Written in 1835, Alfred Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break is a short poetical masterpiece. Consisting of just four verses of four lines each the poem resounds with isolation, loneliness and loss. The deep grief which permeates the poem means that it has often been used as a eulogy at funerals, particularly appropriate for those who have worked at sea or lived by the sea. The opening lines are ones many may find in the soil of memory, even if they cannot dig up the rest of the words or the name of the poet:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
The fact that the poem is known by the first three words is a testament to the power of the first line. The opening of the last stanza echoes the first:
Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
Tennyson has personified the sea, talking to it as if it were a person. The use of O Sea shows respect for the grandeur of the character he is speaking to. There is a permanence about the sea, the stones it washes over, the crags whose feet it meets that goes far beyond all our lifetimes.
The mastery of the poem comes in part from the juxtaposition of something as elemental as the sea and people as transient as the fisherman’s boy and his sister and the sailor’s lad who are mentioned in the second verse. The poet sees them and yet is removed from them, seeing and hearing their zest for life but too deep in his own sorrow to join them.
It is widely believed that the person Tennyson was mourning when he wrote this poem was his friend Arthur Hallam; the two young men, both deeply interested in poetry, had met whist studying at Cambridge. Tennyson’s sister Emily and Arthur were engaged; the sudden, unexpected death of the man who had been his closest friend was a deep blow for the young poet, yet the experience also led to a rich vein of poetry. Hallam died whilst overseas with his father; the third verse of Tennyson’s poem honours his passing:
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill
It as if these ships carry the dead to a burial ground beneath the earth, beyond the sea. It also echoes mythological tales – the river Styx which in Greek mythology separated the living from the dead who were taken across the river by the ferryman Charon; King Arthur, carried by boat to the Isle of Avalon after being mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlan.
Tennyson goes on in the third verse to use imagery that is likely to evoke memories for many who have lost someone close to them:
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand
And the sound of a voice that is still!
It is as if the poet, somewhere, is holding on to scattering fragments of a life that has gone, grabbing at echoes of Arthur Hallam that touch his senses. Yet he also knows he cannot capture that which has passed as evidenced by the final lines...
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.