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Break, break, break -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

(Poem #31) Break, break, break
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 vanished 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.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Another nice poem by Tennyson, in which the moods, images and rhythms blend
perfectly. Note the heavy, melancholy feel of 'break, break, break',
contrasted with the lighter 'that he sings in his boat on the bay', and in
general the way the various moods of the sea are evoked, from dancing,
rippling waves and gentle swells, to the mealncholy, insistent breaking upon
a cold and lonely shore.


  Great ages are fortunate which find the one voice that can turn to music
  their otherwise mute beliefs and endeavors, their joy and pain. Such was
  Chaucer for his time; such were Shakespeare and Spenser for theirs, Pope for
  his, and preeminently Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for the time of Victoria. Our
  present disparagement of Tennyson is only our impatience with everything
  Victorian; for his poetry peculiarly expresses the ideas and the enthusiasms
  of the vast reading middle class of his day. He reasons like the middle-
  -class liberal who keeps to the Christian faith and forms, at least in the
  via media or middle course, with a mind open to the new difficulties rising
  from the new science, and the prevailing evolutionary enthusiasm for
  progress and some good time coming.
  His poetry sings the virtues and enthusiasms of his day, domestic and
  social, the patriotism, the humanitarian impulses, the utilitarian
  prosperity, the fascination of death, the sombre religion or scepticism, and
  the New Empire. At the same time he is nourishing and refining his age with
  the beauty which it had lost, and which he shapes for its needs out of many
  a corner of "the antique world." If he seems at times to be an aristocrat,
  he is such with the middle-class conservatism and faith in the old English
  order. He has as much of the body and fibre of English life in him as
  Dickens--perhaps more--not its lusty humors so much as its peculiar and
  irresistible charm mellowed by time.
  He was first of all a careful, patient workman, and no man ever toiled
  harder or more soberly to perfect himself in his craft. He kept it up all
  his long life, revising and editing early poems, reading, observing,
  travelling, scrutinizing the work of his many masters, inventing short
  snatches and cadences which he saved for later use. With his minute care he
  joined extraordinary range and variety--of metre, subject and material, and
  final effect.
  Like that otber great Alexandrian, Theocritus, Tennyson was essentially an
  idyllist, a fashioner of small and highly finished pictures. Hundreds of
  them are strewn from end to end of his work, from his Lady of Shalott, one
  of the most idyllic, through his classical poems, his pageants of the Palace
  of Art, and The Dream of Fair Women, his poems of English life, his
  Princess, Maud, In Memoriam. Of this he seems to have been aware in his very
  fondness for the word, "idyll"--"a small, sweet idyll," "English Idylls,"
  and Idylls of the King.
  But he has far greater gifts than fine minute craftsmanship. One is the
  poet's supreme gift of making the language sing a new song, verse set to its
  own indigenous tune, the gift of Burns, or Byron, and the Elizabethans. And
  though it is usually peculiar to the youthful poet, it never wholly left
  Tennyson from "Break, break, break" to Crossing the Bar.

      -- Excerpts from Charles Grosvenor Osgood, 'The Voice of England',
      read the whole essay at


43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Amit Chakrabarti said...

I understand that this is a "snapshot" type poem rather than a "story"
type poem. The only part of this that I can't understand is the
following (very famous) lines:
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
The lines are nice, but how do they relate to the rest of the poem? They
seem somewhat "inserted".

Martin DeMello said...

Also spracht Amit Chakrabarti...
> I understand that this is a "snapshot" type poem rather than a "story"
> type poem. The only part of this that I can't understand is the
> following (very famous) lines:
> But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
> And the sound of a voice that is still!
> The lines are nice, but how do they relate to the rest of the poem? They
> seem somewhat "inserted".

actually, i felt so too, and was gong to say so but desisted. what they do
is provide context for the rest - break etc and i would that my heart could
utter, and then the last verse, both make sense in the context of that line.
my crib was that it seemed stylistically out of place, but (a) they're among
my favourite lines and (b) who am i to question tennyson's poetry :)

aamof, when i first read this poem, years ago, i thought that tennyson had
come up with a stud couple of lines and impatiently inserted them into
whatever poem he was working on at the moment :)


Mukund Rangamani said...

