Brooks on Tennyson I: New Criticism's Typical Analytical Moves on "Tears, Idle Tears"
0) Before the first interpretive step, properly construe the poem's meaning (Hirsch).
Brooks' construal of the poem's meaning remains outside the structure of his essay, but one can infer it from the essay's evolving interpretive thesis. The poem is about a speaker (not Tennyson!) struggling to understand the eruption into the present of tears caused by the simultaneous intensity and sadness of past memories. That this struggle informs both the form and content of the poem is important to the interpretation of the poem and the critic's judgment of its aesthetic quality, but that goes beyond construing the poem's meaning.
1) First, determine what tensions are operating in the poem by pointing out their occurrence in the poem's language.
"the nature of the tears. Are they idle tears? Or are they not rather the most meaningful of tears? Does not the very fact that they are 'idle' (that is, tears occasioned by no immediate grief) become in itself a guarantee of the fact that they spring from a deeper, more universal cause? [ . . . ] 'from the depth of some divine despair'" (167-8).
"There is a sense in which the man and the remembered days are one and the same. A man is the sum of his memories" (173).
2) If the "verbal artifact" really is a poem, you also should talk about the way the poem's rhyme and/or rhythm, as well as typographical structure, like capitalization, punctuation, line-breaks and stanza structure, help to support the operation of those tensions. If not, explain why not. [NOTE: BROOKS PAYS ATTENTION TO STANZA CONSTRUCTION AND STANZA "FLOW," BUT HE DOES NOT ATTEND TO RHYME (NONE THERE) PUNCTUATION OR CAPITALIZATION.]
"the poet is thus beginning his poem with a paradox. For the third line of the poem indicates that there is no doubt in the speaker's mind about the origin of the tears in some divine despair. [ . . . ] This first stanza . . . sets the problem which the succeeding stanzas are to analyze" (168-9).
"In the second stanza we are not surprised to have the poet characterize the days that are no more as 'sad,' but there is some shock in hearing him apply to him the adjective 'fresh'" (169).
"But the days that are no more are not merely 'dear' and 'sweet'; they are 'deep' and 'wild.' Something has happened to the grammar here. How can the days be "'deep as love' or 'wild with all regret'? And what is the status of the exclamation 'O Death in Life'?" (172-3).
3) Does the poem achieve unity by means of a single theme using literary language which resolves the tensions in the topic it describes? Explain how it does so. If not, explain why not.
"The conjunction of the qualities of sadness and freshness is reinforced by the fact that the same basic symbol--the light on the sails of a ship hull down--has been employed to suggest both qualities" (170).
"In this third stanza, the special kind of sadness and strangeness is suggested by one and the same figure . . . developed in some detail . . . a dawn scene, though ironically so, for the beginning of the new day is to be the beginning of the long night for the dying man" (170-1).
"If this poem were merely a gently melancholy reverie on the sweet sadness of the past, Stanzas II and III would have no place in the poem. But the poem is no such reverie: the images from the past rise up with a strange clarity and sharpness that shock the reader [and] account for the sudden tears and for the psychological problem with which the speaker wrestles in the poem" (171).
"The word 'wild' is bold, therefore, but justified. It reasserts the line of development which has been maintained throughout the earlier stanzas: 'fresh,' 'strange,' and now 'wild'--all adjectives which suggest passionate, irrational life. The word 'wild,' thus, not only pulls into focus the earlier paradoxes, but is the final stage in the preparation for the culminating paradox, 'O Death in Life'" (174).
4) You will judge the goodness of the poem by the degree to which its dominant theme resolves the thematic tensions you have discovered, usually with some poetic use of figurative language (irony, ambiguity, paradox), and incorporates the poem's complex, multiple views of the topic into an organically unified whole. If it does not, explain the significance of its failure to do so.
"To sum up: The first stanza has a unity [ . . . ] in the dramatic context" (169).
"There is a rather brilliant ironic contrast in the comparison [of strangeness and sadness]. [ . . . ] the dead past seems to the living man as unfamiliar and fresh in its sadness as the living present seems to the dying man. There is more here, however, than a mere ironic reversal of roles; in each case there is the sense of being irrevocably barred out from the known world. This ironic contrast, too, accounts for the sense of desperation which runs through the concluding lines of the poem. [ . . . ] The realized past has become as fabulous as the unrealizable future" (172)
"does the man charge the memories with his own passion, or is it the memories that give the emotion to him? If we pursue the matter far enough . . . we descend to a depth where the distinction lapses. The days that are no more are deep and wild, buried but not dead--below the surface and unthought of, yet at the deepest core of being, secretly alive" (174).
"the poem, for all its illusion of impassioned speech--with the looseness and apparent confusion of unpremeditated speech--is very tightly organized. It represents an organic structure; and the intensity of the total effect is a reflection of the total structure" (174).