Victorian Poetry

THE VICTORIAN AGE, 1830-1901

·         During the Victorian Age, England changed as much and as dramatically as it had in all of its previous history.  It was in the nineteenth century that England reached its height as a world imperial power.

·         Between 1837 (when Victoria ascended the throne) and 1901 (when she died) the population of London grew from about 2 million to well over 6 million―an unparalleled population boom.

·         Changes in industrial production techniques had a profound impact an almost all aspects of life for every class of citizen.

·         Unregulated industrialization created great prosperity for a lucky few but great misery for the masses.

·         Victorian era writers were mixed in their reactions to industrialization.  Some celebrated the new age of promise, progress, and triumph, while others challenged the so-called benefits of industrial growth when so many were being affected so negatively.

QUEEN VICTORIA AND THE VICTORIAN TEMPER

·         In many ways the Victorian age reflected values that Queen Victoria herself espoused: moral responsibility and domestic propriety.

·         For as "proper" an age as the Victorian period seemed, however, there was as much evidence of social dissolution and moral impropriety.

·         Queen Victoria, perhaps more so than any previous monarch, became visually synonymous with the country she ruled, in part because she was the first monarch who lived in the age of photography: her image could be relatively easily produced, reproduced, and distributed.

·         Writers of the Victorian period tended to note more explicitly than had writers of previous ages the degree to which theirs was, for good or ill, an era of rapid transition and change.

·         Because the Victorian period lasted so long and because it was a time of such great change, it is hard to characterize in any singular, overarching way. Thus, scholars often refer to three distinct phases within the Victorian period: early (1830-1848); mid (1848-1870); and late (1870-1901). We often also recognize the final decade of the nineteenth century (the 1890s) as an important transitional period between the Victorian era and Modernism.

THE EARLY PERIOD (1830-1848): A TIME OF TROUBLES

·         The early Victorian period is marked by two major non-literary events: first, public railways expanded on an unprecedented scale; and second, the British parliament passed a reform bill in 1832 that (at least to some degree) redistributed voting rights to reflect growing population in newly industrializing centers like Manchester and Liverpool.

·         The 1832 Reform Bill marked, for many Victorians, the beginning of a new age of political power unlike they had ever experienced.

·         The 1830s and 1840s became known as the "Time of Troubles" largely because industrialization was producing such rapid change on such a profound scale; industrialization had a cascading effect in as much as it caused many other social "troubles." 

·         Working conditions were deplorable for the majority of people, including women and children, who worked in mines and factories.

·         A group called the Chartists organized themselves to fight for workers' rights. The organization fell apart by 1848 but their efforts set the stage for real and meaningful reform.

·         One of the most important reforms of the early Victorian period came with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. These laws imposed high tariffs on imported wheat and grains. And while the tariffs meant  good profits for England's own agricultural producers, it also meant prohibitively high prices, especially on basic food items like bread, for the vast majority of the population.

·         The literature of this time period often focused on the plight of the poor and the new urban reality of industrial England. Many writers commented on what had emerged as the two Englands: that of the wealthy (by far the minority) and that of the poor (by far the majority).

THE MID-VICTORIAN PERIOD (1848-1870): ECONOMIC PROSPERITY, THE GROWTH OF EMPIRE, AND RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY

·         The mid-Victorian era was somewhat less tumultuous than was the earlier Victorian period as the relationship between industry and government began to work itself out. However, the time was still one of great poverty and difficulty for many, even as England as a whole began to enjoy greater prosperity.

·         A number of acts of Parliament curbed the worst abuses of laissez-faire industry, like child labor and dangerous working conditions.

·         The 1850s were to many a time of optimism, with the promise of prosperity from industry seemingly so close. So too was England proud of its science and technology, as is evidenced by the Crystal Palace, centerpiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

·         The Crystal Palace was designed using modern architectural principles and materials, and its role in the Great Exhibition was to showcase English "progress" made possible by science and industry.

·         The mid-Victorian period was also a time when the British empire truly expanded around the globe (Australia, Canada, and India, for example)―all part and parcel of the prosperity made possible by the industrial revolution.

