Tears, Idle Tears

Introduction: “Tears, Idle Tears” is a small lyric of a larger poem, “The Princess”, which is about Princess Ida. The Princess lives with her female companions, rejecting marriage and male companionship, in a school, she has founded for women’s education, alone. A maiden sings the present lyric as a song.

Meaning of Words

Idle: useless, purposeless, baseless; the word ‘idle’ can have many different meanings (Tennyson revised it from Tears, Foolish Tears, for this reason). The word ‘idle’ is associated with laziness, but it can also mean empty, worthless or dead.

Divine Despair: the hopeless yearning of
man for complete fulfilment in the world. Man has a divine origin.
The despair is perhaps that of God for the inability of a man to achieve joy and happiness.

Underworld: The word “underworld” means “the land of the dead”. In the poem, it has the obvious meaning of the land to which the ship comes, and from which it departs. But its symbolic meaning is equally important as the world of the dead. It means the place
under the earth where people are believed to go when they die. The ‘underworld’ is a term that could mean a criminal world, but in this context (and due to the period in which the poem was written) it is obvious that he is talking about the abode of the dead.

Casement: part of a window hinged to open like a door

Hopeless fancy feign’d: to be kissed by
a hopeless lover.

Ah: The third stanza begins: “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns” The use of ‘Ah’ to begin the stanza emphasises the fact that the speaker is thinking and the whole poem is a ‘train of thought’.

Regret: feeling of sadness because of
something that has happened.

Death in Life: in a longing for the dead
days, they are revived and lived once again.
The image of “Death in Life” recalls the dead friends of the second stanza who are like submerged memories that rise to the surface only to sink down once again. This “Death in Life” also recalls the experience of dying in the midst of the rebirth of life in the morning, described in the third stanza. The poet’s climactic exclamation in the final line thus represents a culmination of the images developed in the previous stanzas.

Reddens over one: the poet describing the last beam of the sun at the end of the day that is cast over a boat’s sail; the use of ‘reddens’ suggests this because sunset reflects and endows the landscape with red colour.

Happy autumn fields: autumn fields are personified here and suggest that they bear the happy memories of spring and summer that have vanished, leaving the poet with nothing to look forward to except the dark and cold of winter.

REFRAIN: the part of a song or a poem that is repeated after each verse.

BLANK VERSE: Blank verse is an unrhymed verse composed of lines that usually contain ten syllables and have stress on every second syllable.

TRANSFERRED EPITHET: Transferred epithet consists in the moving of an adjective from the word to which it properly belongs to another with which it is associated- such an epithet is said to be transferred. For example,
He spent a sleepless night.
He was engaged in a dishonest profession.

Summary of Tears, IdleTears

The poem is a touching lyric sung by one of the maidens who resides in the castle of Princess Ida. The Princess is an independent young woman. She has retreated from society with some of her female companions to start a school from which men are excluded.

The princess is pursued there by the prince, who is in love with her. He comes to the castle disguised as a woman. In the original poem, “The Princess” when this lyric is sung, Princess Ida is relaxing with her friends and the prince at sunset. That is why the mood of the poem is sad.

The poem represents the passion of love between a man and a woman. It is also a poem about the impact of the past. The speaker laments the passing of time; he cannot relive the cherished experiences of the past anymore. And there is a sudden welling up of tears in the speaker’s eyes but the cause of the tears is unknown.

In the title, we can notice the repetition of the word ‘Tears’. It indicates the nature of the poet’s sadness as felt by him. It has no apparent cause. The tears are rather involuntary but are also ‘idle’ because they cannot free poet from despair.

Thus, Tennyson wrote the poem “Tears, Idle Tears” as a song to be sung by a maiden in the longer poem “The Princess: A Medley”. In “The Princess”, he shows Princess Ida as conducting a school for women to which men’s entry is restricted. The poem is about our memory of the past which may be both sad and sweet.

Never is the past always an unmixed blessing nor is our memory complete.

As such, we shed tears for both the happy and unhappy past. A number of images have been used to describe memory, such as the image of the autumn fields, friends arriving and departing, a dying man and the half-awake birds’ song at dawn etc. There is a sad, contemplative note through all the lines and Tennyson is particularly famous for the elegiac or mournful elements in his poetry.

“Tears, Idle Tears” deals with the subject of women in the modern world and presents the theme of higher education of women. The princess, who rejects marriage, wishes to educate women keeping them entirely free from male influence.

Thus the subject of the poem is of great contemporary interest. After a day’s hard work, Princess Ida asks one of her maidens to sing a song to offer much-needed relaxation. The poem is the resultant song sung by the maiden.

