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Poem of the Month: Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears”
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William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience (1853), courtesy of wikimedia commons

Tennyson’s lyric “Tears, Idle Tears” is often seen as the representative Victorian poem of melancholy, and particularly a melancholy without explicit object. The poem has been useful in my upper-level Victorian poetry classes to demonstrate Arthur Hallam’s key poetics essay on “poems of sensation” as opposed to “poems of reflection” (in his 1831 review of Tennyson’s Poems, Chiefly Lyrical), as well as the sheer energy that went into Victorian affective poetry. Indeed, it’s this energy that I find particularly compelling about Victorian poetry and, once students recognize this, their experience of reading Victorian poems becomes less intimidating and, well, more interesting. Isobel Armstrong puts it best in her monumental study Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Politics and Poetics (she puts so many things best!): “the tears of the lyric subject precisely do not ‘work’ but dissolve the world and the self”, illustrative of the Victorian poem’s constant attempts to revise representation, to question relationships, to “renegotiate the terms of self and world”, attempts that make the very act of representation an anxious one and a struggle (p. 7). For Armstrong, this means that reading Victorian poetry requires — and this is figured in the very poetry itself — an active, engaged, restless, strenuous, energetic reading. The melancholy and morbidity of so much of Victorian poetry is not just a wallowing in feeling, as so many students first expect it to be when they encounter the poems, but rather itself a subject of critique, analysis and investigation. The poem turns its energies on itself.

So, you might be wondering, why does the post feature an image of Holman Hunt’s famous painting of the model Annie Miller as a kept woman in the moment of her awakening? Tennyson’s poem features in the painting, in the scroll on the bottom left, which is a copy of Edward Lear’s setting for “Tears, Idle Tears”, wrapped in blue paper and apparently discarded by the mistress in her moment of epiphany. Perhaps, indeed, this poem about loss and grief inspired the woman’s transformation. Interestingly, the model’s face was originally less serene and beatific (Thomas Fairburn, who commissioned the picture, couldn’t face the woman’s horrific expression of acknowledgment of sin, and asked the painter to rework it to something less disturbing to his eye), suggesting the poem inspired a profound moment of painful recognition. As is typical for Victorian depictions of sexual sin, the loss (of her virginity, her morality, her very soul even) cannot be explicitly named (see, for example, Barrett Browning’s “Where’s Agnes?”).

I’m interested in the questions raised by the use of Tennyson’s poem in the picture. What does it say about the status of poetry in the period? What kind of metonymy or synecdoche is the poem’s presence in the picture? Some of these questions popped into my mind during a very stimulating discussion in NAVSA 2011, during Yopie Prins’s chairing of a seminar on “Performative Poetry”, in the discussion following a panel on “Voicing the Victorian Poets” (featuring fantastic, provocative papers by Natasha Moore, Annmarie S. Drury, and Justin Sider) and also following Joanna Swafford’s talk on her much-anrticipated digital project on settings of Victorian music (specifically a lyric from Tennyson’s Maud).

One way to answer the question is to think about how mediated Victorian poetry was. As Paul Fyfe quipped in the “Performative Poetry” seminar, Victorian poetry can be seen to be a tissue of sound bites, more to do with its life in the air than its life as a text. And, of course, Victorian poetry very often figures itself as mediating between distance and proximity, near and far (Aurora Leigh‘s “double vision”). The voice in “Tears, Idle Tears” on the one hand plays with the sense of the voice as an authentic expression of personal loss, the lyric modality of pain and suffering. And yet, on the other, the poem is supremely secondary, mediated and belated, as the response to a visit to a historic ruin so profoundly associated with another poem of loss, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, itself positioned at a distance above the very ruin it contemplates. Wordsworth’s poem strives for a form of recuperation of loss, through the silent presence of his sister Dorothy (although what of her potentially resisting “wild eyes”…?).  So Tennyson’s poem mediates and swerves away from Wordsworth’s poem. And Tennyson’s lyric is in fact part of a larger narrative, The Princess (1847), although in its popularity for musical settings in the nineteenth century it had a life of its own, away from its mother-text, remediated into Victorian musical culture. And Holman Hunt’s picture nicely underscores this, by painting the poem into the picture as a sign for a gift that symbolizes a grief and loss that cannot be explicitly named.

But, in depicting the poem as a material object, as gift that is thrown aside, even if thrown aside as part of a moral awakening, what does the picture say about the lyric genre itself? And I wonder whether Holman Hunt’s depiction of a mirror that reflects to us the open doors leading to the garden, towards which the “fallen woman” stares and leans, is part also of the same rhetorical system of mediation and circulation, a comment about distance (will she escape her confined, immoral life, and why is her escape signified by a garden?) and proximity (the arms of the gentleman that almost completely encircle her)? Similar issues of remediation are raised by the You-Tube clip on the sidebar of “Tennyson” reading out the poem, which I couldn’t resist including in the post.


                        Tears, Idle Tears

              1      Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
              2 Tears from the depth of some divine despair
              3 Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
              4 In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
              5 And thinking of the days that are no more.

              6      Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
              7 That brings our friends up from the underworld,
              8 Sad as the last which reddens over one
              9 That sinks with all we love below the verge;
            10 So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

            11      Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
            12 The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
            13 To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
            14 The casement slowly grows a summering square;
            15 So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

            16      Dear as remember’d kisses after death,
            17 And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
            18 On lips that are for others; deep as love,
            19 Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
            20 O Death in Life, the days that are no more!


Further Reading

Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Politics and Poetics (Routledge, 1993)

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