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Alfred, Lord Tennyson is an English poet, one of the great representative figures, of the Victorian Age. His writing encompasses many poetic styles and includes some of the finest poetry in the language. Tennyson (6 August, 1809 - 6 October 1892) was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of the most popular British Poets.  In 1842 Tennyson won wide acclaim with the publication of his two-volume poems: Locksley Hall and Ulysses. Tennyson's first long poem after gaining literary recognition was The Princess (1847), a romantic treatment in musical blank verse of the question of women's rights. In 1850 appeared one of his greatest poems, In Memoriam, a tribute to the memory of Arthur Hallam.

With the composition of Idylls of the king (begun in 1859 and completed in 1855) Tennyson returned to the subject of the Arthurian cycle. He dealt with the ancient legends in the episodic rather than a continuous narrative structure, the result being a loosely strung series of metrical romances. Rich in medieval pageantry and vivid, noble characterization, the poems contain some of Tennyson's best writing.


The poem Tears Idle Tears is written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. It consists of four five-line stanzas, each of which closes with the words “the days that are no more.” This poem is part of a larger poem called The Princess published in 1847. Tennyson wrote The Princess to discuss the relationship between the sexes and to provide an argument for women’s rights in higher education.

The speaker sings of the baseless and inexplicable (incapable of being explained or accounted for) tears that rise in his heart and pour forth (off/away) from his eyes when he looks out on the fields in autumn and thinks of the past. This past, (the days that are no more) is described as fresh and strange. It is as fresh as the first beam of sunlight that sparkles on the sail of a boat bringing the dead back from the underworld, and it is sad as the last red beam of sunlight that shines on a boat that carries the dead down to this underworld.

The speaker then refers to the past as not “fresh,” but “sad” and strange. As such, it resembles the song of the birds on early summer mornings as it sounds to a dead person, who lies watching the “glimmering square” of sunlight as it appears through a square window.

In the final stanza, the speaker declares the past to be dear, sweet, deep, and wild. It is as dear as the memory of the kisses of one who is now dead, and it is as sweet as those kisses that we imagine ourselves bestowing on lovers who actually have loyalties to others. So, too, is the past as deep as “first love” and as wild as the regret that usually follows this experience. The speaker concludes that the past is a “Death in Life.”

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean”, this probably means that his tears have been flowing for so long that he doesn’t even remember why he is crying. The repetition on tears emphasizes that he was crying a lot. “Tears from the depth of some divine despair…” despair (abandon hope) was considered a sin, so ‘divine despair’ is an image as divine is something good and despair is not. This probably shows that Lord Tennyson; a) didn’t believe in religion and its teachings or b) he considered despair as something great. He may have used the word divine to show the greatness of his despair.

“Rise in the heart and gathers to the eyes,” here, enjambment (the continuation of a syntactic unit from one line of verse into the next line without a pause) from the previous line helps in continuing the rhyme scheme as well as the narrative story. He describes his tears as rising in the ‘heart’, which tells us that his tears were genuine and they were not fake as they came from his heart. He flashes back to the memories of ‘Autumn-Fields’ and laments on them, “thinking of the days that are no more.”

“Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail...that brings our friends up from the underworld.” This creates imagery of a ‘sail’ first coming into view. This perhaps means that he is hoping his ‘friends’ come back from the dead. These two lines contrasts as he says that the first beam was fresh, but the people from the underworld will not be fresh as they are buried underground. “Sad as the last which reddens over one…below the verge.” This creates reversed image of the first two lines of the stanza 2, as in the first two lines, it shows how they emerge while in this one it shows how it sinks. This probably shows the cycle of life and the dipping and rising of the sail creates a moving image in the readers mind. He says “sinks with all we love…” this may probably mean that his love was also buried which shows that his lover also died. 

The word ‘all’ may suggest that he has lost a lot in life. “So sad, so fresh, the days that are more…” this probably is a sort of lament and the reader can almost hear the ‘sigh’ in his voice. He says the sad days are still fresh which may mean that it was something recent, but this then contrasts with the first statement, “Tears, Idle tears…” as this tells us that he has been crying for so long that he forgot what his tears were for but when he says ‘fresh’, it means that the memory is still fresh in his head and that’s why he’s crying. This suggests that he is subconsciously revisiting the old memories and crying.

