A break, a break, a break
Break, break, break,
On your cold gray stones, O sea!
And I wish my tongue could speak
The thoughts I have.
Oh well for a fisherman boy
That he screams with his sister in the game!
Oh, good for a sailor boy
What he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the majestic ships go further
They have a shelter under a mountain;
But the touch of a missing hand
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break
At the foot of your rocks, O sea!
But the gentle grace of the day that died
Will never come back to me.
In this week’s poem, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) mourns the death of his 22-year-old friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in 1833. Probably written in 1834 (some sources give 1835). Hallam is the subject of the long elegiac meditation In Memoriam, which occupied Tennyson for several years, but Break, Break, Break cannot be considered a trial run of In Memoriam. Tennyson began writing some of the quatrains for the final poem a few days after the loss of his friend. It is to some extent a distillation of the senses, a poignant agonizing rapture rather than a meditation, but it contains themes and images in microcosm that are more comprehensively explored in In Memoriam – “the touch of the missing hand”, the sea – important. because he was carrying Arthur Hallam’s remains home from Italy – and a vision of “tender grace” on a particular day.
Tennyson and Hallam met at Cambridge and shared literary, philosophical and political interests. In the summer of 1830, they went to Spain, planning to deliver money and messages to the revolutionaries who were plotting to overthrow the king. They were disappointed in this aspect of their walk. The scenery and the loving companionship were revolution enough. For Tennyson, the Pyrenees – in particular, the valley of the river Baking soda – became the “mental landscape” of many later poems. Here’s how he relives the unfolding of his relationship with Hallam in 71 In Memoriam:
And now we talk like we used to talk
Men and minds, the dust of change,
Days that grow into something amazing
In walking, as of old we walk’d
Next to the forest of the river,
Fortress and mountain range,
Cataract flashes from the bridge,
A switch that breaks on the beach.
“Lomka lomka” brings us back to the present poem and the question of its setting. The English seaside resorts of Mablethorpe and Clevedon were suggested. But, according to the poet’s autobiographical fragment quoted here it was written “in Lincolnshire Lane at 5 o’clock in the morning”. The suggestion of a built environment created from memory and imagination seems compelling. Those rocks in the last stanza could well belong to the landscape of “the day that is dead” – when Tennyson and Hallam were walking in Katere.
In his invaluable analysis of Tennion’s aestheticism in On Form Angela Leighton points out the strategic placement of the comma after the third ‘break’ in the first line: ‘this changes the meaning of ‘break’ from ‘break’ to ‘break’, thus visibly and audibly shortening his arrival at the shore as well as his arrival at of the true object of destruction: “the touch of the missing hand.”
The triple repetition in the first and last stanzas emphasizes the sharp consonants of the “break.” It’s not like the sound of the sea, even if you imagine big waves, and inevitably suggests a harsher metaphorical break – the heartbreak of impossible love and the death of friendship. In the previous poem, Ballad of Ariane(admired Arthur Hallam in his Introductory Essay to Tennyson’s Early Poems) the following line occurs: “O broken heart that will not be broken, Ariana!” It is also echoed in the present poem and in its convincingly angry resistance to the ordinary things of life – the fisherman’s children playing, the sailor singing and the ships sailing safely into harbour. One of the thoughts, in Tennyson’s words, “half open, half hidden,” is that the poet’s own life still looms wearily ahead. In the intensity of grief, the silence of death may seem better than the rush of waves.