Lord Tennyson was inspired by the Romantics like Keats and Wordsworth. He used a wide range of subjects taken from classical myths, medieval legends and commonplace domestic situations. It is in the short lyrics that his mastery for exploring the musical quality of language can be seen. He revised and polished his poems extensively until he felt satisfied with his effort. His later poetry seems uninspired; this was a problem that beset most poets who had a long career. Grief and melancholy was a vein that runs through most of his poetry. Probably it was a reflection of his long struggle with toxic depression. Song: Idle, idle Tears is about sorrow that does not have a clear source.
The poem’s opening lines suggest that the tears that stream down have no particular source of grief. They come from a heart burdened with grief or filled with “divine despair”. This phrase itself is hard to comprehend. The word “divine” is rarely used with “despair”. Further reading of the poem suggests that the grief stems from “thinking of the days that are no more”. There is more ambiguity in the poem. Looking at autumn fields ripe with grain should be cause for joy but here it causes idle tears to flow. The poet grief cannot be differentiated or categorized; nevertheless it is there and at times finds expression in tears. It is unmatched in lyrical richness. Tennyson’s best poetry is marked by richness of images and vowel sounds.
The song is about the tears that come unbidden to the poet’s eyes. When he looks at the autumn fields and thinks of past days, sorrow floods his heart and the tears gush from his eyes. “The days that are no more” are fresh and strange. It is perhaps the memory of those days that is fresh in his mind. The freshness is like the first beams of a rising sun that sparkles on the sails of a boat that comes from the netherworld with its load of the dead it is as sad as the beam of the setting sun that shines red when the boat is about to turn back to the underworld. In the next stanza the speaker calls the past strange and sad. The past here is like the bird songs a man who is dying hears. He knows that he will never hear it again. While he listens to the bird songs he watches the square patch of sunlight that comes in through a window. The last stanza has the poet calling the past “dear, sweet, deep and wild”. All this is tied to a love that existed in the past but now is dead. Dear is the memory of the kisses exchanged with one who is now dead, sweet are the kisses we imagine giving to one who now belongs to someone else, the first love was deep as the past now is and wild is the regret that all this is now gone. The past can hence be called “Death in Life”. Even while being alive, one experiences death.
The poem is in unrhymed black verse in iambic pentameter. Each stanza has five lines with the last line ending with the words “the days that are no more”.
The tears that flow out of the poet’s are not rooted in any particular sorrow. They rise from the depths of his heart where lodges some grief. They flood the heart and rise to the eyes and fall. It could as simple a scene as autumn fields that causes him to cry as it reminds him of days gone by never to return.
This stanza has images of a boat that brings up the dead from the netherworld. The past here is not remote but fresh as the sunlight that glints on the sails of that boat. All the memories here are joyful and sparkling. But when it is time for the boat to depart, it is the sad red rays of the setting sun that light up the boat. Now the past appears as though it is withdrawing into a remote sphere. Those days, sad yet fresh moves the poet to tears.
Another strange image. The poet calls those days “sad and strange” when the drowsy warbles of the half awake birds reach a dying man. He knows that to be his last day on earth. Those sounds are hence precious, sad and strange. The same quality colors the image of a dying man observing the sun striking the window panes in the early morning.
Here the past is as sweet as kisses recollected after the passing of a loved one or when imaginary kisses are pressed on the lips of a person who is now loved by another. Here the memory of the past is wistful as the images are not attainable ones.
In this poem, the past has the immediacy that rivals the present. The past is not that remote entity that has no power to hurt or move. Though the images are those that are close to the poet’s heart, he calls the tears ‘idle’ because they have no real reason to flow. There is deep sorrow buried in the heart that finds expression in tears.