Tears, Idle Tears by Alfred Tennyson – Complete Explanation and Answers

Tears, Idle Tears

By Alfred Tennyson

Stanza by stanza explanation and question – answers of the poem ‘Tears, Idle Tears’

Stanza – 1

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.


In Autumn, the fields are ready for harvest. Summer begins to recede and winter begins to set in. The speaker scans the fields idly and begins to reminisce. As memories sweep through his mind, he is overwhelmed with some unexplained sadness. His eyes well up as his heart pines for the joys of the past. He realizes the happy bygone days will not return.

Stanza – 2

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.


It is clear the speaker fondly remembers his friends who are no more on earth. He imagines that these dead friends are returning to earth on a ship whose sail lights up when the first sunshine of the morning falls on it. This thought, so unreal, but so balmy, fades away in moments. In its place, comes the apparition of a ship laden with his friends heading to embrace death. The deep orange light of the setting sun’s rays fall on its sails just as the ship disappears into the horizon. It signals the death of the speaker’s near and dear friends. Thus, the day that brought so much delight and excitement to the speaker ends engulfing his mind in sorrow and despair.

Stanza – 3

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.


The dawn in summer present a scene of contrast. A dying man lying on his bed hears the chirping of the birds, and the Sun’s early rays come into his room. The window looks brighter and brighter as the morning progresses. But, due to obvious reasons, these joyful signs of Nature fail to lift the dying man’s spirits. For the man about to breathe his last, it is an inexorable slide to doom. These thoughts fill the speaker’s mind with gloom and awe. He grieves remembering the happy times that are gone.

Stanza – 4

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!


A lover thinks of his kisses on the lips of a woman he loves, but can not marry her due to certain circumstances. The woman marries someone else plunging the lover to insufferable grief. For the speaker, it is like remembering the romantic moments with a woman who is already dead. It was the gush of excitement of a young man’s first romantic encounter with a girl, but the liaison does not come to fruition. Such are the ways of the world. Such short-lived happiness amounts to enduring death-like sorrow while one is alive and well. The author laments the passing of the happy times.

Questions and Answers

1. Why does the describe his tears as ‘idle’?
Answer – Looking at the fields were the crop stands ready for harvest in Autumn can normally be a joyous feeling. However, in the author’s mind, it triggers a very unexplained sad feeling. Something deep inside his heart causes a painful despair that makes him so much grief-stricken that tears roll down his eyes. Such intriguing sadness appearing from nowhere leaves the author bewildered. So, he calls his tears ‘idle tears.”

2. What single factor causes so much pain to the author?
Answer – The author had a few friends whose company he really enjoyed. Now, these friends have already died, but their memory clings to the author. This loss scars his mind and he keeps thinking about them vainly.

3. What other example he cites to express how sad he is about his dead friends?  Answer – He cites the case of a young lover who has been greatly thrilled after kissing his sweetheart in her chin for the first time. The feeling inundates his mind with passion and lust. However, the girl marries some other man leaving the young lover devastated and broken. This young man’s sorrow is similar to what the author feels after his bosom friends die.

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