Break, Break, Break: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      The poem Break, Break, Break was first published in 1842, nine years after the death at Vienna of Arthur Henry Hallam whom Tennyson mourns in In Memoriam. That elegy sets forth at full length and with ample elaboration the sorrow which this exquisite lyric expresses in quintessence. It was composed "in a Lincolnshire lane at five o'clock in the morning between blossoming hedges." But as Fowler observes, the imagined scene seems to be Clevedon, a little watering-place on the Bristol Channel, where Hallam, the poet's friend, lies buried. The pathos of the poem is brought out with a few simple touches which represent the sorrowing poet standing pensive amidst the ordinary activities of nature and human life.

The poem Break, Break, Break was first published in 1842, nine years after the death at Vienna of Arthur Henry Hallam whom Tennyson mourns in In Memoriam. That elegy sets forth at full length and with ample elaboration the sorrow which this exquisite lyric expresses in quintessence. It was composed "in a Lincolnshire lane at five o'clock in the morning between blossoming hedges." But as Fowler observes, the imagined scene seems to be Clevedon, a little watering-place on the Bristol Channel, where Hallam, the poet's friend, lies buried. The pathos of the poem is brought out with a few simple touches which represent the sorrowing poet standing pensive amidst the ordinary activities of nature and human life.
Break Break Break

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      The poet notices the sea breaking upon the cliff churchyard where his friend Hallam lies buried and expresses the sorrow that fills his heart. He sees the fisherman's boy playing merrily with his sister, and hears the sailor lad singing in his boat. He observes stately vessels sailing majestically to their ports. These activities serve to awaken in his heart a keen sense of the loss which he has sustained by the death of his friend who is gone forever and whose voice has been silenced for all time. He is filled with sadness at the thought that the happy days he spent with his friend can never return.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

      Few of Tennyson's productions are so spontaneous as his Break, Break, Break, yet it is more than a mere cry of despair; for in none does nature so eloquently express what words and even melody can only conceal. Five times the poet abandons the disguise of speech, then paints his sorrow in a vivid picture: (1) Before us lies the sea, powerless to tell its sobbing trouble to the shore, as in wave after wave the utterance dies broken on the cold grey stones. (2) On the shore the children are playing; what could they know of death? (3) Out on the bay the sailor boy is singing about the happy activity of life. (4) In the offing are ships returning from a prosperous voyage, and sailing on majestically to the neighbouring port and in all these pictures the poet expresses more eloquently than in any words the sense of desolation made yet more desolate by contrast with the joy it cannot share. (5) The fifth picture is of the sea breaking hopelessly at the foot of crags that seem to spurn its desire; so death stands inexorably between him and all that he loved. This pictorial rather than articulate representation of grief occurs frequently In Memoriam also, as Morton Luce observes:

      The rush of the sea on the old grey stones is used to prepare the mind for the feeling of helplessness with which the deep emotions break against the hard and rigid element of human speech.

      The picture is then widened out till you see the children laughing on the shore, and the sailor-boy singing and the stately ships passing on in the offing to their unseen haven, all with the view of helping us to feel the contrast between the satisfied and the unsatisfied yearnings of the human heart. Tennyson, like every true poet, has the strongest feeling of the spiritual and almost mystic character of the associations attached to the distant sail which takes the ship on its lonely journey to an invisible port, and has more than once used it to lift the mind into the attitude of hope or trust But then the song returns again to the helpless breaking of the sea at the foot of the crags it cannot climb, not this time to express the inadequacy of human speech to express human yearning, but the defeat of those very yearnings themselves. Thus, does Tennyson turn an ordinary sea-shore landscape into a means of finding a voice for the dumb spirit of human loss, as Houlton points out.

      It should be noted that the eye moves from the breaking waves to the children on the shore, then from the young sailor in his boat on the bay to the ships farther out, then back to the sea breaking on the stones. The movement is circular, and the poem ends with the despair and inability to understand with which it began.

      The rhythm is anapaestic. Anapaests are usually associated with lightness and speed; Tennyson's anapaests here are very slow. Apart from the remorseless and hopeless breaking of the sea on the rocks, the poem seems content with observation in place of imagery. This is probably its essential meaning: the world is meaningless.

LINE BY LINE PARAPHRASE

      L. 5-8. O well.....the bay: In this stanza from Break, Break, Break, the poet expresses the all round joy, witnessed by him on the Clevedon beach. The fisherman's boy while playing with his sister, feels happiness and so he shouts merrily. The sailor also experiences joy and so he sings profusely. In contrast with this jollity, the poet is sad because the remembrance of his dearest friend, Arthur Hallam comes to his mind. He has no words to express his emotion.

      L. 9-12. And the stately.....is still: Tennyson is expressing his intense grief for the loss of his dear friend Hallam amidst the calm indifference of nature. Majestic ships run their course in the usual way and reach the port of their destination. The movement of the ships on the high seas is not the least affected by the death of Hallam, a youth cut off in the bloom of life. While nature is supremely indifferent to human sorrow, the poet is overwhelmed by the tragedy of his friend's death. He keenly longs for the warm touch of his friend's hand, to hear the music of his voice. But unfortunately death has snatched away the hand and silenced his voice for ever.

      L. 13-16. Break, break, break.....come back to me: This is the concluding stanza of Tennyson's Break, Break, Break. The poet sees the sea breaking against the crags and it suggests to him that it is giving expression to its thoughts and emotions. The poet also has intense feeling in his heart. But he is unable to translate them into language. The poet in these lines hints that Nature is uniform. Everything in nature does the same thing from the time of creation and it will continue to do so until the end of time. The sea is dashing against the rocks and it will repeat the same without any change, without cessation. But human beings cannot follow their course without any interruption. Their scope is limited by time and space. The poet once enjoyed the sweet company of his friend: Now the time has changed and there is a vast chasm lying between him and his friend who rests in another world. The thought makes him sad.

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