Study Circle

A Note on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”

The poem begins with an apostrophe: ” Break, break, break, On thy cold grey stones, O Sea ! ” The speaker asks the sea to crash into the shore and change into foam. Perhaps, he intends to break the silence of his heart which impedes him to “utter / The thoughts that arise in” him. Repetition of the word “break”, as one may say, underscores his intention to break the unbearable silence. Both “cold” and “grey” might be associated with death, morbidity and mournfulness. Crashing of waves on “cold, grey” stones may help the speaker express his feelings and come out of the paralyzing distress. From the second stanza, the poet begins to liberate the focus of the poem to an active and fruitful life. The sea is an indispensable part of that life. The speaker wistfully watches the fisherman’s boy playing with his sister; the sailor lad who sings rowing down the sea; and the stately ships which sail with the purpose of trade. Perhaps, the ceaseless motion of life is what this picture relates. This motion is heedless of personal anxiety and pain. Hence the contrast between the world of the speaker and that of the fisherman’s boy or the sailor lad. The former is saddening; while the latter is vibrant with joy. The speaker can only gaze at the gladdening life. He cannot integrate himself into it since he is weighed down with someone’s memory. Though the identity of that person is ambiguous, we can infer that he is someone who is very near to the speaker’s heart. Even after that person’s death, the speaker feels the touch of his “vanish’d hand” and the “sound of” his voice. It is often conjectured that “Break, Break, Break” is a requiem of Tennyson’s close friend and fellow poet, Arthur Henry Hallam. If this idea is endorsed, the “vanish’d hand” and the “sound of a voice that is still” would belong to none other than Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at a very young age leaving Tennyson alone and sad. In the concluding stanza, the speaker reverts to the scene of sea-waves crashing on rocks. The sea does this continuously, being completely indifferent to the speaker’s bereavement. Presumably, the scene is suggestive of Nature’s or life’s incessant, eternal movement which is totally apathetic to human sorrow or personal loss. The poem, thus, ends on a sad note: “the tender grace of“ the time spent with his beloved one will “never come back to” the poet.


Study Circle 2009

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