I just finished a two mile walk in a quiet, woody area close to where I live. I especially enjoy it because I keep company with a wide landscape of greenery, manicured gardens and, quite nice, I may see only one or two cars the whole way. Walking in the early morning makes me mindful of the gift of life and its cornucopia of sensory delights.
Even when you walk, I think you’ll find your mind keeps trolling, often in miscellanea you might miss in the course of your day heavy with things to do, choices to make and, not infrequently, problems to resolve. I haven’t any doubt about it–walking can unleash a spirit of meditation, leading to a stilling of troubled waters. Still more, it can endow us with a wisdom to discern between the wheat and the chaff, providing an equilibrium taking us through the hard places.
Of all things, as I was walking, appreciating the pristine beginnings of a new day with its abundant promise, my thoughts turned to a short poem that Tennyson wrote, called “Tears, Idle Tears,” a poem quite opposite in its mood to the joy I felt while walking this morning:
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!
It isn’t my intent to give a full analysis of this poem, but simply to make several observations about the mindset that informs the poem and a lesson to be learned from it.
If the first stanza is thematic in its nostalgia, the next two stanzas clothe the poet’s lament in a series of similes that make for exquisite eloquence and a lingering pathos of melancholy.
The speaker’s unsolicited tears are as fresh as a ship’s sail that arises above the horizon, glittering in the first sunbeam of early dawn, tears elicited by recall of deceased friends now in the Underworld, who have suddenly sailed into his awareness. But they also vanish again into darkness similar to when the sun drops below the horizon, for memory can never render mortals corporeal again, given the finality of death. Tennyson, the great classicist, is drawing here, of course, upon legendary lore of the Underworld and the voyage of the dead.
But I like the third stanza best with its analogy to the last, sad day of a dying man, who in the early summer dawn awakes to hear the “earliest pipes of half-awakened birds” and sees for the final time the growing light upon the window casement. Ending with its consort of alienation from the vibrant world of the present–“so sad and strange”– is the import here, reinforcing the poem’s trenchant mood of nostalgia for happy days revoked by time and mortality.
All of this makes way for the final stanza where still more similes appear, the past being like remembering those we once kissed, now dead; or imagining kissing those we love, but who don’t reciprocate, underscoring yet again the irrevocability of the past and the frustration of human wish.
Tennyson had said his visit to Tintern Abbey near Wales had inspired this poem, as it had the great Romanticist poet, Wordsworth, who recalled the place in his famous “Tintern Abbey” poem. Wordsworth’s poem, however, recalls the past with joy, giving hope for future years.
While I appreciate Tennyson’s poem for its sincerity of lament and chiseled eloquence, I think we do better in light of the ephemerality of human experience to seize the day, or practice the wisdom of my favorite quotation from Helen Keller that I carried in my wallet for many years:
Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.
Walking this morning, I celebrated the vibrancy of the present. Better, I took possession of it.
I think both Wordsworth and Keller would approve.