The poem by the Victorian poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson entitled "Tears, idle tears," has the unfortunate status of having its become such a common phrase in modern parlance, that the reader finds him or herself bracing his or her ear for more and more cliches as the poem progresses. In other words, one hears that tears are idle so often, one can easily forget, not only that Tennyson said, "I know not what they mean," but that the poem attempts to express the seriousness of futility of grief, or outward displays of affection by calling tears idle, in that they do no real work in the world. The use of 'idle' in multiple variances of meaning, from impractical and lazy, to idyllic, to idolizing is in fact quite profound and sophisticated, yielding a poem with a compact linguistic and stylistic structure.
It is also important to understand the historical, cultural social world from which the poet wrote. The poem's first allegation that "tears from the depth of some divine despair" do no real work in the world was rather a serious one during the Victorian era. On one hand, the Victorians were in love with the principle of utility. On the other hand, however, there was a simultaneous stress upon the cult of sentiment, as epitomized by the pre-Raphaelitism and aesthetic movement. This stress upon the Victorian cult of sentiment was not simply a literary movement, though. The commonness of sickness to the Victorian middle-class household, wherein deathbed tears were a very common occurrence, and whereby the sickroom was an integrated part of a middle-class home cannot be underestimated (Flanders, 2004)
This is why, when the poet speaks of how tears, "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," he would have been understood by his readership as directly referring to death, an occurrence that was commonplace, and not horrible. Yet, although the poem takes death and the tears that death begets quite seriously, as is emphasized in its repetitive use of tears even in its fairly cohesive, linear, and unrhymed structure of evolving logic, ultimately the poem ends by deflating the status of death's power, as the days that are "so sad, so strange, the days that are no more," are said to be "deep as first love, and wild with all regret;" in other words, the tears of the first stanza product of a hot-tempered youth, an 'idol' of love as well as the product of 'idle tears.'
Death in Life, the days that are no more," ends the poem on a note of woe, stressing that the individual expressing the sentiment (though not necessarily the poet) feels that his or her life is over and done with, that he or she suffers a living death without the presence of his or her beloved. But this does not mean that Tennyson as a poet himself agrees with the speaker's assessment of a young life robbed of a beloved individual is necessarily a living death. The poet's readership would probably have weathered many deaths in their collective lifetimes, given the mortality rate of the era. Moreover, this last sentiment expressed by the poem is common, the poet implies, in many individuals whom have lost their first love, but whom will later find love anew.
He states that memory of love is "dear as remembered kisses after death, / And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned, / On lips that are for others; deep as love." In other words that the memory is filled with the "feigned" lies that memory occasionally brings, hopeless and feigned despite our best efforts at perfect memory, beclouding the truth with the sentimental gloss of first love in a way that is not necessarily bad, but will pass like the worship of idolized beings in days of yore.
The fact that the beloved being mourned is young, and being mourned by a young person is clear by the reference to the individual as mourning the love lost as "Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail, / That brings our friends up from the underworld," harkening to images of Odysseus' decent to the underworld…