The third stanza of the poem is probably showing that last few moments of the dying person; “To dying ears, when unto dying eyes…grows a glimmering square.” Dying ears and dying eyes suggests that it is the last few moments before death and his/her eyes are slowly closing. This contrasts with “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns…the earliest pipe of half awakened birds…” as these lines describe the beginning of the day while the next two lines describes the last minutes before death. This may probably mean that the lover died at a young age as just when the world was about to start living, he/she was dying. Lord Tennyson, repeats the last line of the second stanza in the third stanza to re-emphasize.

The last stanza shows regret of loving his lover as he says, “…sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d, on lips that are for others,” maybe his lover cheated on him and yet the narrator loved her and this makes it much more difficult for him. He says his love for his lover was ‘deep as first love’ and ‘wild with all regret’ which suggests that perhaps his lover had hurt him.

The last stanza may perhaps change the perspective of the reader as it might be that the poem was a metaphor for the ‘death of love’, not ‘death of lover’, for the narrator as his lover cheated on him as he says ‘O death in life’ which means that his emotions were dead even though he was alive.

There is no consistent rhyme scheme as it is a blank verse, yet the internal rhyme and the narrative pace of the poem helps give it a rhyme. The tone of the poem is filled with regret and lament, it is slow and steady and this probably means that the narrator is having a flashback to these memories quite often. A lot of descriptive imagery is used to create a picture in the reader’s mind to express the narrator’s despair more vividly.

The poem is written to describe the narrator’s love for his lover and how devastated he is and Lord Tennyson successfully achieves this by using a simplistic yet descriptive way of writing the poem which makes it very easy for the reader to understand and sympathize with the narrator.

Critical Analysis of the Poem

"Tears, Idle Tears" is a lyrics poem written in 1847 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson the noted Victorian poet. Published as one of the "songs" in his the Princess (1847), it is regarded for the quality of its lyrics. Tennyson was inspired to write "Tears, Idle Tears" upon a visit to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, an abbey that was abandoned in 1536.

It is a beautiful but very sad poem expressing the sweetness and sorrow of remembering past time and dead friends. The speaker wept what he called the useless tears, because he himself did not understand their true meanings. Yet he believed that they came from the depths of his heart and the despair which was beautiful and noble. They rose up from the bottom of the heart and gathered in his eyes in looking at the fields rich with crops at the harvest season. But autumn suggests sadness and death, because it comes at the end of the summer and soon the leaves would fall. He spent his time thinking of the past days that are no more.

As fresh as the first sun beam, that hits the glittering sail of a ship in the early dawn, brings up the fresh memories of his friends from the underworld; the world beyond and under the horizon  and the world of the dead as in classical legends. When we remember our dead friends they 'sail up' into our minds, but they sinks because we know that they call never really return. As sad as the last moment of the sunset where the heat of the sun is weakened and becomes red in colour. It sinks down below the horizon and the blanket of darkness covers the whole sky. So fresh are the memories of the past days that are no more.

As sad as strange as the dark early dawns of summer to wake up and hear the earliest songs of the half awakened birds, when the light at the windows appears unto the dying ears and dying eyes of the weakened man on the verge of death. The poet imagines a dying man seeing the light of the dawn and hearing the first birds in the beautiful season of summer. He will never the full song nor see the full daylight, nor will past days ever return.

The past time is compared to the memory of kissing those who are now dead, or the imagination of kissing those whom we love but who do not love us. Sad memories make life as sad as death, because they remind us of dead days and dead people.


“Tears, Idle Tears” is one of Tennyson’s most famous works, and it has garnered a large amount of critical analysis. It is a “song” within the larger poem The Princess, published in 1847. In context, it is a song that the poem's Princess commands one of her maids to sing to pass the time while she and her women take a break from their difficult studies. The speaker is caught up in his or her mind and memories. (Some critics, such as Cleanth Brooks, suggest that the poem, though sung by a woman, is from a male speaker’s point of view.) The larger poem is generally seen to be a commentary on the relation of the sexes in contemporary culture and a call for greater women’s rights, particularly in higher education.