·         In England itself, debates about religion grew in intensity. By the mid-Victorian period the Church of England had evolved into three factions: a Low (or Evangelical) Church, a Broad Church, and a High Church. Each had their share of proponents and detractors.

·         As a primary driver behind the industrial revolution, rationalist thought destabilized religious beliefs. Groups like the utilitarian "Benthamites" came to see traditional religion as little more than outmoded superstition.

·         New discoveries in the sciences also led to a new mode of reading the Bible: Higher Criticism approached the Bible not as a divine and infallible text but rather as an historically produced set of documents that reflected the prejudices and limitations of their human writers.

·         Among other scientific works of the time Charles Darwin'sThe Origin of Species(1859) andThe Descent of Man(1871) seemed to challenge all previous thinking about creation and man's special role in the world. As popular readers understood Darwin, man was just one among many creatures who existed as a product of a long evolutionary history.

·         The mid-Victorian period would ultimately see often contrary forces―like the promise of progress yet the emptiness of long-held beliefs―that would come to a head during the final decades of the Victorian era and that would eventually be its undoing.

THE LATE PERIOD (1870-1901): DECAY OF VICTORIAN VALUES

·         For many, the late-Victorian period was merely an extension, at least on the surface, of the affluence of the preceding years.

·         For many others, though, the late-Victorian period became a time to fundamentally question―and challenge―the assumptions and practices that had made such affluence possible.  It became a time to hold England to account for the way in which it had generated wealth for so few on the backs of so many, both at home and throughout the empire.

·         Home-rule for Ireland became an increasingly controversial topic of debate.

·         In 1867 a second Reform Bill passed, extending voting rights even further to some working-class citizens.

·         The political writings of authors like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels empowered the working class to imagine itself in control of the industry that it made possible.

THE NINETIES

·         The final decade of the Victorian period marked a high point, both of English industry and imperial control, and of challenges to that industry and imperialism.

·         Even while British empire-building continued with great energy in Africa and India, in England many were starting to see the beginning of the end of the era.

·         Gone was trust in Victorian propriety and morality. Instead, many writers struck a "fin de siècle" (or end-of-century) pose: a weary sophistication with the optimism of forward progress when the limits of that progress seemed all too near in sight.

·         With the benefit of hindsight we can see the 1890s as a transitional phase between the optimism and promise of the Victorian period and the Modernist movement, during which artists began to challenge just how genuine that optimism and promise had been in the first place.

THE ROLE OF WOMEN

·          Despite the fact that the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867 changed voting rights by granting a political voice to many among the working class who had not enjoyed any such voice before, women were not included in these reforms.

·         In fact, despite its having been an era of great social change, the Victorian period (particularly its early and middle periods) saw little progress for women's rights. Women had limited access to education, could not vote or hold public office, and could not (until 1870) own property.

·         Debates about women's rights were referred to generally as "The Woman Question" (one of many issues in an age of issues).

·         In 1848, the first women's college was established; women were otherwise excluded from England's three universities.

·         It should be remembered that while the "Woman Question" often sought, at least in principle, rights for all women, it was primarily addressed to women of the middle class. In other words, while women argued for access to employment and bemoaned the stereotypical fate of the middle-class wife, who had to while away her time at home with insignificant trivial pursuits, hundreds of thousands of lower-class women worked in grueling industrial conditions in mines and mills.

·         Related to the larger "Woman Question," the problem of prostitution gained increasing visibility. Prostitution itself grew, in part to fill demand, of course, but also because it was actually a better choice for many women relative to the working conditions they would face in the factories.

·         Importantly, debates about gender did not necessarily fall down gendered lines: many men argued adamantly for women's rights, and many women (like Queen Victoria herself) were not convinced that women should enjoy equality with men.

LITERACY, PUBLICATION, AND READING

·         As of 1837 roughly half of England's population was literate; that figure continued to grow throughout the Victorian period (due especially to reforms that mandated at least minimal education for everybody).

