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 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.
In this week’s poem, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) laments the death of his 22-year-old friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in 1833. It was probably written in 1834 (some sources give 1835). Hallam is the subject of the long elegiac meditation In Memoriam, which occupied Tennyson for a number of years, but Break, Break, Break can’t be considered a trial run for In Memoriam. Tennyson had begun to write some of the quatrains for the latter poem a few days after the loss of his friend. It’s to some extent a distillation of emotion, a sharply anguished keen rather than a meditation, but it contains themes and images in microcosm that are more spaciously considered in In Memoriam – “the touch of a vanish’d hand”, the sea – important because it bore Arthur Hallam’s remains home from Italy – and the vision of “the tender grace’” of a particular day.
Tennyson and Hallam met at Cambridge and shared literary, philosophical and political interests. In the summer of 1830 they set off for Spain, planning to deliver money and messages to the revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the king. They became disillusioned with this aspect of their jaunt. Landscape and loving friendship were revolution enough. For Tennyson, the Pyrenees – in particular the valley of Cauterets – became the “soul-landscape” of many later poems. This is how, in Canto 71 of In Memoriam, he re-lives the unfolding of the relationship with Hallam:
While now we talk as once we talk’d
Of men and minds, the dust of change,
The days that grow to something strange,
In walking as of old we walk’d
Beside the river’s wooded reach,
The fortress and the mountain ridge,
The cataract flashing from the bridge,
The breaker breaking on the beach.
The “breaker breaking” brings us back to the current poem and the question of its setting. The English seaside resorts Mablethorpe and Clevedon have both been proposed. But, according to an autobiographical fragment by the poet quoted here it was composed “in a Lincolnshire lane at 5 o’clock in the morning”. The suggestion of a constructed setting drawn from memory and imagination seems persuasive. Those crags in the last stanza could easily belong to the landscape of a “day that is dead” – when Tennyson and Hallam were walking in Cauterets.
In her invaluable analysis of Tennyon’s aestheticism in the volume On Form, Angela Leighton points to the strategic placing of the comma after the third “break” in the first line: “it changes the meaning of ‘break’, from ‘break on’ to ‘break,’ which thus, visibly and aurally, curtails its arrival on the shore as well as its arrival at the real object of breaking: ‘the touch of a vanished hand’.”
The harsh consonants of “break” are emphasised by the triple repetition in the first and last stanzas. It’s not a sea-like sound, even if sizeable waves are imagined, and inevitably suggests the crueller metaphorical breakage – the heartbreak of impossible love and death-broken friendship. In an earlier poem, The Ballad of Oriana, (admired by Arthur Hallam in his introductory essay to Tennyson’s early poems) the following line occurs: “O breaking heart that will not break, Oriana!” This too is echoed in the current poem and in its compellingly angry resistance to the ordinary business of living – the fisherman’s children at play, the singing sailor and the ships going safely into harbour. One of the thoughts, in Tennyson’s words, “half revealed and half concealed”, is that the poet’s own life still stretches wearily ahead of him. In the intensity of grief, the stillness of death might seem preferable to the onward flow of the waves.
July 18, 2022 at 02:47PM Carol Rumens