Well the poem seems to indicate the poet in a melancholy mood.
He is missing something that was a source of comfort - the
gaiety of the fisherman's boy seem to make his pain more acute.
I would summarise the poem as pointing to the ephemeral nature of life
opposed to the unending saga of the the waves breaking against the

Comments ?

Natalie Núñez said...

Alfred, Lord Tennyson is definately a remarkable
writer, in that he's able to write about everything,
and still keep his writing style without really
drifting off to that of other styles. "Break, Break,
Break" is genious, and very sad at the same time.
Could this be about his past loved ones who are now

Rob F said...

my comments are these
a. how wonderful that these words can stilol evoke such a rich response from
its readers.
how marvelous.
how masculine.
ergo. i feel in the text a true strong guy's voice.
as a woman i'm touched and love to share the words, but definitely feel
thank for the offer to feel my mind's been tickled/
-nancy bengis friedman

Seagybaby said...

Yes, the touch of the hand etc is a reference to the speaker's melancholy: he
remembers someone who has died and grieves.

Suchitra Kumar said...

Real pleased to find one of my favourite poems here.

This is a beautifully constructed poem. I first read it in school sometime.
I used to sing out poems in order to learn them by-heart for (ugh) exams,
and found that this one sounded particularly nice, surpassing other poems
that were more lively, and traditionally considered more beautiful.

I believe the poem expresses a *constrained sorrow* at the loss of friends
and time. The lines referring to the ever-breaking sea, the fisherman's boy,
the stately ships, etc. all show the permanence of the world around and how
it remains unaffected by the poet's personal grief.

These are just the setting for the poem. The real emotion of the poem is in
the lines

"But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!"

and in

"But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me."

The last two lines are wonderfully expressive, and are my favourite ones.

- Suchitra

Tollmag2 said...

how could anyone think that these lines were inserted? This is a poem of
intense grief.... and the lines "But O for the touch of a vanished hand,/And
the sound of a voice that is still!" refer to the source of his grief.....
the recent death of his childhood friend...... Tennyson is expressing a loss
so deep it puts a lump in my throat......

sandi_ordinario said...

Hi Amit!

To share with you what I know about Tennyson's Break, Break, Break

I read somewhere in some obscure literary criticism of the poem that the fisherman's boy is really Alfred who is portrayed in the poem as playing with his sister at the bay. The sailor lad is his friend who is nameless. I am not sure if he eventually married Alfred's sister but the cryptic line:

But O for the touch of a vanished hand
And the sound of a voice that is still.

Could be refering to either his sister or his brother-in-law who probably died young. This is what I remember. I hope it fills in some gaps.


Charlotte Crawley said...

I think the lines u r referring to are about Tennyson's university friend Arthur Hallam, who he adored and wrote In Memoriam for after his tragic and early death. In "In Memoriam" the image of touching hands is repeatwed frequently and almost becomes a motif for Tennyson's grief for his friend. He is always wanting to be able to touch his hands once more and it is similar in this poem, he longs to be able to touch Hallam again because he knows he never will.


dan man said...

The way I see it, which may very well be looking far far too deep into this,
is that the entire poem is about the death of his friend.

The stately ships would be his friend who passed on, his spirit if you will.

The haven under the hill is heaven, or whereever the deceased wind up.

This poem is about his grief over the loss of his friend.

Thanks for clearing up those lines, sandi, they were always the ones that
made me second guess myself.
Have a good one guys.

helen davison said...

From: Helen Davison

I think Tennyson intended these two lines to stand out and perhaps seem out of place because the speaker's grief does not fit into the world he is living in.Everything is going on as usual, despite his grief and it seems as though it doesn't belong. The lines reflect this idea. Also, although i do agree that the lines seem inserted, they represent the speaker's consciousness perfectly, in that he cannot forget this person. Life is going on around him, life that has nothing to do with him or his dead friend, but it still reminds him of that person. No matter what the speaker sees, he thinks of his loss, and this sudden thought of his friend is reflected in the sudden change of focus in the two lines you mentioned.

Bodill said...

“But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!”

these lines Could symbolize the withdrawal Tennyson felt after the death
of close friend Hallam.

The way he describes everything else in the poem is accurate.

These few lines represent feelings of loss and isolation.