·         Because of  advances in printing technology, publishers could provide more texts (of various kinds) to more people.

·         The Victorian period saw enormous growth in periodicals of all kinds. Many famous novelists, like Charles Dickens, for example, published their work not in book form at first but in serial installments in magazines.

·         The practical reality of publishing in serial form had a direct impact on style, including how plots were paced, organized, and developed.  (The experience of reading serialized novels is similar to that of the modern television viewer watching a program that unfolds in a series of hour or half-hour segments.)

·         As literacy proliferated, the reading public became more and more fragmented. Writers thus had to consider how (or if) their writing might appeal to niche audiences rather than to a unified "reading public."

SHORT FICTION AND THE NOVEL

·         Short fiction thrived during the Victorian period, thanks in part to the robust periodical culture of the time.

·         The novel was perhaps the most prevalent genre of the time period; it was especially well suited to authors who wanted to capture the wide diversity of industrial life and the class conflict and divisions that industrialism created.

·         A common theme among Victorian novelists involves a protagonist who is trying to define him- or herself relative to class and social systems.

POETRY

·         While prose fiction was the most widely circulated kind of writing in the Victorian period, poetry retained its iconic status as "high literature."  Most readers continued to expect poetry to teach a moral lesson, even though many writers were uncomfortable with that aim.

·         As some Victorians would argue, it was through the writing and study of poetry in particular that individuals could cultivate their greatest human potential.

·         Poets of the period ranged widely in their subject matter: some sought to revive mythic themes (Arthurian legend, for example) while others turned a critical eye on the industrial abuses of the present (such as the problem of child labor).

PROSE

·         Nonfiction prose writing gained wide readership during the Victorian period (due again to the vibrant periodical culture).  No less, authors were attracted to nonfiction prose as the best vehicle for addressing―in a direct and specific way―the problems of industrial England and, in some cases, for proposing solutions to these problems.

·         Nonfiction prose authors (who were often writers of fiction and poetry as well) tackled subjects that were as diverse as the age itself, including politics, religion, art, economics, and education.

·         Much Victorian nonfiction prose is marked by a sense of urgency, which reflects the pace of change of the age: many authors felt that society would, at some point, be overwhelmed by change and descend into some form of what Matthew Arnold called simply "anarchy."

DRAMA AND THEATER

·         The Victorian theater was a popular institution, especially for those with the means to enjoy it as one of life's many pleasures.

·         In addition to traditional plays, the theater also included all manner of spectacle, from burlesque to musicals to pantomime.

·         Especially towards the end of the Victorian period, playwrights like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde began to reflect, in an increasingly satirical way, the pretentious values and behavior that they believed characterized Victorian life.

Matthew Arnold

Although remembered now for his elegantly argued critical essays, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) began his career as a poet, winning early recognition as a student at the Rugby School where his father, Thomas Arnold, had earned national acclaim as a strict and innovative headmaster. Arnold also studied at Balliol College, Oxford University. In 1844, after completing his undergraduate degree at Oxford, he returned to Rugby as a teacher of classics. After marrying in 1851, Arnold began work as a government school inspector, a grueling position which nonetheless afforded him the opportunity to travel throughout England and the Continent. Throughout his thirty-five years in this position Arnold developed an interest in education, an interest which fed into both his critical works and his poetry. Empedocles on Etna (1852) and Poems (1853) established Arnold's reputation as a poet and in 1857 he was offered a position, which he accepted and held until 1867, as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Arnold became the first professor to lecture in English rather than Latin. During this time Arnold wrote the bulk of his most famous critical works, Essays in Criticism (1865) and Culture and Anarchy (1869), in which he sets forth ideas that greatly reflect the predominant values of the Victorian era.