As the title of the poem suggests, the poet expresses his feeling of sadness as well as sweetness. The poet tries to explain the meaning of sorrow by personifying it, but he finds no cause or source for the sorrow

He tries to find the meaning and significance of the beauty and splendour of the rich harvest of Autumn fields. One feels happy to see the Autumn fields full of ripe harvest. At the same time, there is an element of sadness that brings tears to the eyes. Thus, the strange feeling of sadness and sweetness of the poet has been suggested in the title of the poem.

Explanation of the Poem

The title of the poem suggests that it is about the feeling of sadness (“tears”) but the cause of the sorrow is difficult to define; hence the tears are “idle tears”. The poem consists of four stanzas. You can notice that in all the four stanzas the expression the “days that are no more” is a common refrain that ends the stanza. The opening words are simple and without any ambiguity. The poet speaks of the “tears” whose meaning and significance he is unable to define or understand. They are caused by some “divine despair”. Man has a divine origin. Until Darwin’s discovery of “evolution”, the Biblical story of man’s origin and fall from paradise had dominated the Christian mind. The tears are perhaps due to the inevitable death of mortal man. The sense of longing, for the poet, is also futile and there is despair which is an essential part of human existence. This despair may well up in our eyes as “tears” but tears may also be caused by a happy moment such as “the happy Autumn fields”. The last line of the first stanza mentions the sadness of remembering the days that are no more. Both the occasions naturally bring tears to our eyes; so they are both sad and sweet.

The second stanza continues this duality in the image of the ship that emerges before our eyes with the light of the morning sun glittering on its sail. The recollection of the past days can be both sweet and bitter. It is sweet to remember the joys of the past but bitter or painful to think that it brings to our mind a sense of loss. The image of the ship brings out this special mixture very clearly. The ship emerges from and returns to the land over the horizon. As the poem is essentially concerned with the memory of the past, the poet appropriately compares this feeling about bygone days 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, we can notice the image of the dying man. You may notice the word “Ah” at the beginning of the stanza, suggesting a sense of pain. The speaker likens his emotions to those of a dying man who sees summer dawn and hears birds piping outside his window. You can also notice the essential duality of life and death– the man is dying but the birds are chirping and the time is “dawn”, the moment of the first appearing of light in the morning sky and, hence, the suggestion is that of a beginning.

So the emotions experienced are sad and sweet, involving both death and life. The birds in the lines are “half-awakened”, i.e., they are not fully awake but you can find the dying man is fully awake. You can also note the “dying ears” and “dying eyes”. Both refer to the dying man. Being placed in the same line, the two phrases emphasise the gloom associated with death.

The dying man’s sight is failing but the casement seems to be glittering with the morning light. The memory of the past, the poet concludes, is similarly sad and strange.

Finally, as we reach the last stanza, we find that the speaker compares his feeling for the past to that of “remember’d kisses after death”.

It is not clear who dies and who lives on. The memory of the “remember’d kisses” in the past becomes sweet because of the distance in time, even when the beloved is no more. Sometimes, “kisses” can be unreal, mere imagination (“fancy”) indulged in by a hopeless and rejected lover. But such kisses are equally sweet, even though the lips of the beloved are meant for others. The memory of the past lies deep in our heart like “love” in general or the “first love” which lasts the longest. Thus memory is as deep as the first love and as wild as the passionate sadness that the days have become and we can no longer get them back. The bygone days, suggested by the word “Death” are brought back to life through memory, but it is tinged with sadness with the realisation that those days are no more.

From the above explanation, you learn that “Tears, Idle Tears” is about the memory of the past days. The poem is part of The Princess where a maiden sings the present lyric as a song. The song’s purpose is to tell the listeners about sadness which comes from reflecting on the past. But when we view the poem outside the context of The Princess in which it first appeared, we find that the major theme of the poem here is the sadness that accompanies our reflections on the past days. This sadness comes from the realisation that the joyful experiences of the past world never come back (“the days that are no more”), and never be enjoyed again. You may find it interesting to know what Tennyson himself said about the poem.

He said to 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’. This statement agrees with Tennyson’s own concern with the past and with his belief that man cannot relive his past times and experiences. However, we can observe that the poet has exercised considerable restraint in presenting his emotion.