They portray his significance in relation to the world.

If we believe the lines to be “inserted” we are acknowledging how
separate he has become from the general society.

P.K.Srivastava said...

I felt very sad after reading this poem,during my childhood days,and now I can see emotions pouring from the grieving poet.But the World goes on as usual nothing happens to this world.The actions of the sea and the fishermans boy and his sister are as usual as if nothing has happened to them.This is the irony!But it is very hard to comprehand.

Zahid Iqbal said...

This poem has got a melancholic touch and an air of nostalgia about it. The greates benefit such poetry serves in my opinion is the refinement of emotions. It also tends to purify you spiritually. Such benefits can be had only when one can relate his or her feelings to the mood of the poem. I am not sure about how other people feel about it But I love such poetry. Other examples include poems by Emily Bronte like SELF-INTERROGATION and Youth and Age by S. T Coleridge etc.

Richard Collins said...

Perusing through the excellent comments here, and thought I'd add some of my
I was reading the poem, and I realised that the title could be describing
the breaking of his heart at the death of his friend, or a contrast with the
waves that break, only to reform, whereas his friend is lost irreparably.
Also, the cold gray stones could be interpreted as gravestones, as well as
the cliff walls.
The boy and girl playing, and the sailor lad show Tennyson's resentment of
their innocence and happiness.
Just also like to point out that the Vikings, as well as cremating their
dead, also buried them in their longships, which could be related to the
ships going 'to their haven under the hill'.
Just my thoughts...
Richard Collins

Kerri Robinson said...

I found the one stanza about the stately ships and the feeling of loss in an ordinary fiction book on 1 Jan 2007 - they affected me so much that I wrote them in my journal. I knew they were from Tennyson, never looked up from which poem they were taken.
When my dear husband died on 28 March I included them in his memorial. He was in the Royal Australian Navy, then became a soldier and a farmer. They just seemed to fit so well. Many of our friends agree.

Barker said...

Just read your comments on Break, Break, Break. Apparently you have 0
understanding that this poem was written after the death of a loved
one. He is overwhelmed by the realization that life goes on; the
world doesn't stop even though one's own personal world has been
shattered. . And finally, he realizes that his world will never be
the same again. It is not a "nice" poem. It is the poem of someone
grieving a tremendous loss.

Trevor Harvey said...

I believe this poem was written at, (or at least, about), Clevedon, near
Bristol. I knew it well in my late teens, as I lived in Bristol then. A
blustery little seaside town which still has its old pier, on the
northern shore of the West of England, Clevedon looks out northwards
onto the Bristol Channel, where big ships did indeed pass along that
choppy stretch a further 13 miles to the port of Bristol, as they had
since the days when the port was made rich by the slave trade. Had he
been able to look out on a clear day, the coastline of South Wales would
have been visible in the distance. The sand all along that stretch is
muddy grey too, like the crags, the cold grey stones. I memorised this
poem many years ago, and see the "out of place" lines as revealing the
dissonance between the poet's lived experience of his observations,
looking down at the sea and the local people who got their living from
it, and his inner reverie and recollection of lost love. Tennyson quite
likelyy reached the town by steam train, as it was then on the Great
Western Railway route that joined the seaside towns of northern
Somerset. The spelling of grey is authentic to UK, and thus, Tennyson's,
English; to change the vowel is not. -- T. P. Harvey

Michael Degan said...

To understand this poem you must know that Tennyson’s good friend died just
before he wrote it. The poem is about how he feels as he walks along the
sea. He is jealous of the happy people he sees and he is angry and grieving.

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Anonymous said...

i cant understand!

Anonymous said...

I always loved that poem, learned at school, but only at the loss of my dear sister, could I feel Tennysons grief in the words, 'O for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still'. I believe that he was not jealous of the life around him, but simply pointing to the fact that life goes on even though your heart is broken.

Anonymous said...

nice poem

Anonymous said...

nice poem but i need its paraphrase

Josh H. said...

The bible describes the Spirit of God as a still, small voice. ("And the sound of a voice that is still") It is evident that he is missing deeply something that he once had. I do not know much about Tennyson's biography, but what he is feeling is a very acute realization of the absence of the presence of God. ("the touch of a vanished hand")

Anonymous said...

i like this poem very much

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