Break, Break, Break: Summary & Analysis

Break, Break, Break: Summary & Analysis
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

We all have difficulties dealing with the death of a loved-one - even famous Victorian poets. Come see how one such poet copes with the loss of a close friend in this lesson on 'Break, Break, Break' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Summary of 'Break, Break, Break'

Have you ever heard of something called a 'breaker?' If you live by a coastline, you know the term refers to more than an electrical box or an annoyingly slow driver. Along the coasts, there are places where the sea's waves lose their momentum and 'break' against the shore, and both these places and the dying waves themselves are often referred to as 'breakers,' which play a big role in this work by Alfred Tennyson, the 1st Baron Tennyson, British nobleman, and Poet Laureate under Queen Victoria who lived from 1809 to 1892. Since it's rather short, take a quick look at this haunting lament so we can more easily discuss it in a moment:

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.

Analysis of 'Break, Break, Break'

In poetry, there's a long tradition of experiencing loss through literature, with poets producing tearful pieces for millennia. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote several works belonging to this literary tradition, and 'Break, Break, Break' is one of them. Written in 1833 but not published until almost a decade later, the poem mourns the loss of Tennyson's friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.

Unlike similar works that are considered elegies, 'Break, Break, Break' is called a threnody, a verse work that passionately mourns a person's death. So, what's the big difference? Think of how you might restrain your grief while at a public funeral. An elegy is more like that public grieving, usually 'restrained' by some sense of logic, particularly in the form of some cheerful reminder of the continuity of life. Threnodies, however, are firmly rooted in that moment of loss and shamelessly pour out the writer's emotions: usually those of deep sorrow, pain, and despair.

What better way to pour out one's emotions than through the symbolism of the sea? In 'Break, Break, Break,' Tennyson relies on the sea as he participates in a common practice of this poetic tradition: getting nature to mourn for you. In the first two stanzas, we find the narrator feeling unable to express his grief, so he asks the waves to 'Break, break, break / On thy cold gray stones,' symbolizing tears washing against dreary tombstones. With the waves doing his crying for him, the narrator then jealously derides the young men who still have voices to use for things as trivial and leisurely as play and song.

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