Tennyson “Tears Idle Tears”

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.)

Tintern Abbey

While Tennyson’s visit may have prompted the poem, scholars think he had more in mind than 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 our 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 1869.jpg

Alfred Lord Tennyson

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4 thoughts on “Tennyson “Tears Idle Tears”

  1. Thank you. Darn it, how I feel you people, I spend most of my day hunting down TV jingles and music from old TV programs I remember as a child! Not because I care about the programs themselves but because hearing again a nice melody I heard 43 years ago takes me back to those blissful days! I have been collecting this material carefully for the last 15 years, it’s incredible. Music for me has always given a particular, special ‘tint’ to the whole landscape of life.

    We are all feeling these things. Our only consolation is that some of us have been lucky enough to LIVE these blissful days! These memories are bittersweet but I just can’t resist them. Thank you for your post! Great poem, and great music by Schumann, the piece’s title means ‘dreaming’ and Schumann himself was a big ‘advocate’ of childhood memories. Here’s another great ‘childhood’ piece by Schumann, the title of which means ‘First Sorrow’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-xxG5XGupk

    Thank you!

  2. Lovely. Evokes Wm. Wordsworth”s “Splendor in the Grass” for me. I just pray that time or Alzheimer’s doesn’t erase my memory of that first, innocent kiss, pressed against moist lips in a face whose youthful, soft skin was tight as a drum, years away from its first wrinkle.

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