Tears, Idle Tears

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Tears, Idle Tears

Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1847

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“Tears, Idle Tears” was published in 1847, in a volume of poetry titled The Princess. After years of struggling with poverty, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was awarded a government pension in 1845, which allowed him to apply himself to longer works. The Princess was intended to be a long examination of a contemporary controversy, the education of women and the establishment of female colleges. The focus of The Princess shifted, though, while Tennyson was writing it, and it ended up giving more consideration to the roles of men and women in society, which the poet considered to be moving unnaturally toward each other. The Princess achieved popularity—when the first edition sold out, new editions appeared, year after year, for decades following—but critics considered it a failure of Tennyson’s imagination, a sign of his inability to maintain a subject throughout an extended work. The same critics, though, did praise specific poems that had appeared as part of the larger work, in particular “Tears, Idle Tears.”

This melancholy poem examines life from a perspective of life’s end, with memories affecting the speaker in some indefinable way. Contrary to the common notion that equates death with sadness, Tennyson balances the sad part of the poem with sweetness, freshness, and love. Distant memories seem so real to the speaker that the past has a life of its own, and the poem suggests that this is the source of sadness that we get from “days that are no more.”

Author Biography

Tennyson was born in 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. The fourth of twelve children, he was the son of a clergyman who maintained his office grudgingly after his younger brother had been named heir to their father’s wealthy estate. According to biographers, Tennyson’s father, a man of violent temper, responded to his virtual disinheritance by indulging in drugs and alcohol. Each of the Tennyson children later suffered through some period of drug addiction or mental and physical illness, prompting the family’s grim speculation on the “black blood” of the Tennysons. Biographers surmise that the general melancholy expressed in much of Tennyson’s verse is rooted in the unhappy environment at Somersby.

Tennyson enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827. There he met Arthur Hallam, a brilliant undergraduate who became Tennyson’s closest friend and ardent admirer of his poetry. Hallam’s enthusiasm was welcomed by Tennyson, whose personal circumstances had led to a growing despondency: his father died in 1831, leaving Tennyson’s family in debt and forcing his early departure from school; one of Tennyson’s brothers suffered a mental breakdown and required institutionalization; and Tennyson himself was morbidly fearful of falling victim to epilepsy or madness. Hallam’s untimely death in 1833, which prompted the series of elegies later comprising In Memoriam, contributed greatly to Tennyson’s despair. In describing this period, he wrote: “I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all my life so that I desired to die rather than to live.” For nearly a decade after Hallam’s death Tennyson published no poetry. During this time he became engaged to Emily Sell-wood, but financial difficulties and Tennyson’s persistent anxiety over the condition of his health resulted in their separation. In 1842 an unsuccessful financial venture cost Tennyson nearly everything he owned, causing him to succumb to a deep depression that required medical treatment. Tennyson later resumed his courtship of Sellwood, and they were married in 1850. The timely success of In Memoriam, published that same year, ensured Tennyson’s appointment as Poet Laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth. In 1883 Tennyson accepted a peerage, the first poet to be so honored strictly on the basis of literary achievement. Tennyson died in 1892 and was interred in Poet’s Corner of Westminister Abbey.

Poem Text

   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.                        5

   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.                     10

   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.                   15

   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!                      20

Poem Summary

Lines 1-5

The poem begins by referring to tears that are “idle,” not in the physical sense of “motionlessness” that we usually use the word for (they do have motion, moving from the heart to the eyes), but in the broader sense. Idle here means useless, creating nothing, causing nothing to happen. This could be what gives the poem its especially tragic mood: the speaker feels tears, and is very observant and clear in describing them, but there is nothing to be done about them. The speaker says that, though their meaning is unknown, the tears originate from a divine despair (“divine” here implies a connection to godliness, to forces beyond our physical world) and travel through the heart into the eyes. The last two lines of this stanza describe the circumstances under which these tears rise. There is a contradiction in line 4 that helps support the idea of idleness in the tears: the reference to “autumn fields” is clear enough, as autumn is a time when plants die and animals begin to migrate or hibernate, and this by itself would be appropriate for a discussion of despair and tears, but Tennyson adds the word “happy,” which cancels out that gloomy effect. Throughout this poem he balances images of hope against images of depression. And so line 5’s reference to “the days that are no more” is not so obviously a negative reference as it may seem upon first reading. If the author had meant to portray these memories as being awful to the poem’s speaker, he could have strengthened the sense of hopelessness by using the description “days past” or “days gone by,” which would emphasize the fact that they are lost, instead of their simple lack of existence.

Lines 6-10

The “beam” referred to in line 6 is a sunbeam, the first one of the sunrise, an image of newness and beginning that has the opposite implication as the autumn field mentioned in line 4. That this dawn sunbeam is hitting a ship’s sail offers a sense of newness, especially when we find out in the next line that the ship is bringing friends. But then, in line 7, the poem shows its contradictory nature again by saying that these friends are arriving from “the underworld.” Literally, this reference would have referred to the Southern Hemisphere, notated on Victorian era maps with upside down type, as the bottom of the globe: however, there is no way to deny that, going back to Greek mythology and beyond, “the underworld” has referred to the realm of the dead. The only way these friends could return from the underworld would be through memory, but the poet infuses these memories with life by connecting them to freshness and daybreak.

