Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears” in Performance

Tennyson’s “Tears, idle Tears” appears in his verse drama, The Princess, which contains several of Tennyson’s best loved lyrics – “Sweet and low,” “The splendour falls on castle walls,” “Now sleeps the crimson petal,” and “Come down, O maid.”

Tennyson was poet laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892. He was a favorite of Queen Victoria and came to represent Victorianism and its crises of feeling. Tennyson wrote poems celebrating British military valor – “Charge of the Light Brigade.” But Tennyson is at his best dramatizing soft, intense emotion in agile and evocative music.

“Tears” is certainly a lyric, but it is also dramatic. The speaker puzzles over unbidden feelings as they arise in him. “Tears” is not the report of what he feels but his musing over feelings the speaker does not understand.  He gropes his way, and we with him, towards resolution. We overhear the speaker propose metaphors to sharpen his grasp on those feelings. The music that attends this gathering and refinement shapes the experience.

Tennyson is famous for his play of sounds, as in the final lines of “Come down, O maid”: “Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn, /The moan of doves in immemorial elms, /And murmuring of innumerable bees.” This riot of sound/sense makes the passage a model for versification manuals. “Tears” is more subtle and depends upon metrical effects. We know how to mark scansion – the rudimentary stressed/unstressed — and to name stress patterns (iambic pentameter, standard in English verse). Tennyson’s “Tears,” however, works by manipulating pauses, the breaks when nothing seems to happen.

It may help to grade pauses as 1, 2, and 3 – (1) equaling the usual caesural pause (/); (2) more intense (//); and (3) momentous (///). These gradations may serve as a guide to dramatic performance, but they also reveal Tennyson’s musical intent. We can debate specific judgments, but pauses in “Tears” mark what Tennyson has in mind.

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.//

The time is fall, the mood autumnal, the setting rural, and the speaker too perplexed for rhetoric. The stanza, mostly monosyllabic, moves slowly. The caesural and line-ending pauses establish an observation/reflection pattern. End rhyme is absent, but internal rhythms abound, as in “In looking on the happy … and thinking of the days”. While iambs dominate the metrical scheme, anapests swing out, along with single stress metrical feet. The variations happen first, with the line smoothing out to regular iambs after the caesura, creating something like a call and response. Thus, the anapests “idle tears” /”from the depth” /”in the heart” / “on the hap” /”of the days” precede, along with the single stressed “Tears” / “Tears” / “Rise”. The reflections following the caesura, in regular iambs, are weighted with sorrow.

Reflection dominates; the speaker does not know his own mind and why these tears rise and gather. While autumn usually suggests loss and dying, these fields are happy, and the speaker is perplexed. The despair puzzles him; is it “divine” for its celestial source, or is the experience divine as in excruciatingly beautiful. This grieving mood recalls something lost in the past – the funereal “no more” – something the speaker, as yet, cannot name.

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.//

Loss has its rhythm. Loss recalls the freshness of it dawning wonders. To recall the loss requires beckoning ghosts from the underworld; and that thought figures as a ship rising in the west from the darkness of the world of shadows to the brightening horizon of this world. But happiness fades as he recalls these friends are gone, like the sun setting in its reddening sky. The experience is treacherous, both fresh and sad; and reversing the order, sad and fresh.

The stronger pause following “fresh” marks a surprise. The thought first seems contradictory; how can fading memories of lost joys be fresh? In the course of the stanza the order of “sad” and “fresh”, as in the natural order of fresh starts and sad departures, has been lost. The speaker grasps, suddenly, that memory has its own order and the fading brings with it fresh anguish. Memory retrieves the loss, and the loss becomes more vivid than the original experience.

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.//

Stanza three extends these discoveries. “Ah” marks a growing understanding; these departures invite alien thoughts, at the boundaries between the living and the dead, and between this moment and the past. These horizons are passageways to otherness. Imagine the last moments of life, coming at the break of day (reversing the journey in stanza two); birds half-awake hail the return of day while singing to the person dying, the sun brightening the window while dying eyes dim. Past memories illuminate and darken our days. We live at the margins, at the horizon that leads in memory through brightening casements into the realm of shadows.

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.///

Memory and desire commit us to “Death in Life.” Lovers pass, but kisses leave their traces; imagined kisses are more painful still, meant for a beloved who loved elsewhere. The correction in moving from line 3 to line 4 marks a critical discovery … not “love” but “first love.” The past beckons to our beginnings and to innocent desire.  All this is lost but ever present forever, and tears come since to experience such memories is to be “wild with all regret.” “Wild” and “all” are sustained oceanic sounds of grieving. The speaker mourns unfulfilled desire, for what never happened save in longing. Autumn fields are happy, but creatures of desire and memory suffer our divine despair.

“Tears” is set in the immediate present and records the force of reflection. The speaker grapples with a sudden flow of emotion, feelings he neither welcomes nor understands.  We watch him try out metaphors and then extend them as they lead to clearer understanding of complex feelings. The poem unfolds as the speaker muses upon metaphors that, like the tears themselves, rise to his attention. At the boundary between life as it is and the alluring moments that might have been, we find the death in life. The pause anticipating the final repetition of “the days that are no more” – now fully understood — is monumental. A public performance, or even a quiet personal one, must recreate the drama of this moment as Tennyson so carefully constructed it.


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