The Perennial Appeal and Vision of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears”

Though I was planning to post in a few days on another work entirely, today I happened to read Caroline’s post at BeautyIsASleepingCat , and was struck with an exchange she and I had about the material of a book she was reviewing, and which she is currently receiving comments on (for those who have read it or are interested in reading it, as am I).  Her review topic was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and I’ll just repeat the part of our discussion that is pertinent to my own topic today:  in effect, we talked about the way that sometimes, happy memories from the past can make us unhappy in the present because they are no longer a part of our current experience.  This is part of the character’s experience in the book she is discussing, and for some reason–and it turns out to be a fairly good one–I was unable to dismiss my own faint memory of some other work, at some other time, which had been on the same general subject.

As it so happens, it was one of my favorite of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, short and to the point though it is, in contrast with his several lengthier poems which have won worldwide acclaim.  The poem is “Tears, Idle Tears,” and I am able to give it here in complete form, because it is available elsewhere on the Internet as well:

“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./”  “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./”  “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;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more./”  “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!/”

I’ve always said that no one can milk an emotion like Tennyson!  But how does the poem actually work?  It seems to work by an intricate set of connecting words and phrases which rely on experiences everyone has either had or has imagined having, so that its universal appeal can easily be understood.  In the first stanza, Tennyson begins with the rhetorical trope of paralipsis, or denying something that he is in fact going to affirm, when he first says, “I know not what they mean,” and then goes on to tell us exactly what they mean.  The tears are “idle” only in the same sense that they are “vain,” not as in “vain’ equalling “empty” or “egotistical,” but “vain” as in “useless,” “hopeless,” “having no worthwhile issue.”  The present “autumn-fields” are “happy,” but the speaker is sunk in recollection by what they call up to memory.  There have been other autumn days and fields which were happier still.

In the second stanza, it’s not just the memories that are said to be past, but also what would be a rather eerie visitation by friends “up from the underworld,” were it not a welcome visitation.  The beam of sunlight which the speaker can imagine “glittering” on the underworld sail as it rises is challenged in its “fresh” quality by the nearly concurrent “sad” quality (a word reiterated throughout the poem) which “sinks with all we love below the verge,” so that “the days that are no more,” the phrase repeated in the end of each stanza, has a focus on the distant horizon, whether in the rise of memories or their return to the underworld which apparently stores them, the horizon often being a symbol of life’s bourne, limits, and of death.

The subject of death having been well-introduced by now, the speaker makes a tie between an experience everyone has perhaps had, that of “dark summer dawns” and hearing “the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds,” and links it with an experience that awaits everyone but which only those who are already gone could actually have, “the dying ears” hearing the sounds, and the “dying eyes” which see the casement “slowly grow[] a glimmering square.”  This stanza uses the word “sad” as well to describe this imagined experience, but whereas in the second stanza it was  living persons watching those from the underworld approach and leave, at least in imagination, so here it is the imagined dying people who have the “strange” experience of watching the dawn of a day which they possibly will not live to see the end of.  In this respect, the poem reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which also discusses a moment when “I could not see to see,” and purports to be talking from a time after that moment, to judge by its past tense.

Lost causes seem to be the subject of the fourth stanza, whether that of kisses that are no longer accessible, or fantasies about love and lovers that did not bear fruit, and the word “hopeless” emphasizes the whole tenor of the poem, which acknowledges happiness only to grieve its short tenure.  The days that are no more are “deep as love,/Deep as first love,” which is another repetition emphasizing what is missing from the present that was available in the past, love itself, since the speaker seems not to anticipate any further happiness from the current moment or day.  And then, of course, “wild with all regret,” whether of things not done at all or things that can be no longer done, we get the strongest statement yet of the speaker’s dilemma, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”  Here, the grieving requires emphatic punctuation at the end of the line, and Tennyson caps off his line with an exclamation point, to emphasize that death is a main concern to the speaker, whether actual deaths that he is mourning or the loss of happier times which he cannot conceive will come again or be followed by more happy times.

Now, having written about this poem and having lived with it again for a short space, I can say that there is a sort of catharsis one experiences when reading a poem such as this one, so that as well as turning out an inspired bit of work, Tennyson has provided a vision with a workaday or utilitarian use.  My older teachers in grade school and even in high school were excessively fond of poems with this quality, which in Samuel Johnson’s words could “point a moral” and “adorn a tale.”  Their own confreres amongst the more exalted academic circles at the time of their own youth must have surely pooh-poohed this approach to literature, and it has its limits.  But I do have to say that having re-read the poem after a long time of not seeing it in front of me, I do feel not only admiration and reverence for its aesthetic qualities, but appreciation as well for the cathartic release it engenders.  I think it likely that the book Caroline is reviewing, A Month in the Country, may well have similar cathartic capabilities.  Why not visit her site and see?

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5 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

5 responses to “The Perennial Appeal and Vision of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears”

  1. I managed to read your post in spite of my tiredness. It’s lovely. I love Tennyson but did either not know this peom or had forgotten all about it. It’s wonderful and absoluetely captures the last part of A Month in the Country. I’m sure this is no coincidence. Max mentioned this line from A Month in the Country in my comments section “we must snatch at happiness as it flies” – this seems contained in this poem too.

    • Thanks for reading, Caroline, and for the approval. I think the people who taught us all to play “six degrees of separation” must’ve been literature majors: you just never know where and when some texts are going to be connected! It improves my day immeasurably to “snatch at happiness as it flies”–even when the happiness is finding something in a poem or book to celebrate.

  2. I’ve never considered a crossover in thought between Tennyson and A Month in the Country before, meaning it will be worth a reread soon, yay! I haven’t read enough Tennyson but that capturing of mournful thought and mortality is something quite striking.

    • Even though I know that Tennyson is very Victorian in some of his approaches to life and thought, and to be Victorian seems very old hat now, I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He is a very emotional poet, for when you’re looking for a way to express your emotions!

      • I like the Victorian perspective sometimes, it does good to dabble in the mindset of another time and as you say the passion he has really engages the mind and the soul.

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