Media Adaptations

  • An audio cassette read by Tony Church titled Alfred, Lord Tennyson was released by Argo (London, England) in 1963.
  • An audio cassette titled Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Portrait of a Poet is available from CMS Records.
  • Caedmon released Poetry of Tennyson, an audio cassette, in 1972.
  • A set of 5 LP albums titled Great Poets of English Literature was released by Encyclopedia Britannica Films in 1969.

Line 8 follows the mention of the underworld with sadness, reversing the sunrise imagery with the last beam of sunset, that reddens the sky and then sinks, like the same ship departing, below the horizon. While the “underworld” reference in line 7 brought up the idea of memories of loved ones, line 9 implies that the speaker is actually facing death (what else could take away, not just specific loved ones, but “all we love”?). With no future, this speaker talks of exploring the present and the past equally as the same sort of sensations, using “fresh” and “sad” to describe both everyday occurrences of the sun’s motion and also the days that are no more.

Lines 11-15

This stanza expands upon the imagery of the stanza which came before it, but the relationship is brought out more clearly. Since the dawn has already been mentioned in line 6, and the speaker’s approaching death is implied in line 9, this stanza takes the time to consider in detail what sadness the coming dawn would create in a dying person, and in the end relates that sadness to memory. Line 11 repeats the contradiction of line 4’s “happy autumn-fields” with “dark summer dawns,” since both summer and dawn are associated with brightness, not dark. The song (or “pipe”) of birds before sunrise, so early that the birds themselves are only half awake, is a sound that is seldom heard, but we can infer that dying ears are aware of this sound precisely because they are dying, and are absorbing worldly experiences while they can. This is clearly the case with the dying eyes that focus on the window frame (casement) in the dark and stay on it until the sunrise slowly makes it “glimmer,” or glow. There is a sense of desperation, of hunger, implied in the way the dying person seeks out even the slightest physical experience, and in the last line of this stanza the memories of the dying person are given equal importance with the current experiences.

Lines 16-20

In line 16, the three ideas that Tears, Idle Tears is concerned with—memory, death, and, as implied by “kisses,” life—are brought together. The next three lines use the imagery of romantic love, which has not played a part earlier in the poem. Even hopeless love, symbolized by the imaginary kisses given to someone who belongs to another and is thus unobtainable, is introduced in the poem as sweet. The poem goes on to demonstrate just how deeply the “days that are no more” extend into a dying person’s existence by comparing those days to first love, which is presented as the deepest experience life has to offer. Tennyson attempts, too, to convey how the loss of the past can evoke wild regret, even as love remembered can. Line 20 compares the days irretrievably lost to “Death in Life,” rendering the poem’s images of idle tears and dying hours relevant to those who have not experienced either.



The speaker of this poem is mystified by the tears that he (assuming that the speaker, like the poem’s author, is a man) is shedding. In contemplating this mystery, the speaker explores the idea of death. In the first stanzas, death is only implied, as the poem mentions the things that are gone forever; it is the finality of death that is implied here, its ability to shut a final door, since death is the ultimate irreversible experience. The speaker knows that his strange anguish stems from the one-way nature of life, and he uses imagery that refers to death in the first two stanzas: autumn (when summer blooms go into dormancy) and the underworld (which in classical mythology is the land of all dead, not just the hell of sinners).

The references to death reach a new level in stanza 3, when the speaker mentions “dying ears”

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a poem in four stanzas about the futility of a particular emotion: joy, sorrow, anger, etc. Use physical objects to symbolize ideas as much as possible.
  • Compare this poem to William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” Are the two authors talking about the same thing? What clues do you have that they are? What clues tell you that they are not?
  • Explain how you think this speaker feels about death.

that hear the morning song of birds and “dying eyes” that watch the casement, or window, when it starts glowing with sunrise. The implication that someone is sick and bedridden might lead readers to believe that the poem is about a specific dying person, but it might also be a comment on the situation all humans face—inevitable death. The speaker’s awareness of this gruesome truth would account for the inexplicable “divine despair” that pervades the whole poem. By the final stanza, death is present. Rather than the vague notion it was before, it is presented as a concrete reason for the speaker’s tears. In the end, death is used for its emotional impact in common conversation; “death in life” is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction, unless the word “death” is understood as the worst type of misery.


This poem views the two most significant motivating factors in life as death and love, and it turns to these two factors when trying to make sense of the speaker’s sorrow, which has no specific cause. Death is made more vivid by showing it beside its opposite, the beauty and liveliness of nature. Like death, love is considered almost casually at first, and grows to major significance only in the end. The first time the word is used, it is not a reference to romantic love, but an affirmation of life; “all we love” is brought up in line 9 to emphasize the thoroughness of death, as represented by the setting sun. The last stanza of the poem gives great attention to the role romantic love plays.

