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Break, Break, Break
A Poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
A Study Guide
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Notes and Annotation by Michael J. Cummings.. 2006
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Type of Work and Date of Composition

"Break, Break, Break" is a lyric poem that Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was believed to have completed in 1834. It centers on Tennyson's grief over the death of his best friend, Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet. Lyrical poetry presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet as opposed to poetry that tells a story or presents a witty observation. A lyric poem often has a pleasing musical quality. The word lyric derives from the Greek word for lyre, a stringed instrument in use since ancient times. 

Rhyme Scheme and Meter

Lines 2 and 4 of each stanza have end rhyme. The meter in the poem varies, but the anapestic foot creates the musicality of the poem, as in the following lines:

    .iamb.........anapest......anapest.........iamb
    But O| for the TOUCH | of a VAN | ished HAND,

    ......anapest...........anapest.........anapest.....
    And the SOUND| of a VOICE| that is STILL!

Rhetorical Devices

Following are examples of figures of speech and other rhetorical devices in "Break, Break, Break": 

Apostrophe (Lines 1 and 2): The narrator addresses the sea. 
Personification and metaphor also occur in Lines 1 and 2, for the poet regards the sea as a human being. 
Alliteration (Line 8): boat on the bay
(Lines 9-12): Stanza 3 uses this figure of speech as follows:

    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!
Alliteration (Line 15): day that is dead
Repetend: Line 13 repeats Line 1; Line 7 repeats the first two words of Line 5.
Paradox: Touch of a vanished hand (Line 11), sound of a voice that is still (Line 12).

Themes

Grief

The main theme is bereavement, heartache, emptiness. In the narrator's dark hour of grief, the sun rises, children laugh, business goes on as usual. How could the world be so cruel and unfeeling?

Preciousness of Youth

Tennyson's friend, Arthur Hallam, was only 22 when he died. The shock of Hallam's death impressed upon Tennyson how priceless youth is. To underscore this idea, and to express the agony he suffers at the loss of young Hallam, Tennyson presents images of youthful joy: the fisherman's son playing with his sister and the "sailor lad" singing in the bay. 

Indifference of Nature

Nature continues to function according to its rhythms and cycles regardless of what happens, good or bad, to human beings. The temperature may plummet just when a poor family runs out of fuel. The sun may shine and the birds may sing in the middle of the bloodiest of battles. And the sea will rise and fall in a defiant, unrelenting rhythm that refuses to acknowledge tragedy in the everyday life of average men. Tennyson laments this cold indifference in "Break, Break, Break." 
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Break, Break, Break
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Text, Summary, and Notes
1
Break,1 break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O2 Sea!
And I would3 that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.1

2
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!4

3
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!

4
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags,5 O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

Summary

The narrator grieves the loss of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, a promising poet and essayist who had been engaged to Tennyson's sister, Emily. Hallam died of a stroke in 1833 when he was only 22. Nature, of course, does not stop to mourn the loss of anyone. Cold and indifferent, it carries on, the waves of the ocean breaking against rocks along the seashore without pausing even for a moment. The rest of the world carries on as well: the fisherman's boy happily playing with his sister, the sailor merrily singing, the ship busily plying the waters of commerce. Downcast, isolated by his grief, the narrator yearns to touch the hand of his friend once more, to hear the sound of his voice. But, no, Hallam is gone forever; his "tender grace" will never again return. 

1...Break: To crash into a shore and change into foam
2...O: Interjection used before the name of a person or thing addressed by a poet. It is intended to express deep yearning or surprise, joy, pain, fear, wonderment, and other emotions or sensations. 
3...would: Wish
4...bay: Part of the sea that cuts into the shoreline. A bay forms after the sea erodes soft rock between masses of hard rock. A bay is smaller than a gulf but larger than a cove. 
5...crags: Rough, steep masses of rock at the shoreline

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