Meditative and rhetorical, Arnold's poetry often wrestles with problems of psychological isolation. In "To Marguerite—Continued," for example, Arnold revises Donne's assertion that "No man is an island," suggesting that we "mortals" are indeed "in the sea of life enisled." Other well-known poems, such as "Dover Beach," link the problem of isolation with what Arnold saw as the dwindling faith of his time. Despite his own religious doubts, a source of great anxiety for him, in several essays Arnold sought to establish the essential truth of Christianity. His most influential essays, however, were those on literary topics. In "The Function of Criticism" (1865) and "The Study of Poetry" (1880) Arnold called for a new epic poetry: a poetry that would address the moral needs of his readers, "to animate and ennoble them." Arnold's arguments, for a renewed religious faith and an adoption of classical aesthetics and morals, are particularly representative of mainstream Victorian intellectual concerns. His approach—his gentlemanly and subtle style—to these issues, however, established criticism as an art form, and has influenced almost every major English critic since, including T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, and Harold Bloom. Though perhaps less obvious, the tremendous influence of his poetry, which addresses the poet's most innermost feelings with complete transparency, can easily be seen in writers as different from each other as W. B. YeatsJames WrightSylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds. Late in life, in 1883 and 1886, Arnold made two lecturing tours of the United States. Matthew Arnold died in Liverpool in 1888.

 

Dover Beach

BY MATTHEW ARNOLD

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

a Spray: a usually flowering branch or shoot  a decorative flat arrangement of flowers and foliage (as on a coffin)


Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray                                   

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

 

Turbid: not clear, mixed with fog and smoke, emotionally mixed up


Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow            

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.                       Strap rolled around it

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.                                    Pebbles, gravel

         

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

Important link:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dover_Beach

This poem represents Arnold’s state of mind as being something so merely devoted to religion and the beliefs that are brought by past dedication. The first stanza begins when Arnold talks about the beauty of the scenery. He is on his honeymoon and shares his love for the world, for the countries are represented as beauty. The second stanza construes the same matter until the third line when there is a sudden change of thought as affection of resentment is evident. Pebbles also determine human inferiority they are a metaphor and the subject they bring to the destruction of the world and all that has been brought to nature and by, pebbles are a sign of false and pretentious objects which don’t realize their actions for their movement is so sudden and differs. The tremulous note of sadness in, is something so unwanted by many but cannot be stopped. Sophocles was an ancient Greek tragedian and so the third verse brings in a slight ramification of dependence and calls out as significant for even someone so dedicated to religion sought the destruction of science. The sea of faith what seemed as though destiny could never be defeated, was once at place and itself without interference from the modern age of moral conduct to science and discovery, and yet it now suffers from the ongoing behaviour humans portray through their lack of understanding by vile nature to religion and contempt beliefs. 
The last stanza brings the readers back to being grounded, as himself as well, for he states that love is the only thing worth living for, otherwise nothing is to be sought for the land of dreams and the beautiful and new world is neither any of that, which proclaims the world to being not as sacrosanct as people are obliged to believe so, the melancholy exists as his predilection to religion stays intact, his last couplet is merely a vile perception of mankind for he feels they are to feel remorse and culpable as they are responsible for war.

Growing Old

BY MATTHEW ARNOLD

What is it to grow old?

Is it to lose the glory of the form,

The luster of the eye?

Is it for beauty to forego her wreath?

—Yes, but not this alone.

 

Is it to feel our strength—

Not our bloom only, but our strength—decay?

Is it to feel each limb

Grow stiffer, every function less exact,

Each nerve more loosely strung?

 

Yes, this, and more; but not

Ah, ’tis not what in youth we dreamed ’twould be!

’Tis not to have our life

Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,

A golden day’s decline.

 

’Tis not to see the world

As from a height, with rapt prophetic eyes,

And heart profoundly stirred;

And weep, and feel the fullness of the past,

The years that are no more.

 

It is to spend long days

And not once feel that we were ever young;

It is to add, immured

In the hot prison of the present, month

To month with weary pain.

 

It is to suffer this,

And feel but half, and feebly, what we feel.

Deep in our hidden heart

Festers the dull remembrance of a change,

But no emotion—none.

 

It is—last stage of all—

When we are frozen up within, and quite

The phantom of ourselves,

To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost

Which blamed the living man.