In order to examine love in its extreme, Tennyson specifies that his subject is “first love,” the most pure and spontaneous kind. There are two types of love that he presents as possible causes of his sorrow. The first he represents as “remembered kisses after death,” which indicate a love affair that lives on in a person’s mind but can never be continued because the other lover is gone. The second image of love introduces a human into this poem that is mostly about human nature; for example, the untrue lover who kisses one person while actually loving another. This deceit earns special attention in the poem as the only thing one human can do to another that would cause this kind of deep sorrow, to inspire these idle tears. Romantic treachery is treated here as the equal of death in its ability to wring the joy out of the human soul.


The impression Tennyson gives in this poem is that all sorrow stems from the fact that beautiful days and wild first love eventually end. He uses imagery, in particular sunrise and sunset, to indicate that life follows a progression from beginning to end. He also utilizes the idea of death to show that, unlike days or seasons, life is not a cycle.

Each stanza ends with a reflection on “the days that are no more,” a phrase that is constructed to bring out the sadness and strangeness of what is lost. The poem does not reflect on the benefits of time’s passage—how one outlives diseases and grows wiser—because it is an emotional examination of the mysterious, unexplained tears, in no way pretending to give a balanced view. Tennyson’s explanation of this mystery leads him to a central problem of human existence, the fact people cannot hold onto the things they would like to freeze in time. It was an idea that remained a central theme of his; almost forty years after this poem, in 1886, he wrote in “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (which was itself a sequel of an earlier work), “Let us hush this cry of ‘Forward’ til ten thousand years have gone.”


“Tears, Idle Tears” is written in blank verse, which means that there is no definite rhyme scheme. It consists of four cinquains (stanzas of five lines each). Each stanza develops its own idea for the first four lines, and then, at the end of the fifth line, returns to the refrain of “the days that are no more.”

Although there is no strict meter (pattern of rhythm) or rhyme scheme in “Tears, Idle Tears,” the poem does rely upon some devices that are related to rhyme to bind it together musically. While rhyme relies upon the repetition of the final vowel and consonant sounds, as in “where / fair” or “spill / thrill,” Tennyson connects his ideas together with alliteration, the repetition of the first sound in a word. This can be seen in the “d”s of the second line (“depth of some divine despair”); the “s”s of the fifteenth line (“So sad, so strange”); and in the numerous places where two or more words with the same initial sound appear near each other, if not on the same line, then in close proximity. Tennyson also weaves this poem together with approximate rhymes, which do not necessarily have their final consonant in common but share a similar vowel sound. This can be heard in the “i” sound of “divine” and “rise”; “friends” and “reddens”; and in “Dying eyes.” Both alliteration and approximate rhymes give the reader a feeling of wholeness and completeness about the poem.

Historical Context

Alfred, Lord Tennyson is considered by many readers to be the epitome of Victorian Era poets. After all, he was a favorite of Queen Victoria herself, and was appointed by her to be England’s Poet Laureate, a position he held from 1850 until his death in 1896. On the other hand, he was almost thirty years old when Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, and most of his ideas and sensibilities had been formed during the era now referred to as the Age of Romanticism. Both schools of thought show themselves to some degree in “Tears, Idle Tears.”

Romanticism is thought to have been inspired by the great social revolutions of the late eighteenth century: the American Revolution of 1776 and, even more influential to life in Europe, the French Revolution of 1789. Politically, these events signified a new mood, a swing toward individual rights and away from repressive governments.

Romanticism in the arts was brought to life in the introduction to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry collection Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798. Among the themes often covered in Romantic poetry were a glorification of nature, as opposed to the world of mankind,

Compare & Contrast

  • 1847: The potato famine that had ravaged Ireland for the previous two years showed signs of letting up, but new potato crops could not be planted quickly enough for the growing season. As a result, 200,000 Irish citizens emigrated.

    Today: Many analysts theorize that the unrest in Northern Ireland today results from the way the potato famine weakened the country almost 150 years ago.

  • 1847: Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, urging the workers of the world to unite and assuring them, “The proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains.”

    1917: A revolution in Russia overthrew the ruling czar; after a brief period of rule by a moderate government, a Communist government, following Marx’s ideas, was installed. Four years later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet Union, was officially chartered.

    1991: Because of economic and political problems, the Soviet Union was dismantled. With few exceptions, including China and Cuba, most of the countries of the world have turned away from Communism.

  • 1847: Former slave Frederick Douglass, who had escaped slavery and then bought his own freedom with money made on lecture tours in Europe, started The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper which he co-edited until 1860.

    1865: As a result of the Union’s victory of the American Civil War, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.

    1964: One hundred years after slavery ended, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting segregation of public accommodations and discrimination in employment and education.

    Today: Civil rights issues are complicated by the addition of charges of “reverse discrimination” by members of the majority classes.

as well as a nostalgia for the past that cannot be recaptured. Both of these are apparent to some degree in this poem. Romanticism also gave us the popular image of the doomed, hedonistic poet who defies all moral conventions and dies young, as Romantic poets Lord Byron and John Keats did.

Romanticism’s rejection of society and science eventually wore thin, especially as the turmoil at the turn of the century gave way to relative peace, prosperity, and scientific progress. One of the most significant changes was the locomotive. The first steam engine was invented in 1804, and tracks were installed soon after that. Considered noisy and ugly, the train was also barely quicker than a horse, with top speeds reaching twelve or so miles per hour. In 1829 engineer George Stephenson introduced his design for the Rocket, a steam engine that could carry freight and passengers at an incredible forty to fifty miles per hour. No mode of transportation had ever moved like it before, and it changed the way that people thought about their world, redefining distances as if the land itself had somehow been altered. Romantics were able to look back to simpler times, when the world moved at a slower pace—just as modern romantics are apt to recall the pre-computer world of written information—but their discomfort did not stop the world from changing.

