Alfred Lord Tennyson

Nationality: English

Alfred Lord Tennyson is an influential poet of Romanticism.

Notable works include 'Break, Break, Breakand 'Tears, Idle Tears.' 

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 by Alfred Lord Tennyson



‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson presents the emotional turbulence in the poet’s mind after seeing the beautiful natural setting of Tintern Abbey. 

In ‘Tears, Idle Tears’, Alfred Lord Tennyson recollects the memory of his loved one after seeing the scenic beauty of Tintern Abbey. Each of the elements of the place reminds him of the person. After reading the poem, it becomes clear that the person he is thinking of is no more.

In the poem, “the happy autumn-fields” makes the poet think of “the days that are no more.” The “sail”, glittering by the sunlight at dawn, seems to the poet that it may bring his friend from the curse of oblivion. In the “dark summer dawns”, the sweet song of the “half-awakened birds” is not soothing to the poet. It once gave the poet satisfaction as his friend was with him. The death of his beloved friend has changed everything. It has left the poet with the memories of the past in his sad heart.

You can read the full poem Tears, Idle Tears here.


Structure and Form

‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Alfred Tennyson contains four stanzas. Each stanza has five lines in it. So there are a total of 20 lines in the poem. There is not any specific rhyme scheme in the poem. It is a free verse poem. Only the last line of each stanza ends with the same word “more”. In the third stanza, the first three lines contain an imperfect rhyme. Those lines have more or less a similar kind of consonant sound at the end. Though there is not any rhyme scheme, the poem is charged with the poet’s emotions. For this reason, the poem contains an internal rhythm which makes the poem more interesting to read.


The Prosody of Tears, Idle Tears

‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Alfred Tennyson consists of an interesting metrical structure. The sound pattern of the poem with the significant variations is consonant with the overall idea of the poet. Interestingly, each line of the poem contains ten syllables. The stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Thus the prosody of the poem is iambic pentameter.

There are certain variations in the poem which refers to the grief-stricken condition of the poet. Such variations are present in the first stanza. The first foot of the first three lines of this stanza is trochaic. Likewise, there are a few trochaic feet in the following stanzas. In “Fresh as”, “Sad as”, “Dear as”, and “Deep as” the stress falls on the first syllable. These variations portray the feelings of the poet associated with the words. Those words are stressed for the sake of emphasizing his idea.



‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Alfred Tennyson encompasses the theme of death, love, and sadness. The major theme of the poem is death. The poet laments the loss of his beloved friend and presents his mental state in the poem. The poet sees death as a detrimental factor in life. It changes everything, even the perception of beauty in a person’s life.

The theme of love is what compelled the poet to versify his sense of grief. It is not an erotic kind of love. It is love for a friend whose presence makes the poet happy and satisfied. That’s why the poet uses the image of the ship which can bring his friend from the dismal abyss of death.

The theme of sadness is an exceptional aspect of the poem. The poet is sad but he has not lost his senses. He knows the beautiful things of nature which once gave pleasure to the poet, remain the same. What changed is the absence of his friend. The poet is sorrowful because the “autumn-fields” and the twittering of birds at dawn remind him of the friend he has lost.


Literary Devices

‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Alfred Tennyson is full of poetic devices that make the poet’s idea appealing to the readers. In the first line, “idle tears” is an example of a personal metaphor. The first two lines of the first stanza begin with the same word. It is called anaphora. In “depth of some divine despair”, Tennyson uses a metaphor of the sea. There is a refrain in this lyric as the last phrase, “the days that are no more” repeats at the end of each stanza.

There is a simile in the first line of the second stanza. There is a biblical allusion used in the poem in the word “underworld”. The poet metaphorically uses the word “reddens” in the second stanza. Here the poet uses another literary device called personification. There is an alliteration in the phrases “So sad” and “so strange” in this poem. In the third stanza, the poet uses metonymy in the word “pipe”. It refers to the twitter of birds. The “glimmering square” is a metonym of the coffin. In the last line, the poet personifies “death” and uses an apostrophe to invoke it to hear his lamentation.


Symbolism and Imagery

‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is rich in symbolism and the use of imagery. The poet makes use of different symbols to invoke the idea associated with them. Likewise, “autumn-fields” is a symbol of natural beauty. There are certain Christian symbols in the words “sail” and “underworld”. The “sinking sun” in the poem is a symbol of pessimism. The symbolic “dark summer” is a reference to the poet’s state of mind. In the last stanza, the poet uses the symbol of love by using the word “kisses”.

Apart from the symbolism in the poem, the poet uses different kinds of imagery to create a gloomy and grievous mood in the poem. The first image of “tears” gathering to the eyes refers to the poet’s mental state. The images used in “happy autumn-fields”, “the first beam glittering on a sail”, “earliest pipe of half-awakened birds”, and “glimmering square” are significant in respect to the overall subject matter of the poem. Each image reflects the ups and downs of the poet’s emotions. At times he becomes a little happy, in the next moment the previous sensation makes him sad.


Tears, Idle Tears Analysis

Stanza One

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 bring 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.


Stanza Two

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 these 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.


Stanza Three

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.”


Stanza Four

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 is “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.


Historical Context

‘Tears, Idle Tears’ is a lyric written by Alfred Tennyson in 1847. It was published as one of the “songs” in the poetry collection “The Princess” (1847). Though Tennyson was a poet of the Victorian era, this verse is not in parallel to the spirit of the age. On 15 September 1834 his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam died a premature death. His death left the poet with utter despair. He wrote many poems on the loss of his dear friend. ‘In Memoriam’ is one of them.

In ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ there is a reference to his friend Arthur Hallam. When the poet was writing this poem, he was still recovering from the mental pain he had suffered due to Hallam’s death. In the last stanza, there is a reference to the relationship of Hallam with the poet’s sister, Emilia Tennyson.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘Tears, Idle Tears’, Alfred Tennyson wrote many poems on the death of his dearest friend Arthur Hallam. Here is a list of a few of the poems written by Tennyson commemorating their friendship and love.

You can read about the Top 10 Alfred Lord Tennyson Poems here.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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