 

Lord Alfred Tennyson

Born on August 6, 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England, Alfred Tennyson is one of the most well-loved Victorian poets. Tennyson, the fourth of twelve children, showed an early talent for writing. At the age of twelve he wrote a 6,000-line epic poem. His father, the Reverend George Tennyson, tutored his sons in classical and modern languages. In the 1820s, however, Tennyson's father began to suffer frequent mental breakdowns that were exacerbated by alcoholism. One of Tennyson's brothers had violent quarrels with his father, a second was later confined to an insane asylum, and another became an opium addict.

Tennyson escaped home in 1827 to attend Trinity College, Cambridge. In that same year, he and his brother Charles published Poems by Two Brothers. Although the poems in the book were mostly juvenilia, they attracted the attention of the "Apostles," an undergraduate literary club led by Arthur Hallam. The "Apostles" provided Tennyson, who was tremendously shy, with much needed friendship and confidence as a poet. Hallam and Tennyson became the best of friends; they toured Europe together in 1830 and again in 1832. Hallam's sudden death in 1833 greatly affected the young poet. The long elegy In Memoriam and many of Tennyson's other poems are tributes to Hallam.

In 1830, Tennyson published Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and in 1832 he published a second volume entitled simply Poems. Some reviewers condemned these books as "affected" and "obscure." Tennyson, stung by the reviews, would not publish another book for nine years. In 1836, he became engaged to Emily Sellwood. When he lost his inheritance on a bad investment in 1840, Sellwood's family called off the engagement. In 1842, however, Tennyson's Poems in two volumes was a tremendous critical and popular success. In 1850, with the publication of In Memoriam, Tennyson became one of Britain's most popular poets. He was selected Poet Laureate in succession to Wordsworth. In that same year, he married Emily Sellwood. They had two sons, Hallam and Lionel.

At the age of 41, Tennyson had established himself as the most popular poet of the Victorian era. The money from his poetry (at times exceeding 10,000 pounds per year) allowed him to purchase a house in the country and to write in relative seclusion. His appearance—a large and bearded man, he regularly wore a cloak and a broad brimmed hat—enhanced his notoriety. He read his poetry with a booming voice, often compared to that of Dylan Thomas. In 1859, Tennyson published the first poems of Idylls of the Kings, which sold more than 10,000 copies in one month. In 1884, he accepted a peerage, becoming Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson died in 1892 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Break, Break, Break

  by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Break, break, break,
    On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
    The thoughts that arise in me.
 
O, well for the fisherman's boy,
    That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
    That he sings in his boat on the bay!
 
And the stately ships go on
    To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
    And the sound of a voice that is still!
 
Break, break, break,
    At the foot of thy crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
    Will never come back to me.

The sea is breaking on the “cold gray stones” before the speaker. He laments that he cannot give voice to his thoughts. Yes, the fisherman’s boy shouts with his sister while they play, and the young sailor sings in his boat, but the speaker cannot express such joy. Other ships travel silently into port, their “haven under the hill,” and this observation seems to remind him of the disappearance of someone he cared for. No longer can he feel the person’s touch or hear the person’s voice. Unlike the waves, which noisily “break, break, break” on the rocks as they repeatedly come in, the “tender grace” of bygone days will never return to him.

Analysis

This short poem carries the emotional impact of a person reflecting on the loss of someone he (or she) cared for. Written in 1834 right after the sudden death of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam, the poem was published in 1842. Although some have interpreted the speaker’s grief as sadness over a lost lover, it probably reflects the feeling at any loss of a beloved person in death, like Tennyson’s dejection over losing Hallam.

The poem is four stanzas of four lines each, each quatrain in irregular iambic tetrameter. The irregularity in the number of syllables in each line might convey the instability of the sea or the broken, jagged edges of the speaker’s grief. Meanwhile, the ABCB rhyme scheme in each stanza may reflect the regularity of the waves.

