This is one of the most famous songs from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long narrative poem The Princess. In the poem’s context, the song is sung in public at the Princess’s command to pass a brief interval in the arduous studies she and her women are undertaking, and one of her maids then sings it. The maid brings herself to weep, and the Princess responds disdainfully that her maid’s sadness comes only out of the sweetness and vagueness of the song (part 4, l. 46) sung by a destructive siren of idleness.
What the Princess disdains, Tennyson attempts: the poetry of pure evocation, or even the evocation of evocation itself. The idleness the Princess deplores is what the poem is explicitly about—the idleness of the tears it indulges in. The pleasure of remembering “the days that are no more” is that of feeling estranged from them but close to them as well. How can that be? Because the rememberer weeping over the lost days is himself or herself now completely in contact with the distance or estrangement of the past. The tears are idle because they can do nothing to bring the past back; but they are idle, too, because the past does not belong to the world of present business; it belongs to a kind of sublime idleness as well, since there is nothing for the past or its memory to do. This, then, is what it is possible to share with the past: the idleness born of the fact that we are distanced from it.
The song is in blank verse, but like Tennyson’s other blank-verse songs and poems, a kind of dreamy repetition takes the place of rhyme (see especially “Now Sleeps The Crimson Petal, Now the White,” also from The Princess). That repetition here is of the phrase “the days that are no more” at the end of each stanza. The memory of those days arises from the present, in particular from “looking on the happy Autumn-fields” (l. 24). Tennyson wrote the poem during autumn at Tintern Abbey, and he may have been thinking of his dead friend Arthur Henry Hallam, the subject of In Memoriam A.H.H., who was buried nearby. But he may also have been thinking of William Wordsworth’s great assertion in the Intimations Ode that “a single field” that he had looked upon spoke to him “of something that was gone.” The very presentness of the present, without a hint of the past anywhere, puts one in mind of the past and how completely it is gone. The present, then, becomes the place for these idle tears because the present speaks of past by not speaking of it. The repetition of sorrow in the present moment is a way of keeping the sorrowful present going, idly, in contact with the idle past.
Tennyson talked of the feel of the song as “the sense of the abiding in the transient.” The transient of the presence is known by the transience of the past, but the abidingness of the past, and therefore of a present that gives itself over to idle memories of the past, consists just in the way that idleness never gets anywhere and will therefore never resolve its sorrow. Tennyson does not want resolution but sorrow, and the beautiful, evocative, hypnotic repetitions of the poem convey that perfectly.
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