Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ combines beauty with sadness in a way that causes a reader to feel empathy for the speaker. Tennyson’s speaker is able to depict the sorrow of mourning and the devastation of lost youth. He brings attention to what it means to age and become aware of the darker side of life.
In particular, the speaker mourns over the days that are gone and will never return. He also feels sorrow for those who have lived and died before his time. By the time a reader gets to the end of the poem it will be clear that the speaker is narrating the piece from beyond the grave. In conclusion, Tears, Idle Tears brings attention to feelings intimately associated with aging, such as: regret, reminiscence, and despair.
Tears, Idle Tears Analysis
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
In the first lines of this piece the speaker describes how he feels tears in his eyes. He doesn’t know why they are there or what has caused them. This leads to the description of them as being “idle tears.” It is an emotion that has suddenly overwhelmed him and his brain is yet to catch up to his heart. The only thing that is clear at this point is that they come “from the depth of some divine despair.”
The speaker feels something spiritual building up inside his soul. It is close to being “divine,” or god-like. Generally, when something is described as “divine” it is angelic, joyful, and glorious. This is different though, it is “divine despair.” He goes on to describe this feeling as “rise[ing] in the heart, and gather[ing] to the eyes.”
In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker reveals what has triggered this “divine despair,” while also providing the setting. He is “looking on the happy Autumn-fields,” but they do not provoke in him a feeling of joy as one might expect.
Rather, the fields fill his heart with despair and brings tears to his eyes. He is not sure why this is the case. The speaker does tell the readers, however, that it is something about “the days that are no more” that have caused this feeling of despair.
Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
In the second stanza the speaker reveals that the pain he feels at this moment of recollection is as fresh as it was the moment he first experienced it. Then, in the second line, he reveals why thinking about lost days causes him such pain. He claims that this memories “bring our friends up from the underworld.” Here, it becomes apparent the speaker is thinking about people who have died before him. The wound feels fresh as the memory of their lives and deaths spring upon him.
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
In the third stanza, the speaker says that he finds these days gone by as very strange. Throughout Tears, Idle Tears, the speaker seems unable to fully understand his own feelings. He does not know exactly where the tears come from nor does he know what divine despair causes them.
The speaker states that the feeling in his heart is, “strange as in dark summer dawns.” He then describes the sound of birds as they are just awakening, and contrasts that sound with his own feelings. The speaker knows that he is in his last days, unlike the birds.
It is a strange thing for “dying ears” to hear the birds beginning to wake. As he hears the birds and thinks about the days gone by and how few days he has left, he considers “the casement.” This is a reference to the part of a window that hinges open. It is dissolving before his eyes into nothing more than a “glimmering square.”
Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!
With the final stanza, it becomes clear the speaker is narrating from beyond the grave. He tells the reader that “kisses after death” are sweet and “Dear.” They are compared to those experienced in life that are “hopeless fancy feigned.” The speaker is relating the emotions of death to those of love. Death is filled with the same mourning and, hopefully, joyful reception into another world. Lips will often want kisses that are meant for “others.” The same goes for the speaker who wants to continue in his life, but is unable.
The final lines are less structured than those which have come before. The speaker is enraptured with the loss of his days and attempting to relive the emotions of first love. There is an amount of “regret” that has followed him to his death but his days are “no more.” There is nothing to do about anything left undone at this point.