Style and Language

As far as the style and language of the poem are concerned, we are struck by the poet’s handling of imagery and use of simple words. The imagery, particularly, focuses our attention on the melancholy and sense of irony which we experience with our contemplation of the passing of life. You can observe that in each stanza there is a simple example to illustrate our sense of loss. In the first stanza, for example, the poet describes a person looking at the “happy Autumn-fields”. Autumn also indicates the coming of winter. One can reflect on the change of seasons and this reflection brings “tears, idle tears” to our eyes. In the second stanza, you will note, this sense of loss is compared to the feeling of a person who is visited by his friends. The friends then leave him. This is a very difficult image. The person feels the joy of seeing the sunlight on the sail (“glittering on a sail”) as the ship bringing his friends is seen from a distance; but the same friends would depart in the ship, leaving the person filled with sadness. Note the words Tennyson uses to describe the arrival and departure of the friends. When they arrive they appear to be coming “up from the underworld”, and when they depart, the ship carrying them appears to sink “below the verge”. This is the image of a voyage. It has symbolic meaning of the voyage of life, passing from birth to death. Once the idea of death is indicated in the image of the ship bringing friends from the underworld, its logical connection with the next stanza can be seen in the mention of the “dying man” hearing the birds’ notes at dawn. The speaker means that his ‘idle tears’ are like the tears of the dying man who wakes up in the summer dawn and hears the birds chirp. Here is a strong melancholic note apt to bring tears. In the final stanza, the tears are compared to those in the eyes of the lover who remembers with joy and regret his love affair that has ended without any hope of renewal. Such a person experiences the condition of “Death in Life” because he is alive but his happy past days are gone forever. From the above discussion, it is clear that the complex subject of the poem is rendered comprehensible by the use of language and imagery– a talent in which Tennyson is unmatched. We can also point out the words whose sounds echo the poet’s feeling of sadness that causes tears to come to his eyes. The use of the words “tears” in the title is particularly striking with its repetition. Tennyson was acutely sensitive to sounds and had the gift of appealing to our ears even more than to our senses. Tennyson is considered the greatest Victorian poet largely because of his range and volume of poetic output. He was a consummate artist who could experiment with different poetic forms from lyric to dramatic monologue and had the capacity to suit the form to the subject. By “poetic technique” we mean the poetic devices used in a particular poem. You may observe from the above explanation of the poem that the poem is a lyric meant to be sung by a particular maiden. The opening line speaks of “tears” and “idle tears” which may lead us to expect that there will be unrestrained emotions with the poet indulging in the most familiar theme of the recollection of the past. But we find a very compact poem with the emotions being firmly under control. The poetic technique used in the poem takes into account some formal devices such as blank verse lines and extensive use of images to convey the sense of sadness and sweetness as the two opposite qualities of the human recollection of the past. You may also notice the meditative and conversational atmosphere and that each stanza is connected to the previous one by a closing phrase: “the days that are no more”. This phrase is repeated to remind the reader of the passing of time. The use of imagery is also similarly directed towards conveying a sense of contrast between joy and sorrow with regard to our recollection of the past. Human memory is not selective. Therefore, the image of ‘happy Autumn-fields’ is followed by the image of a dying man. Another technique used by the poet is personification. In the phrase “happy Autumn-fields”, he has used a figure of speech called ‘transferred epithet’. It is not the autumn fields which are happy but the person looking at them. A poetic effect is created by transferring the feeling from the person to the field. Thus, it may be said that in “Tears, Idle Tears”, Tennyson has achieved a great poetic effect by using the suitable, though conventional, techniques such as use of blank verse, figure of speech and imagery for his grave subject-matter which is the recollection of the past and how the recollections are apt to make us feel both sad and happy.

Figures of speech
Figures of speech and used in the poem

Simile– a comparison between two distinctly different things by the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. In the second stanza, Tennyson says: “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,” The freshness of memories is what is being described here and Tennyson uses an image of the sun shining on a boat’s sail to emphasize it.

Lyric poetry refers to either poetry that has the form and musical quality of a song, or a usually short poem that expresses personal feelings, which may or may not be set to music. Greek writers identified the lyric as a song rendered to the accompaniment of a lyre. The term basically refers to any fairly short, non-narrative poem presenting a single speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of thought and feeling.

Alliteration- is the repetition of speech sounds in a sequence of nearby words; the term is usually applied only to consonants, and only when the recurrent sound occurs in a conspicuous position at the beginning of a word or of a stressed syllable within a word. The alliteration of the consonant ‘d’ in the phrase divine despair creates a very sombre and melancholic tone, whilst also creating a sense of rhythm. The word ‘divine’ has religious connotations as it means heavenly or sacred, but ‘despair’ seems opposite as it means to lose all hope; the poet is describing very powerful emotions.

Personification– is a literary device in which either an inanimate object or an abstract concept is spoken of as though it were endowed with life or with human attributes or feelings. In the ‘happy autumn fields,’ the autumn fields is modified by the adjective happy which is a human trait so autumn fields have been given the attributes of humans. By the use of personification, the poet makes it seem as if the fields themselves are happy, although it is just the feeling they evoke in the speaker. Tennyson here also uses a paradox because he is describing emotions that contradict each other, despair and happiness.