On the surface, the poem seems relatively simple and straightforward, and the feeling is easy to discern: the speaker wishes he could give voice to his sad thoughts and his memories, to move and speak like the sea and others around him. The poem’s deeper interest is in the series of comparisons between the external world and the poet’s internal world. The outer world is where life happens, or where it used to happen for the speaker. The inner world is what preoccupies him now, caught up in deep pain and loss and the memories of a time with the one who is gone.

For example, in the first stanza, the sea is battering the stones. The speaker appears frustrated that the sea can keep moving and making noise while he is unable to utter his thoughts. The sea’s loud roar, its ability to vent its energy, is something he lacks. The repetition of “break” aptly conveys the ceaseless motion of the waves, each wave reminding him of what he lacks.

In the second stanza, Tennyson similarly expresses distance between himself and the happy people playing or singing where they are. They possess joy and fulfillment, whether together or alone, but he does not. The brother and sister have each other; the sailor has his boat; the speaker is alone. They have reason to voice pleasure, but he does not. One might sense envy here, but “O, well” also suggests that these blithe young people have losses yet to come.

In the third stanza the poet sees the “stately ships” moving to their “haven under the hill,” either to port or over the horizon. Either way, they seem content with a destination. But the mounded grave is no pleasant haven, in contrast. That end means the end of activity; there is no more hand to touch, no more voice to hear. Again the speaker is caught up in his internal thoughts, his memory of the mourned figure overshadowing what the speaker sees around him. The critic H. Sopher also interprets the contrast in this stanza as such: “The stateliness of the ships contrasts with the poet’s emotional imbalance; and the ships move forward to an attainable goal ... while the poet looks back to a ‘vanish’d hand’ and a ‘voice that is still.’”

In the fourth stanza, the speaker returns to the breaking of waves on the craggy cliffs. The waves come again, again, again, hitting a wall of rock each time. But for him there is no return of the dead, just the recurring pain of loss. Why speak, why act? Sopher explains that “the poet’s realization of the fruitlessness of action draws the reader’s attention to the fact that the sea’s action is, seemingly, fruitless too—for all its efforts [it] can no more get beyond the rocks than the poet can restore the past.” Nevertheless, both the sea and the speaker continue with their useless but repeated actions, as though there is no choice. The scene evokes a sense of inevitability and hopelessness.

While the feeling here could involve merely the loss of a romantic relationship, it seems more poignant if the speaker has no hope for the return of the one who is lost. Without a death, there is no opportunity to connect the “hill” to a mounded grave, the “still” voice would be harder to interpret, and the “day that is dead” would be a weaker metaphor.

Tears, Idle Tears

  by Lord Alfred Tennyson

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-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.
 
    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!


Summary

The speaker sings of the baseless and inexplicable tears that rise in his heart and pour forth from his eyes when he looks out on the fields in autumn and thinks of the past.

This past, (“the days that are no more”) is described as fresh and strange. It is as fresh as the first beam of sunlight that sparkles on the sail of a boat bringing the dead back from the underworld, and it is sad as the last red beam of sunlight that shines on a boat that carries the dead down to this underworld.

The speaker then refers to the past as not “fresh,” but “sad” and strange. As such, it resembles the song of the birds on early summer mornings as it sounds to a dead person, who lies watching the “glimmering square” of sunlight as it appears through a square window.

In the final stanza, the speaker declares the past to be dear, sweet, deep, and wild. It is as dear as the memory of the kisses of one who is now dead, and it is as sweet as those kisses that we imagine ourselves bestowing on lovers who actually have loyalties to others. So, too, is the past as deep as “first love” and as wild as the regret that usually follows this experience. The speaker concludes that the past is a “Death in Life.”

Form

This poem is written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. It consists of four five-line stanzas, each of which closes with the words “the days that are no more.”

Commentary

“Tears, Idle Tears” is part of a larger poem called “The Princess,” published in 1847. Tennyson wrote “The Princess” to discuss the relationship between the sexes and to provide an argument for women’s rights in higher education. However, the work as a whole does not present a single argument or tell a coherent story. Rather, like so much of Tennyson’s poetry, it evokes complex emotions and moods through a mastery of language. “Tears, Idle Tears,” a particularly evocative section, is one of several interludes of song in the midst of the poem.