“Tears, Idle Tears” was composed on a visit by Tennyson to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, a locale also taken as subject for a poem by another famous English poet, William Wordsworth. Tennyson said the poem was about “the passion of the past, abiding in the transient,” which also may provide insight into the final line about “Death in Life.” The poem is renowned for its lyric richness and the many statements rife with paradox and ambiguity.

“Tears, Idle Tears” consists of four stanzas of five lines each in blank verse. One might imagine that the end sound of each line trails away, reflecting how the speaker pines for greater meaning as she remembers the lost past. Yet, the stanzas are unified through the dreamy repetition of the phrase “the days that are no more,” which concludes every stanza.

The poem does not need a fixed meaning; after all, the speaker introduces the song without a clear understanding of what her tears mean. She comes up with adjectives to explain how the lost days are sad, fresh, and strange, and she calls them Death in Life. But why the tears? Are they happy tears of memory, sad tears of loss, tears of confusion or frustration, or each of these in turn or together?

A guide to the poem by Harold Bloom avers that the poem is “a brilliant summation about poetic thinking ... it also expresses the way in which time itself was understood.” By this he seems to mean that for Tennyson, time does not simply express movement in one direction toward a goal, or even movement at all; instead, his poetic language engages with how humans experience nature, space, and time in their limited exposure to the cosmos.

In the first stanza the tears are a paradox: they are “idle,” but they appear to have great importance. This paradox launches the speaker’s investigation of her emotion, seeking to understand whatever “divine despair” seems to be causing her physiological response. The tears come from looking upon the “happy Autumn-fields” and thinking about the lost days, but how is this related to something divine?

The second stanza suggests that the spiritual loss has to do with death. Dear friends come up from the underworld, providing a pleasant and fresh memory like a sunrise (“first beam glittering”). Yet, the memory fades sadly like a sunset (the beam “reddens” and “sinks … below the verge,” and indeed “all we love” sinks that way, in the speaker’s view. This is how the lost days are both sad and fresh.

In the third stanza, nature also seems affected by her melancholia, for the “dark summer dawns” seem “sad and strange” when they are filled with sleepy bird sounds so early in the morning. Although the birds are stirring to sing, a person who is dying is the hearer, perhaps observing the futility of another day of such singing when death is so near—for the birds, ultimately, not just the hearer. Likewise, the dying person sees yet another sunrise changing the colors through the window and seems to despair of the strange futility of one’s days. A person in the midst of the joys of life hears the birds and sees the sunrise with a different spirit than someone who is preoccupied with the lost days.

Remembering is a sad, strange experience. What is remembered is paradoxically both present and absent, and more absent than present. More and more of life becomes memory as time moves on, with the absence of more and more friends and loved ones who once lived and breathed. Writing about the paradox of time, Cleanth Brooks observes, “there is a sense in which the man and the remembered days are one and the same. A man is the sum of his memories. The adjective which applies to the man made wild with regret can apply to those memories with his own passion, or is it the memories that give emotion to him?” The deep and wild days remain in a sense in one’s mind, capable of bubbling to the surface at any time.

In the fourth stanza the speaker indulges in painful memories of kisses. Bloom writes that “time exerts a tyranny that none can escape, and in this last stanza is Tennyson’s conscious and deliberate acknowledgment that time is a necessary fiction, a story we must invent through the medium of language, in order to come to terms with that which is otherwise invisible and unfathomable.” One need not wax so philosophical to appreciate the pain of the woman who remembers kisses that can never be, whether they are because the beloved has died or because the beloved loves another. What matters is that the days of love and loving emotions and the regrets of lost love are no longer present. The woman is alive, but without her loves she sees herself as practically dead, leading to her cry, “O Death in Life.”

Whether the poem is in the voice of a man or a woman cannot be determined from the text. The images in the poem, such as autumn fields and early sunrises, are common poetic tropes available to all. Thus, the poem seems intended as a universal reflection about loss, time, and memory that anyone can sing.


  1. Why is Tennyson addressed as 'Her' here? It's of great help to the new students of English Major.

  2. he wrote this poem from the perspective of a maid of the princess of the poem, who is asked to sing songs for the princess after her and her friends finish studying


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