Break, Break, Break
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"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.
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. During early 1835, Tennyson travelled to Mablethorpe in order to stay with friends. However, when word came to him that his other friends, the Hallams, were spending time with both William Wordsworth and Samuel Roger, Tennyson believed that he was completely isolated from society while in Lincolnshire. It was in this mindset that Tennyson went with his friends at Lincolnshire to witness the breakers, of which Tennyson's sister Emily described in a letter: "The tides, which though knowest at this time of year are excessively high and fine, tempted my kinsfolk, and so irresistibly, that they resolved no longer to delay their anticipated gratification, –viz, a sight of the darling breakers."
The poem was published in Tennyson's 1842 collection of poems. It was included in the second volume of the collection along with other poems published for the first time: Morte d'Arthur, "The Two Voices", "Ulysses", "The Vision of Sin", and others.
The poem describes feelings of loss and the realization that there is something beyond the cycle of life and death. Of Tennyson's poems, there is a strong biographical connection with "Break, Break, Break" and Tennyson's life. The poem contains Tennyson's feelings of melancholy along with his feelings of nostalgia. Tennyson captures his strong emotions in other poems, including Morte D' Arthur, "Tithonus", and "Ulysses". 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".
"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".
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".
- Thorn 1992 p. 137
- Thorn 1992 qtd. p. 137
- Martin 1979 p. 263
- Shaw 1976 p. 260
- Thorn 1992 p. 139
- Martin 1979 p. 219
- Shaw 1976 pp. 135, 177
- Shaw 1976 pp. 257–259
- Thorn 1992 p. 138
- 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.