The England of 1837 was experiencing vibrant economical and scientific changes that were too powerful to ignore, and that resulted in a new artistic sensibility. Groundbreaking discoveries in every aspect of life made progress unavoidable. For example, in 1840 James Prescott Joule formulated the theory that would become the First Rule of Thermodynamics (regarding conservation of energy). In the mid-1840s, Louis Pasteur discovered bacteria and determined how they caused disease. Around the same time commercial sewing machines made mass production of clothing possible.

England celebrated these advances in 1851 with an exhibition at the Crystal Palace, a tall shining building that was built especially for the occasion and was in itself a milestone of architectural achievement. The theme of the exhibition, “universal prosperity,” pointed out the problems that plagued the Victorian Age. As the economy stabilized and machines accelerated the pace of life, poverty grew rampant and cities became overcrowded and polluted.

Novels of the late 1800s, especially those written by Trollope and Dickens, described the devastation of modern urban life, such as Dickens’s description of London keeping its streetlights on during the day when pollution blocked out the sun. Children in Victorian England worked in factories from sunup to sundown; poor people who did not or could not work were sent to rot in debtor’s prisons. The vague unhappiness expressed in “Tears, Idle Tears” is linked to “the days that are no more”—a perspective that was even more heartbreaking during Victorian times.

Critical Overview

“Tears, Idle Tears” was published as a part of a longer poem, The Princess, which was Tennyson’s first long work and his first attempt to apply his lyrical talent to a social issue. The idea for such a project came from outside of Tennyson’s normal sphere of inspiration, from the urging of friends, who convinced him that a poet’s duty to society required him to go beyond the comforts of what is familiar and address problems directly. “Tennyson himself was never satisfied with [The Princess],” wrote critic George O. Marshall Jr., in A Tennyson Handbook, “although he considered some of the blank verse among the best that he ever wrote.” Modern critics agree. Although The Princess was received with mixed reviews when it was published, the long work has declined in critical esteem to the point where the book is seldom read in its entirety anymore, although particular poems, including “Tears, Idle Tears,” are still highly regarded. Tennyson’s lack of success with the long, sustained form and success with short subjects may be the result of what W. H. Auden, himself one of the most successful poets of the twentieth century, noted in a 1944 essay: “[Tennyson] had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest; there was little about melancholia that he didn’t know; there was little else that he did.”

Marshall lists critics throughout the years who have expressed admiration for “Tears, Idle Tears,” including Douglas Bush and Herbert J. C. Grierson, who called the poem “the most moving and finely wrought lyric Tennyson ever wrote.” Writing about “Tears, Idle Tears,” as well as other notable examples, Herbert Foltinek stated the opinion that “these are among Tennyson’s most delicate and evocative creations; here, if anywhere, art aspires toward the creation of music.” Critic Cleanth Brooks, whose long essay “The Motivation of Tennyson’s Weeper” focuses on “Tears, Idle Tears,” concludes that “when the poet is able, as in ‘Tears, Idle Tears,’ to analyze his experience … he secures not only richness and depth but dramatic power as well.”


Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky teaches writing and literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, and is a frequent contributor of poems and essays to literary journals. In the following essay, Semansky derides “Tears, Idle Tears” as cliche and banal.

Many critics have praised Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Tears, Idle Tears,” a song from his long narrative poem, The Princess. Cleanth Brooks, for example, one of the most well-known and well-respected critics of the twentieth century, claims in his The Well Wrought Urn that the poem’s success lies in its capacity to use paradox and ambiguity to represent the conflicting and complex inner life of its speaker. Claiming that critics who oppose emotion to intellect in poetry have done not only a disservice to poetry, but to Tennyson’s poem as well, Brooks wrote, “The opposition is not only merely superficial; it falsifies the real relationships. For the lyric quality, if it be genuine, is not the result of some transparent and ‘simple’ reduction of a theme or a situation that is somehow poetic in itself; it is, rather, the result of an imaginative grasp of diverse materials—but an imaginative grasp so sure that it may show itself to the reader as unstudied and unpredictable without for a moment relaxing its hold on the intricate and complex stuff which it carries.” To understand Brooks’s comment about Tennyson’s poem we must first understand what the critic means by “lyric quality.”

A lyric is usually a short poem consisting of the words of a single speaker. Employing the first person “I,” the lyric most often revolves around or expresses the feeling or state of mind of the speaker. Matthew Arnold’s popular poem, “Dover Beach,” for example, expresses the speaker’s attempt, through observation and meditation, to resolve an emotional problem. Though the genre of the lyric includes many kinds of utterances (the love lyric, dramatic lyric, and ode among them), most critical attention has been aimed at understanding the emotional content of the lyric, to interpreting the speaker’s feeling. So, when Brooks argues that “lyric quality” not be simplified, he means that in reading lyric poems we should take into consideration the head as well as the heart of the speaker and recognize that feeling consists of perception, thought, observation, and other variables.

