This is one of my favorite poems, by the great Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). It is a lyric from a longer poem of his, “The Princess”. I don’t think many people read “The Princess: today, but this little lyric has more than stood the test of time. It was and remains one of Tennyson’s most beautiful and popular poems. There is a haunting melancholy of a lost past conveyed by the lines. Apparently Tennyson was inspired to write this poem while visiting the ruins of Tintern Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery abandoned in 1536 during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries in England. For some reason the ruins of this former Abbey inspired many with romantic nostalgia for the England’s Catholic past: Wordsworth also wrote a famous poem about this very same place, “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”
Tennyson was the essence of the Victorian poet: upright, traditional, and deeply in love with Britain and the British past. Today he is not nearly as popular as he was in his heyday (he was the poet laureate of Great Britain), but I have always found his poetry to be rich, spiritual and wonderfully lyrical. T.S. Eliot considered him one of the great masters of words and sounds and rhythms in English poetry, and this poem is a fine example of that. In addition to his lyrical brilliance, Tennyson was also a deeply depressive man, and much of his poetry reflects a state of despair and sadness that permeated his life. As someone who had dealt with deep melancholy myself, this is probably one of the reason I have always enjoyed his poetry. In my hunger for beautiful things Tennyson’s poetry is more than satisfying.
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.