In the opening stanza, the poet describes his tears as “idle,” suggesting that they are caused by no immediate, identifiable grief. However, his tears are simultaneously the product of a “divine despair,” suggesting that they do indeed have a source: they “rise in the heart” and stem from a profoundly deep and universal cause. This paradox is complicated by the difficulty of understanding the phrase “divine despair”: Is it God who is despairing, or is the despair itself divine? And how can despair be divine if Christian doctrine considers it a sin?

The speaker states that he cries these tears while “looking on the happy autumn-fields.” At first, it seems strange that looking at something happy would elicit tears, but the fact that these are fields of autumn suggests that they bear the memories of a spring and summer that have vanished, leaving the poet with nothing to look forward to except the dark and cold of winter. Tennyson explained that the idea for this poem came to him when he was at Tintern Abbey, not far from Hallam’s burial place. “Tintern Abbey” is also the title and subject of a famous poem by William Wordsworth. (See the “Tintern Abbey” section in the SparkNote on Wordsworth’s Poetry.) Wordsworth’s poem, too, reflects on the passage of time and the loss of the joys of youth. However, whereas Tennyson laments “the days that are no more” and describes the past as a “Death in Life,” Wordsworth explicitly states that although the past is no more, he has been compensated for its loss with “other gifts”:

That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense.
 

Thus, although both Wordsworth and Tennyson write poems set at Tintern Abbey about the passage of time, Wordsworth’s poem takes on a tone of contentment, whereas Tennyson’s languishes in a tone of lament.

“Tears, Idle Tears” is structured by a pattern of unusual adjectives used to describe the memory of the past. In the second stanza, these adjectives are a chiastic “fresh...sad...sad...fresh”; the memory of the birth of friendship is “fresh,” whereas the loss of these friends is “sad”; thus when the “days that are no more” are described as both “sad” and “fresh,” these words have been preemptively loaded with meaning and connotation: our sense of the “sad” and “fresh” past evokes these blossomed and withered friendships. This stanza’s image of the boat sailing to and from the underworld recalls Virgil’s image of the boatman Charon, who ferries the dead to Hades.

In the third stanza, the memory of the past is described as “sad...strange...sad...strange.” The “sad” adjective is introduced in the image of a man on his deathbed who is awake for his very last morning. However, “strangeness” enters in, too, for it is strange to the dying man that as his life is ending, a new day is beginning. To a person hearing the birds’ song and knowing he will never hear it again, the twittering will be imbued with an unprecedented significance—the dying man will hear certain melancholy tones for the first time, although, strangely and paradoxically, it is his last.

The final stanza contains a wave of adjectives that rush over us—now no longer confined within a neat chiasmic structure—as the poem reaches its last, climactic lament: “dear...sweet...deep...deep...wild.” The repetition of the word “deep” recalls the “depth of some divine despair,” which is the source of the tears in the first stanza. However, the speaker is also “wild with all regret” in thinking of the irreclaimable days gone by. The image of a “Death in Life” recalls the dead friends of the second stanza who are like submerged memories that rise to the surface only to sink down once again. This “Death in Life” also recalls the experience of dying in the midst of the rebirth of life in the morning, described in the third stanza. The poet’s climactic exclamation in the final line thus represents a culmination of the images developed in the previous stanzas.

إضاءات/ Illuminations


نفسك إن لم تشغلها بالحق شغلتك بالباطل.

الإمام الشافعي (205 هـ)
رضي الله عنه

Busy your mind with truth, or else, it will busy you with falsehood.

Imam Shafi'i (d. 205)

May Allah be pleased with him



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إضاءات/ Illuminations


نفسك إن لم تشغلها بالحق شغلتك بالباطل.

الإمام الشافعي (205 هـ)
رضي الله عنه

Busy your mind with truth, or else, it will busy you with falsehood.

Imam Shafi'i (d. 205)

May Allah be pleased with him



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