I have no problem with this statement in general. However, “Tears, Idle, Tears” is not a sophisticated rendering of complex experience, as Brooks would have us believe; or rather, it is not a poetically sophisticated rendering of experience. It is an exercise in banalities and cliches. A cliche is a phrase or word that has been used so much it becomes hackneyed or trite. Cliched language is language that has lost its capacity to convey a vivid idea or image to the reader. For example, some popular poets—in terms of sales and readership—accused of writing in cliches are branded as trite and amateurish by critics. Tennyson’s poetry, on the other hand, though regularly studied in classrooms, is rarely bought or read for pleasure. The critical apparatus that has been responsible for valorizing Tennyson’s poetry is the same apparatus responsible for ignoring or condemning seemingly similar work by others.

Let us take a look at what Brooks has written about “Tears, Idle Tears” and see if it holds up. In his essay, “The Motivation of Tennyson’s Weeper,” Brooks spends close to a page inquiring into the nature of the tears introduced by the speaker in the first stanza.

   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.

“Are they idle tears?” Brooks asks. “Or are they not rather the most meaningful of tears?” He comes to the conclusion that the speaker is unaware of the exact origin of his tears. Do we as readers, though, really care where they came from? Tennyson’s speaker is distraught; he is crying. He says the tears “rise in the heart.” Historically the heart (even in Tennyson’s time) has been the seat of emotion, so there is no surprise or freshness in using the image of the heart as the (metaphorical) place where the tears begin. Similarly, saying that the tears “gather to the eyes” introduces nothing new to our understanding of how crying happens. Tennyson is belaboring the obvious. Then we are told that the speaker is “looking on the happy Autumn-fields.” “The happy Autumn-fields”? Can there be a more a more vague, more banal, indeed a more vapid image to use than “happy Autumn-fields” to describe what the speaker looks at while thinking about the past?

Brooks concludes that “the first stanza seems, not a meditated observation, but a speech begun impulsively—a statement which the speaker has begun before he knows how he will end it.” Fair enough, but what kind of a speaker thinks or talks in iambic pentameter? And what kind of a poet would use such generic images to illustrate a (supposedly) complex emotional state?

After spending a good deal of ink and words attempting to make a case for the poem’s use of paradox, ambiguity, and ironic contrast, and hence justify Tennyson’s poem as worthy of being read, Brooks writes that “The last stanza evokes an intense emotional response from the reader.” Not this reader. Tennyson ends the poem with the same kind of banal images and cliches as he started it.

  Dear as remember’d kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
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!

Regardless of Brooks’s elaborate attempts to ferret “deep meaning” from these lines by insisting that the poem’s tight organization “represents an organic structure,” he is wrong when he writes that the reader “will probably find himself [sic] in accord with this [his] general estimate of the poem’s value.” It is not the theme of Tennyson’s poem that is unappealing. After all, almost all poets worth their salt (or metaphors) have written in one way or another about loss: loss of love, loss of life, loss of the past. Arguably, the bulk of poetry from the Romantics to the present deals in some way or another with loss. It is the imagery and figurative language that Tennyson chooses to convey his sense of loss that are unappealing.

For example, calling “the days that are no more.… Deep as first love, and wild with all regret” trivializes a very real human response to the passing of time and to the sense that one has missed opportunities in life. The comparison is weak between the items being compared—the past and deep love—because the words he chooses are abstract and vague. We cannot see days or love, and using the adjective “deep” to describe both of them adds nothing new to our understanding of the ideas of time or love.

“Tears, Idle Tears” embodies cliches even as it seeks to transcend them. Its inability to accomplish the latter makes the poem more like a sappy lyric than a complex rendering of human emotion, as Cleanth Brooks would have his readers believe. Tennyson can get away with it because of his place in literary history as a canonical figure. Brooks can “read into” the poem poetic strategies because of Tennyson’s reputation and the reception of his other poetry. It is comforting to know that academically sanctioned poets such as Tennyson can write poems as bad as some by popular poets. The real irony is that while he crafted a poem that failed to express his emotions, that work was embraced by an audience unable to express its own feelings as well.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

J. Hillis Miller

In the following excerpt, Miller explains that “Tears, Idle Tears” “expresses a profound apprehension of temporality” and discusses the effects of several poetic devices used in the poem.

We ordinarily distinguish sharply between criticism and poetry. Some poets, we say—Coleridge, Arnold, and T. S. Eliot, for example—were also great critics, but other poets—Shakespeare, Byron, Browning, or Thomas Hardy—were not critics at all or not critics of distinction. We would usually put Tennyson in the latter category. For one thing, he is supposed to have had no aptitude for reflection or for theoretical generalization. W. H. Auden said of Tennyson: “He had the finest ear of any English poet. He was also the stupidest.” Tennyson left no body of criticism. Such observations by Tennyson about poetry as exist, for example in the Memoir by Hallam Tennyson, are, as Gerhard Joseph shows in an admirable recent book on Tennyson [titled Tennyson and the Text: The Weaver’s Shuttle], a version of Victorian commonplaces about the general superiority of symbol over allegory,

What Do I Read Next?

