away from them forever” (Hallam Tennyson, Memoir, 1897). Such a remark is consistent with Tennyson’s persistent infatuation with the past, and with his constant recognition that man is not able to relive past times and experiences. Though “Tears, Idle Tears” is not a part of Tennyson’s most famous long poem, In Memoriam (1850), it shares the same mood as many of the lyrics that make up the poet’s elegy to his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in 1833. Tennyson spent almost two decades composing poetry inspired by feelings of loss at the death of Hallam; composed in the mid-1840’s after a visit to the region where Hallam is buried, “Tears, Idle Tears” shows the same characteristics of restraint in its presentation of emotion and the same penetrating insight into the nature of loss that the poet expresses so poignantly in his major elegiac work.

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