Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of my favorite poets. I think that “Tears, Idle Tears” is his most moving poem about longing for a past that we can’t recapture, and the melancholy this elicits. The poem was inspired by a visit to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which was abandoned in 1536. (William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” was also inspired by this location.)
While Tennyson’s visit may have prompted the poem, scholars think he must have had more in mind than just an abandoned abbey. His rejection by Rosa Baring and her family may have played a part in the sadness of the poem. Her family disapproved of her relationship with the son of an alcoholic clergyman. This may explain lines like, “kisses . . . by hopeless fancy feign’d/on lips that are for others” and “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret” which have little to do with Tintern Abbey.
But whatever prompted these beautiful lyrics, all of us have looked out over a field, mountain or lake, an old school, home or neighborhood, or have simply been alone with one’s thoughts and felt the longing for the past which, in retrospect, was fleeting and ephemeral. What was so real then has now receded into oblivion, as will the minds that have those rich memories.
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-awaken’d 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 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!
Alfred Lord Tennyson