Dr Oliver Tearle’s summary of one of Tennyson’s greatest short poems
‘Break, break, break’: as opening lines go, it’s memorable for repeating the same word three times and allowing no variation on the rhythm or metre. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) wrote many of his greatest poems in response to the sudden death of a close friend in 1833. ‘Break, Break, Break’ is one such poem. Below is the poem, followed by a few words of analysis, addressing the poem’s language, meaning, imagery, and structure.
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.
‘Break, Break, Break’ is essentially a poem about the desire but the inability to grieve: in summary, the poem sees Tennyson (if we assume here that Tennyson is the speaker, or some approximation to him) addressing the waves of the sea, and drawing a comparison – indeed, a contrast – between the powerful action of the sea’s waves and the relative inaction, or stasis, of Tennyson’s own feelings. He cannot break the paralysis of grief – grief over the death of his dear friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. (Hallam died aged 22 in 1833; Tennyson was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote ‘Break, Break, Break’, in 1835.)
So, in the first of the poem’s four stanzas, Tennyson commands the sea to ‘break, break, break’ upon the cold rocks at the coast; but in the second half of that first stanza, he contrasts this outward scene with the interior one, the struggle raging within his own heart: he cannot articulate his grief, the ‘thoughts that arise’, like the waves of the sea, within him. Here, the rhyme between ‘Sea’ and ‘me’ – made all the more prominent because the other two lines of the stanza do not rhyme – draws this comparison, one that Tennyson returns to in the final stanza. The sea goes on as it must; Tennyson, however, cannot go on with his life.
The fact that Tennyson repeats the Sea/me rhyme (and the ‘Break, break, break’ command) in the final stanza reinforces his sense of paralysis: he’s still where he was at the start of the poem. Here we might observe that the form and metre of the poem, strongly suggestive of the ballad, are at odds with the poem’s message of inaction and stasis: ballads tend to tell a story, and are about people doing things. Here, everyone else is active, but the speaker cannot move on. Grief keeps his thoughts, his speech, his whole life, in check.
Tennyson’s poems are always fun to analyse. We include ‘Break, Break, Break’ in our compilation of Tennyson’s finest poems, but you might also find our analysis of Tennyson’s short masterpiece ‘The Eagle’ of interest.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Waves crashing on rocks on the Southern Oregon Coast (picture credit: Jsayre64), Wikimedia Commons.