  • Peter Levi’s 1993 biography, simply named Tennyson, contains all of the information currently known about Tennyson’s life, rendered beautifully. Levi, one of England’s best poets and scholars, gives a poet’s perspective to his understanding of his subject.
  • Another excellent biography was written by famed Tennyson scholar Christopher B. Ricks. Also titled Tennyson, it was first published in 1972 and revised for the second edition in 1989.
  • “Tears, Idle Tears” is included with all of Tennyson’s others in the definitive edition The Poems of Tennyson, edited by Christopher Ricks, most recently published in 1987.
  • The poet Robert Browning lived at the same time as Tennyson and is considered to embody the socially elevated side of Victorianism that complements Tennyson’s earthiness. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning was published in 1974 by Houghton Mifflin, with an introduction by G. Robert Stange,
  • Many students are familiar with the works of Charles Dickens, whose novels are considered to have captured the embodiment of the Victorian Age. In particular, Bleak House gives a good sense of the futility felt by the common people (who were Tennyson’s greatest supporters). It was published in 1853, just six years after this poem.

though he sometimes speaks of using a “sort of allegory” in the weak and conventional sense of a rationally concocted “this for that.” Tennyson favors latitude of subjective interpretation. He refuses to pin down definitely the meanings of his poems. He speaks of an “allegory in the distance” or of a “parabolic drift” in the Idylls of the King [as noted in Hallam Tennyson’s Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir], but he always refused to fix that “drift” with exact interpretations. Tennyson is committed to the idea that poetry should be socially useful. Perhaps letting his readers make what they like of it is part of that program.

In any case, no one in his right mind would claim that Tennyson is an important critic in the sense that Arnold, Pater, Eliot, and even Gerard Manley Hopkins are important critics. Nevertheless, I shall show that one significant dimension of Tennyson’s poems is the way they represent what might be called “poetic thinking” about the nature and powers of poetry. And I shall show that what Tennyson’s poems obliquely say about poetry is far more interesting than the relatively conventional views about poetry expressed outside the poetry, or even inside the poetry when he makes overt assertions. If Tennyson was stupid, his poems are far from stupid about the nature of what they themselves are and what they do. As theoretical reflection about poetry they are deep, profound, as I shall show through the example of “Tears, Idle Tears.”…

Much has been written about this powerful and moving poem. I shall not try to recapitulate that commentary here, but shall try to read the poem afresh. Though “Tears, Idle Tears” has its own integrity, is usually read outside its context, and was probably written without The Princess in mind, nevertheless the poem is inserted at a dramatic moment in The Princess. The singing of it by one of Princess Ida’s “maids” helps precipitate the catastrophe of the poem: the revelation that Princess Ida’s female college has been invaded by three men disguised as women. “Tears, Idle Tears” is therefore placed against a background of questions about gender roles and women’s liberation.…

[“Tears, Idle Tears”] speaks poetically for a view of time as generated by difference, non-presence, distance, unattainability, and loss that can never be made up by a recovered presence in the bosom of God. God, in fact, suffers from a “divine despair” at not being able to recuperate and encompass all the times and places of his creation. By “speaking poetically,” I mean speaking through image and rhetorical structure rather than through conceptual formulation.…

As Heidegger observes in Sein und Zeit, the terminology available in Western languages for expressing time is remarkably impoverished. Since we lack adequate specifically temporal language, we Westerners always express time (and falsify it) in some spatial image or other, for example in the movement of the hands of a clock.…

The project of “Tears, Idle Tears” is to find a way with spatial images to express Tennyson’s peculiar apprehension of human time, especially his sense of the past. Tennyson must, that is, try to turn time into language or make time of words. This is both a poetic and a theoretical project. For Tennyson one of the major uses of poetry is to express the human sense of time. This is an example of what I mean when I say Tennyson’s critical and theoretical thinking about poetry takes place in his poems, not in prose about poetry.

Temporal distance is associated with spatial distance in the first stanza of “Tears,” when the theme of the poem is announced. “[L]ooking on the happy Autumn-fields / And thinking of the days that are no more” makes the speaker of the poem cry, but the tears are idle and without ascertainable meaning. Though the poem is sung by one of the Princess’s maidens, no doubt it expresses Tennyson’s own obsession with what he called the “passion of the past.” Twice in comments about the poem he asserted that it was written at a particular “mouldered lodge” of the past, Tintern Abbey: “This song came to me on the yellowing autumn-tide at Tintern Abbey, full for me of its bygone memories. It is the sense of the abiding in the transient.” Tennyson does not mention Wordsworth, but “Tears, Idle Tears” has the same theme as Wordsworth’s poem and might almost be called Tennyson’s “Tintern Abbey.” Among the “bygone memories” was surely this one of Wordsworth’s many poems about memory, as well as the memory of the history that is inscribed materially in the ruined abbey. Tennyson insisted, however, that the tears of the poem were not generated by “real woe, as some people might suppose; ‘it was rather the yearning that young people occasionally experience for that which seems to have passed away from them for ever’.”

