Reading ‘Tears, idle tears’ (1): Practical Criticism, F. R. Leavis and Tennyson’s ‘sweetly plangent flow’

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-awaken'd 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 remember'd kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd
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.

I.A. Richards is often considered to have founded the contemporary study of literature in English. Indeed, when Richards began teaching English Literature at Cambridge University in the early twentieth century, Magdalene College would not pay him a salary to teach the new and untested subject, and he had to collect tuition from his students at the beginning of each class every week! Richards' book Practical Criticism emerged out of some experiments he performed in these classes. He presented a collection of Cambridge undergraduates with thirteen poems that had been stripped of all authorial and contextual information, and then observed how the students interpreted them: could they recognise which poems were written by respected poets, and which poems were written by marginal poets? Did they misread the poems in certain ways that they would not have done if they knew who had written them and when?

Imagine if you had to respond to a Tennyson poem without knowing who wrote it, and without access to any biographical and contextual information. Would you find it harder to establish what these poems mean? Richards' point is that readers often fail to cultivate adequate interpretative skills because they rely too heavily on such information, instead of focussing attention on the text itself and thus discovering its meaning. What do you think about this idea? Suspending our awareness of authorial and contextual information (insofar as we can), let's see what the methods of 'Practical Criticism' will allow us to discover about the 'meaning' of 'Tears, idle tears', by considering what another Cambridge literary critic, F.R. Leavis, had to say about the poem.

F.R. Leavis, who spent most of his life studying and teaching at Downing College, Cambridge, was a very influential British literary critic throughout the mid-twentieth century. Influenced by Richards, Leavis took works of art themselves to be the primary focus of critical discussion and believed evaluation to be the principal concern of criticism. Let's see how Leavis evaluates 'Tears, idle tears':

Complexity is not a marked characteristic of Tennyson's poem... It moves simply forward with a sweetly plangent flow, without check, cross-tension or any qualifying element. To give it the reading it asks for is to flow with it, acquiescing in a complete and simple immersion; there is no attitude towards the experience except one of complaisance. (From Leavis's essay 'Thought and Emotional Quality', Scrutiny, 13 (1945), 53-71.)

Over the next few web-pages we'll be considering some other ways in which we could read this same poem. For the moment though, do you agree with Leavis' ideas about simplicity and Tennyson's 'sweetly plangent flow'? Do you experience a sense of flowing with the poem, and what do you think is creating this sense if so? It could be the result of the poem's metrical structure (the poetic equivalent of musical beats in a bar), or it might be the poem's imagery (its 'Autumn fields', 'half-awaken'd birds' and so on). Alternatively, perhaps there is something in the poem that interrupts the flow that Leavis writes about?

Leavis also writes about the lack of 'particularity' within this poem. 'We note', Leavis claims, 'the complete absence of... [authentic] particularity; the particularity of 'the happy Autumn fields', 'the first beam glittering on a sail', and the casement that 'slowly fades a glimmering square' is only specious... No new definitions or directions of feeling emerge from these suggestions of imagery.'

For Leavis, these images are just 'suggestions': they are too general to refer to anything in particular and neither violently affect us, nor make us feel anything new. It might be useful to ask yourself whether Tennyson's image of 'happy Autumn fields' enables you to imagine any one particular location, for example, or whether it just helps to create the general atmosphere of the poem. If you think that this image primarily serves to create an abstract atmosphere and is representative in doing so, maybe you will also agree with Leavis' final, negative appraisal of 'Tears, idle tears':

It is plain that habitual indulgence of the kind represented by 'Tears, idle tears' would be, on grounds of emotional and spiritual hygiene, something to deplore.

Leavis is suggesting that there is something psychically or morally dangerous about this poem. What do you think about such an attitude?

Leavis grounds his reading of Tennyson's poem on the idea that 'to give it the reading it asks for is to flow with it', but we might want to question whether he really does give the poem 'the reading it asks for'. For example, he comments on the image of the 'casement' that 'slowly fades to a glimmering square'. Take another look at this particular line in the original poem and you may feel that Leavis' own commitment to 'particularity' is itself slightly 'specious'. In the original poem, the casement 'slowly grows to a glimmering square'; it does not actually fade at all. Perhaps Leavis' reading does not enable us to fully appreciate 'Tears, idle tears' because it doesn't play close enough attention to the verbal structure of the work? We'll test out this idea on the following page, by considering what the 'New Critic' Cleanth Brooks had to say about the poem in a famous essay entitled 'The Motivation of Tennyson's Weeper'.

Click here to go on to Part 2 of this reading of Tennyson's 'Tears, idle tears'.

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