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’.

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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


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’.

Tears, idle Tears: Summary, Questions, Analysis, Figures of Speech, Style and Language


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