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Tears, Idle Tears
A Poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Summary of the Poem
Theme
Verse Format
Text of the Poem
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Tennyson Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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Type of Work and Publication Year

.......Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears" is a lyric poem centering on bittersweet memories of the past. Edward Moxon published the poem in London in 1847 as part of a longer work, The Princess

Summary of the Poem

.......As the speaker looks upon cheerful autumn fields, he longs for bygone days. His feelings rise from the seat of emotion, the heart, and "gather to the eyes" (line 3) as tears. He cannot link the tears to a specific memory, for they are idle tears—tears that he cannot explain. Apparently, it is the past in general that moves him, "the days that are no more (lines 5, 10, 15, and 20)."
.......The past can hearten, like morning's first light on the sail of a ship returning our friends from the land of the dead. And it can sadden, like evening's last light on the sail of a ship carrying those friends beyond the horizon. "So sad, so fresh" (line 10) are those days of long ago. 
.......How strange and sad it is for a dying man to hear the first chirp of the birds at the dawn of a summer day and watch the sun turn the window into a "glimmering square." 
.......The bygone days are as sweet to us as the memories of kisses from loved ones who have died—as as sweet at those we imagined we bestowed on the lips of a person pledged to another. Memories of those days are as deep as first love and full of regret for what we did or did not do. They are death in life, those days that are long gone. 

Theme

.......The theme of the poem is the pleasing pain of remembering the past. 

Verse Format

.......The predominant verse format of the poem is unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse), but several lines do not conform strictly to this pattern. The last two lines of the first stanza demonstrate the metric pattern of most of the lines. 

.......1.............2..............3.............4...............5
In LOOK..|..ing ON..|..the HAP..|..y AU-..|..tumn FIELDS

........1...............2...............3................4................5
And THINK..|..ing OF..|..the DAYS..|..that ARE..|..no MORE

However, the first line of the poem—if read with the natural stresses of speech—is not in iambic pentameter. Note the following graphic representations of the stresses as they would usually be spoken.
Example 1

....1............2...........3...............4................5...................6
TEARS..|..I dle..|..TEARS..|..I KNOW..|..not WHAT..|..they MEAN

Feet: (1) Single stressed syllable, (2) trochee, (3) single stressed syllable, (4) iamb, (5) iamb, (6) iamb
Meter: Hexameter.

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Example 2

....1..................2....................3................4..................5
TEARS..|..Ii dle..TEARS..|..I KNOW..|..not WHAT..|..they MEAN

Feet: (1) Single stressed syllable, (2) anapest, (3) iamb, (4) iamb, (5) iamb
Meter: Pentameter.

The first line of the second stanza qualifies as iambic pentameter if the reader pronounces glittering as glit-ring. Note the following graphic representation.
......1..................2..................3.................4.............5
Fresh AS..|..the FIRST..|..beam GLIT..|..ring ON..|..a SAIL
Text of the Poem
...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-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..................15

...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!........................20
 


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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

know not (line 1)
depth of some divine despair (line 2)
Fresh as the first beam (line 6)
friends up from (line 7)
which reddens over one (line 8)
with all we love below the verge (line 9)
So sad, so fresh (line 10)
sad and strange as in dark summer dawns (line 11)
Apostrophe/Paradox
O Death in Life
Apostrophe: The speaker addresses Death.
Paradox: Death in Life
Metaphor
O Death in Life, the days that are no more (line 20)
Comparison of "the days that are no more" to "Death in Life"
Simile
The second stanza compares the freshness of "the days that are no more" (line 10) to the freshness of the "first beam" (line 6). It also compares the sadness of "the days that are no more" to the sadness of "the last [beam] which reddens" (line 8). The simile reads this way: The days that are no more are fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail . . . [and] sad as the last one which reddens. . . .

The third stanza compares the sadness and strangeness of  "the days that are no more" (line 15) to the "earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds / To dying ears" (lines 11 and 12). The simile reads this way: The days that are no more are sad and strange . . . as the earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds to dying ears.

The fourth stanza compares "the days that are no more" (line 20) to the dearness of "remembered kisses" (line 16), the sweetness of kisses "by hopeless fancy feigned" (line 17), and the deepness of love (lines 18 and 19). The simile reads this way: The days that are no more are dear as remembered kisses after death . . . and sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd . . . deep as love, deep as first love. . . .

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a short poem about a memory from childhood.
  • Identify additional examples of alliteration besides those mentioned above. 
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem and a narrative poem?
  • Tennyson repeats a group of words in each stanza? What are these words? Why does Tennyson repeat them?

 

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