Break, Break, Break
BY ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
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.
Here is a brilliant example of “why poetry”? the poem itself is simple: it is the end of the day, and Alfred watches waves on the rocks. He feels sorrow for someone who has died. Yet the poem provokes the sorrow which it describes. How does it do so?
Here are some notes (thanks for help from Dr. Thompson, Expositor’s Seminary):
1) through the use of cold gray stones to remind us of tombstones 2) the sea washes over the stones reminding us of being buried 3) the ellipses of emotion heightens what he feels (the inexpressible) 4) the contrast of unspoken/inexpressible emotion with the joy of those around (he applauds their joy with a hint of sarcasm/cynicism) 5) He notes the stately ships going to rest under the hill, another euphemism for buried in death 6) a longing for touch and voice from a life that is no more 7) An inclusio with the Sea against the crags/rocks – here they are not cold/gray, and his cynicism is further heightened and he views them with disdain because they remind him of death 8) he metaphorically reflects on the dying day that once gone can never come back as a reflection of his lost companion/friend
The line “break, break, break” contains three accented syllables in a row. It is impossible to say it correctly without slowing down. In Greek epic poetry, the line ends with two accents, which marks the end, because you have to slow up a bit to pronounce it. Three is a very somber movement — remember that many poetical rhythms in western poetry were originally tied to dances. Break, break, break is a kind of march, not dance. In the second stanza, note the repetition of “O, well” with the two parallel images of those who can be happy — it is good for them, but not me. “O, well” has a sort of ballad feel, it sounds like one could sing. Note that the structure is almost identical in both halves of the stanza, which increases and eases the speed. But in the third stanza, there is a sharp break from the happy (and ironically sorrowful image) of a ship coming safely home (remember, whenever a ship was at sea, it was in grave danger) follows with the past two “And the stately ….” that “and” ties it to the proceeding happy images –but he shifts almost illogically in the third stanza, “But O” which ties the line to the past three images “O well” & “And” — I can’t participate in that happiness. Or, the sounds in the last stanza: The hard B’s — following on the But in stanza 3 — Break, But, Back. Note also how the repetition of the D’s draws the second half of the third line together, “a DAY that is DEAD”.