This is an important clue. The poem, Tennyson is saying, with however much or little of denegation, does not express sorrow about separation from any real person, for example his separation by death from Hallam, who is buried not far from the ruins of Tintern Abbey. All the images in the poem about separation from friends and the woe of unfulfilled desire are just that, merely images, prosopopoeias for something that is imageless and has nothing to do with persons. They are images, that is, for human temporality.

The pattern of repeated adjectives woven and interwoven as the grammatical armature of the poem names no specific sorrow or loss. The adjectives name rather the quality that “the days that are no more” have just because they are no more: “Fresh”; “Sad”; “So sad, so fresh;” “sad and strange”; “so sad, so strange”; “Dear”; “sweet”; “deep”; “Deep”; “wild.” Even a child who has had no actual loss to weep, says Tennyson, experiences this sense of loss as an intrinsic and apparently causeless feature of consciousness itself. To mourn this loss is the human condition. The problem for poetry is to find words to express what is outside specific experiences, even prior to them, something that has nothing to do with intersubjective relations. It is something, moreover, that seems even prior to language, at least the language of direct reference.

One mode of figurative expression exploited in this poem is to personify that primordial sense of loss by embodying it in something that can be put in words, that is, in a series of situations embodying loss or separation: friends returning by boat but not yet here; friends leaving by boat and disappearing over the horizon; a dying man or woman waking at dawn; the memory of kisses given a dead loved one when he or she was alive; the unassuagable desire to kiss “lips that are for others”; the desire of first love, a desire so deep that somehow it cannot be distinguished from regret for something lost. These personifications are explicitly labeled similes by the “as” that follows each adjective: “Fresh as,” “Sad as,” and so on. These images are systematically genderless.…

[T]he primary figure in the poem is of course the tears. What can be said of them? Tears are an extraordinary phenomenon. They are not articulate speech. They are mute; but no one can doubt that they are signs. They say even more than words do. Oozing involuntarily from the intimacy of the body as it is moved by thoughts and feelings, they betray that intimacy, speak for it, whether the one who cries wishes to or not. They break down the chaste division between inside and outside. They turn the body inside out. As bodily fluids that are at the same time unmistakably signs they break down the division between spirit and body. Tears are profoundly embarrassing or shocking because they are the involuntary making material of what, we think, ought to be secret and immaterial. Much has been written recently about “the materiality of the sign.” Tears are a paradigmatic example of such a sign. The tears in “Tears, Idle Tears” are particularly indiscrete and troubling just because they have no sufficient cause. Looking on the happy Autumn-fields and thinking of the days that are no more hardly seems something to cry about. But the tears rise to the singer’s eyes.”

If the tears have no sufficient cause, their meaning is also unknown. “I know not what they

“[“Tears, Idle Tears”] speaks poetically for a view of time as generated by difference, non-presence, distance, unattainability, and loss that can never be made up by a recovered presence in the bosom of God.”

mean,” says the singer. If the tears are signs, they are signs in an unknown language.…

The world of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears” is like the world of those baroque mourning plays that Walter Benjamin, in Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, defines as a realm of nature (physis) bereft of any divine presence. Tennyson’s poem, like those mourning plays, is a work of mourning not for any particular death, but for the loss of redeeming relation to transcendence. Tennyson’s tears of mourning are brought back up like Eurydice from the underworld, but their function as communicating messengers is lost along the way. They connect this world with the other one, but in the mode of non-connection. The message the tears bring is lost in the transition from the depths of some divine despair to the singer’s heart to her or his eyes. They are now signs in an unknown language, unreadable.…

The tears are “idle” presumably because they are generated in a moment of idleness, whether “silken-folded” or not. In this moment the speaker or singer has turned away from the future-oriented work that normally occupies human beings just to look at the happy Autumn-fields and think of the days that are no more. This is an activity that is idle in the sense of accomplishing nothing, as the tears, so it seems, accomplish nothing. Nothing can be done to alter the non-being of the past. Or can it? The tears appear to be “idle” because they do not work. They do not do anything. The days that are no more are no more. No words can bring them back. If the tears are cognitively empty (“I know not what they mean”), they also appear to be performatively void.…

On the other hand, by a paradox that is at the center of what this poem says about poetry, the poem about the tears, the naming of the tears in poetry, is performatively efficacious.… These tears are generated by the song or they are the very ones the song names, though it is not autumn and the maid has presumably not suffered the various losses or unassuaged desires that are named in the poem. Nevertheless, “the tears come to her eyes,” as we say. Sing this poem and you will cry. But you will cry tears not for your own loss but for a generalized loss, loss in general, a loss that is, for Tennyson, the essential feature of the human sense of time past. To sing about these tears is to bring them up from the depths and to confront them again as signs whose meaning is unknown. If the tears rise up, they then fall.…

Another odd fact about these tears, or about tears in general, is that they obscure clear vision of what generated them. We speak of how someone’s eyes are “misted with tears.” The weeper in this poem can no longer clearly see the happy autumn fields that brought on the tears through their association with the past. Tennyson himself was extremely near-sighted. He had to hold a book close to his eyes in order to read it. The happy autumn fields always presumably looked misty to him, as if he were crying, even when there were no tears in his eyes. When what is seen is seen obscured by tears, its deeper meaning is at the same time revealed, in the case of this poem by the crescendo of sideways displacements into one simile or another. Tears are apocalyptic. They unveil and veil at the same time.

