Song: Tears Idle Tears by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Notes by Sreekumar K


Question: How effective is Tennyson’s treatment of nostalgia as a theme in his poem Tears, Idle Tears?

Tennyson’s poem Tears, Idle Tears is an intriguing work of art. It is the direct experience of his state of mind after one of his visits to the Tintern Abbey. Not being a narrative or a descriptive poem, its beauty and fame are the results of the images and the abstract references in it.

The poet addresses a deep felt sorrow as ‘divine despair’ and explores its reasons. He can’t find where it originates but knows how it manifests: the tears of this despair,

Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes

He looks at the bright autumn and pines for the summer which is no more. This is a clear sign that nostalgia is a major theme in this poem.

In looking on the happy Autumn-fields

 And thinking of the days that are no more.

There are no rhyming words or alliteration here. Yet the words are carefully chosen not only for their meaning but also with an eye on their sound. Most of the words are monosyllabic with a long vowel or diphthong in the last word to imitate the sound of a sigh when read out.

In the next stanza the poet compares the bygone days to those who are dear and near to us. The days are both fresh and stale.

Fresh as the last beam glittering on a sail

That brings our friends up from the underworld

The days that are no more are not going to return. Yet we wait for them to come back to us. Had there been a ship that brings all of our dear departed souls back from the dead, wouldn’t we have been happy? It is with the same eagerness that wait for the days also to return.

We also have sad memories of those days. We miss them dearly as if they have all gone away like all our friends going away on a voyage never to return.

Sad as the last which reddens over one

That sinks with all we love below the verge

The reddening rays of the setting sun falls on the sails of this ship and strikes sad note on our mind. Clearly the poet has mixed feelings about his past.

So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Unlike other poets Tennyson finds the bird calls in the early summer morn saddening and strange. He blames it on his old age

To dying ears

The same is felt in the evening when the room becomes dark once again

… when unto dying eyes

The casement grows a glimmering square

So, whether it is a dark summer morning with the chirping of birds or a day that glimmers and dies of at dusk, it is still

So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Thus the poet is emphasizing the idea that we miss our past not for its quality of being happy or sad; we feel sad about them for being no more there.

In the last stanza the poet becomes emotional and recalls a personal experience of having had a broken relationship

On lips that are for others;

The poet now says that the bygone days are dear but pointless memories we carry beyond our death.

Dear as remembered kisses after death
The bygone days are also considered a whimsical and fanciful craving for what we cannot have. With our imagination, we may fancy kissing people who really belong to others. a hopeless thought and dream.

2 thoughts on “Song: Tears Idle Tears by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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