Break, Break, Break

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For the 1914 silent film, see Break, Break, Break (film).
c. 1901 illustration to the poem by W. E. F. Britten

"Break, Break, Break" is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson written during early 1835 and published in 1842. The poem is an elegy that describes Tennyson's feelings of loss after Arthur Hallam died and his feelings of isolation while at Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire. The poem is minimalistic in terms of detail and style.

Background[edit]

During the Christmas holiday of 1834/1835, Tennyson was working on many poems, including In Memoriam. He also became dissatisfied with his earlier works and was busy revising the poems that he was still willing to see as publishable.

Contents[edit]

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 vanished 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.

Themes[edit]

The poem describes feelings of loss and the realization that there is something beyond the cycle of life and death.[1] There is a strong biographical connection with "Break, Break, Break." The poem contains Tennyson's feelings of melancholy along with his feelings of nostalgia.[2] Tennyson captures his strong emotions in other poems, including Morte D' Arthur, "Tithonus", and "Ulysses".[3] The suffering felt within the poem is connected to the suffering described in Tennyson's In Memoriam. There is also a connection between the two in that they describe longing for Tennyson's deceased friend Hallam. This appears in the third stanza of "Break, Break, Break".[4]

"Break, Break, Break" can be classified as an elegy, with the subject being Tennyson's friend Hallam. Like "On a Mourner" written a year before, both poems use a very simple style and describe a scene in minimalistic terms. This technique is later used in later elegies written by Tennyson, including "Crossing the Bar", "In the Garden at Swainston", and "To the Marquis of Duffering and Ava". In "On a Mourner", Tennyson relies on myth to help with the poem. However, this technique is dropped in "Break, Break, Break" while forgoing all other decorative aspects, which distinguishes the poem from other poems written at the time, including "Tithonus" or "Ulysses".[5]

Critical response[edit]

Michael Thorn, in his 1992 biography of Tennyson, claims, "This poem, so often anthologized, is a perfect example of how biography can be used to reinvigorate a work grown dull with repetition and familiarity. Almost certainly written during this visit to Mablethorpe [...] knowledge of the biographical background creates a cinematically clear image of the cloaked poet looking resentfully at the cheerful fisherman's child, the equally jovial sailor, and the ships at sea. It is one of the great short lyrics".[6]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Shaw 1976 p. 260
  2. ^ Thorn 1992 p. 139
  3. ^ Martin 1979 p. 219
  4. ^ Shaw 1976 pp. 135, 177
  5. ^ Shaw 1976 pp. 257–259
  6. ^ Thorn 1992 p. 138

References[edit]

  • Martin, Robert. Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.
  • Shaw, W. David. Tennyson's Style. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976.
  • Thorn, Michael. Tennyson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.