Tears are ruined symbols, symbols that do not communicate that for which they stand. If this is so, a more proper name for the tears would be “allegorical sign,” defining “allegorical sign” as a symbol turned inside out.…

Tennyson’s idle tears are a paradigmatic example of an allegorical sign as opposed to a symbol. Such a sign is defined in terms of temporal distance, not spatial contiguity, by its unlikeness to what it stands for, not its similarity to the symbolized, by its opacity and lack of discernible meaning, not by its transparency. An allegorical sign is characterized by its failure to put the one who contemplates it in present possession of what it stands for, not by its cognitive efficacy. It has performative force, not a constative function. The tears work as signs through a strange efficacy of putting weeper, singer, and listener or witness in touch at a distance with what they cannot name as perspicuous meaning. This failure of the tears to express what they mean makes them function admirably as allegorical signs for temporality, the strange non-being of the days that are no more as Tennyson experienced them.…

The singer of “Tears, Idle Tears” mocks and contradicts the concept of time so confidently expressed by the Princess a little earlier in the poem and replaces it with an allegorical time of perpetual loss and absence.

Tennyson’s final name for this perpetual loss and absence is “Death in Life.” The phrase is a prosopopoeia, the culmination of the chain of images personifying the days that are no more as like one or another person or interpersonal situation. But like all prosopopoeias, this one is as much an invocation as a name. It can be read either as an exclamatory definition, a constative assertion: “‘O Death in Life,’ that is what the days that are no more are,” or as a performative vocative or apostrophe, a prosopopoeia or trope of address to the absent, the inanimate, or the dead, that is, the days that are no more. Like Christ’s “Lazarus, come forth” Tennyson’s speaker implores the days that are no more to come forth and manifest themselves in the form of an allegorical personification: “O Death in Life.” Like Wordsworth’s “Ye knew him well, ye cliffs and islands of Winander,” Tennyson’s address to “Death in Life” presupposes that this being or personage might appear or answer back. But the poem ends abruptly with this line. No evidence is given that the days that are no more appear in answer to the speaker’s call. “O Death in Life” is a failed prosopopoeia, the ruin of the trope of personification that has been a chief rhetorical tool in the poem for naming by one catachresis or another something that has no proper name, or for performatively invoking it. Insofar as the days that are no more are accurately described as death in life they could not manifest themselves except as an absence, as a ghost.…

“Death in Life” names the undermining of all presence and possession in this life by a principle of loss.

Tennyson here names that principle of loss, appropriately enough, “Death.” This death is not a future end but a dimension of separation, loss, or difference that permeates life from childhood to old age, from birth to “death” in the usual sense. As Dylan Thomas said, “After the first death there is no other.” The “first death” occurs the moment we are born. Human life thereafter is undermined by this constant presence of death.

I claim to have fulfilled the promise made at the beginning of this paper. I have shown that if Tennyson’s abstract thinking was conventional and traditional, his poetic thinking went against that conventional thinking. “Tears, Idle Tears,” as one example of that, expresses a profound apprehension of temporality as well as a profound sense of the way the poetic devices of allegorical sign, prosopopoeia, and catachresis can be used performatively to call forth that apprehension of temporality.

Source: J. Hillis Miller, “Temporal Topographies: Tennyson’s Tears,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter 1992, pp. 277–88.


Altick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas, W. W. Norton & Co., 1973.

Auden, W. H., “Tennyson,” in Forwards and Afterwards, edited by Edward Mendelson, Random House, 1973, p. 223.

Barnard, Robert, A Short History of English Literature, Blackwell Press, Inc., 1994.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Alfred Lord Tennyson, Chelsea House, 1985.

Brooks, Cleanth, “The Motivation of Tennyson’s Weeper,” in The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956, pp. 166-77.

Burton, Elizabeth, The Pageant of Early Victorian England, 1837-1861, Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1972.

Jump, John D., Alfred Tennyson: In Memoriam, Maud, and Other Poems, J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1974, pp. vii-xx.

Morse, David, High Victorian Culture, New York University Press, 1993.

For Further Study

Altholz, Josef L., ed., The Mind and Art of Victorian England, The University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

This collection of scholarly essays captures the broad panorama of cultural influences that were at work while Tennyson was working.

Gordon, William Clark, The Social ideals of Alfred Tennyson as Related To His Time, Haskell House, 1966.

This scholarly monograph concisely links history and literature in terms of Tennyson’s career.

Marshall, George O., Jr., A Tennyson Handbook, Twayne Publishers, 1963.

Provides a brief summary and history for each of Tennyson’s poems.

Pattison, Robert, Tennyson and Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1979.

The poetic forms that Tennyson would have been familiar with and the ways that he incorporated them are examined in this dense, scholarly work.

Shannon, Edgar Finley, Jr., Tennyson and the Reviewers, Archon Books, 1952.

Surveys reader responses to Tennyson, from 1827 to 1851, tracing how his reputation grew and how his work was affected by critical response.

Shaw, W. David, Tennyson’s Style, Cornell University Press, 1976.

In this overview of Tennyson’s works, Shaw provides abundant annotations and cross-references.