The speaker wonders why her eyes are tearing up as she looks on autumn fields. They seem to come from a divine source. She realizes the tears come from thinking about “the days that are no more,” but why?
The days are fresh like sunbeams on a sail that is bringing friends up from the underworld, and sad like the last beam taking them back again. Thus the lost days are “so sad, so fresh.”
The days also are “sad and strange,” like dawn in the summer when birds are singing so early and a dying person hears them with sadness, or like a window growing into a “glimmering square” that dying eyes gaze upon in the transition from dark to one more dawn. The lost days are thus “so sad, so strange.”
The lost days, too, are dear as the kisses of a loved one who has died, and they are as sweet as the hopes that one has to kiss someone who has lips meant for others. The lost days are as “deep as love,” and they had the excitement of “first love” as well as the “wild … regret” that goes with frustrated hopes. These days are a kind of “Death in Life.”
“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.