Paradox: A Paradox is a statement which seems on its face to be self-contradictory or absurd, yet turns out to have a valid meaning. The contrasting descriptions of the tears which are “idle” and which yet come from deep within the narrator and the “happy autumn-fields” inspiring sadness are examples of paradox. The paradox points towards the disparity and contrast between the past and the present and add to the poignancy and immediacy of appeal.

Oxymoron– If the paradoxical utterance combines two terms that in ordinary usage are contraries , it is called an oxymoron. ‘O Death in life, the days that are no more, is an example of oxymoron.

Refrain is a line, or part of a line, or a group of lines which is repeatedly used in the course of the poem. In this poem, we find the phrase ‘the days that are no more’ being used repetitively. All the four stanzas of the poem end with ‘the days that are no more’.

Self Assessment Questions

1. Where did Tennyson get the idea for “Tears, Idle Tears”?

(A) Somersby

(B) Cambridge

(C) Tintern Abbey

(D) Westminster Bridge
Ans. (C) Tintern Abbey

2. ‘Tears Idle Tears’ is the part of a larger poem. What is the name of that poem and also state its basic theme?

Ans. Tears Idle Tears is the part of larger poem called The Princess. Tennyson wrote The Princess to discuss the relationship between the sexes and to provide an argument for women’s rights in higher education.

3. Why does the sight of ‘happy autumn fields’ evoke sadness in the poet’s heart?
Ans. The speaker states that he cries while “looking on the happy autumn-fields.” At first, it seems strange that looking at something happy would elicit tears, but the fact that these very fields would have to face harsh severe winters is in itself very depressing and hence make the poet sad and gloomy.

4. Describe the mood of the poem.
Ans. Tennyson’s, “Tears, Idle Tears”, has many references to symbols and images that reflect the mood of the poem. Gloom controls the atmosphere the author is describing to the audience. These images better the understanding of this poem and give the reader a vivid sense of what the author is trying to portray. Images of sadness are throughout the poem and they contrast with early memories of happiness the author once had. Idle tears caused the author’s world to stop as he thinks about how the world was still moving at the time of the tragedy.

5. Why does the poet refer to the tears as idle?
Ans. The poet describes the tears as ‘idle’ – suggesting that they are caused by no immediate identifiable grief.

6. Comment on the form of the poem.
Ans. This poem is written in blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter. It consists of four five-line stanzas, each of which closes with the refrain “the days that are no more.” The poem is set out into four stanzas of equal length and is written in blank verse, meaning that it has no rhyme scheme.

7. Point out the significance of refrain in this poem by giving a suitable example?
Ans. Since all the four stanzas culminate with the phrase ‘the days that are no more’- this phrase can be referred to as a refrain. The repetition of this phrase emphasizes the contrast between the past and the present. This creates a pattern in the poem and also acts as a summary to each stanza, and to the poem as a whole because the speaker discovers that the reasons for his tears are his thoughts about “the days that are no more”. This could mean death, or just simply moments in the past that you can’t get back again

8. What do you understand by ‘divine despair’?
Ans. The phrase is a paradox. This paradox is complicated by the difficulty of interpretation of the phrase “divine despair” in two different ways: Is it God who is despairing, or is the despair itself divine?

9. Which other poet has written a poem on the same location and how is his treatment of the subject different?
Ans. William Wordsworth also wrote a poem Tintern Abbey inspired by this location in 1798, which developed a similar theme although both Wordsworth and Tennyson write poems set at Tintern Abbey about the passage of time, Wordsworth’s poem takes on a tone of contentment, whereas Tennyson’s languishes in a tone of lament.

10. Point out the portion of the poem where the poet seems to be a little hopeful/ Is there any part of the poem which suggests that the poet believes in re-incarnation.
Ans. The poet says that the beam on the sail will “bring our friends up from the underworld”, which suggests that he believes in spirits or re-incarnation. The beam is like a symbol of hope, as the first two lines of this stanza are hopeful. “

11. What is a dramatic monologue?
Ans. The “dramatic monologue” is a poetic form which consists of a speech by a single character who reveals his innermost thoughts and feelings to a listener. The “dramatic monologue”, unlike the soliloquy, is, however not written for the stage nor does it form a part of a play. Robert Browning was the most prominent exponent of the dramatic monologue, and Tennyson also used it several times. T. S. Eliot uses a form of the monologue, the ‘interior monologue’.


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