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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Number 265: Alfred, Lord Tennyson "Break, Break, Break"

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

Hap Notes: This was written as Tennyson lamented the loss of his best friend and companion, Arthur Hallam. The shy Tennyson met Hallam at Trinity College, Cambridge and the two were inseparable friends. Hallam's death at the age of 22 haunted Tennyson for the rest of his life. He and Hallam had planned to publish a book together featuring both of their verses.

Tennyson's sorrow in today's poem has a bitter and resentful tone which anyone who has lost a loved one can understand. It seems almost impossible and somewhat unbelievable that the world goes on as your life is benighted with mourning. How can those children be so happy? What does anybody have to sing about? How can the regular old world of trade and commerce go on when your world seems to have caved in?

Of course, Tennyson is also pointing out that the sea, which keeps on rolling, the children who are playing (the next generation), the young sailor singing (your life is not their life) and the ships that are sailing (keeping the world working and going along) are all part of the short cycle of life. There is a large universe in this poem contrasting to Tennyson's grief.

Tennyson really cornered the market on sorrow in his poetry. Even his poem "Ulysses", written shortly after Hallam's death, is full of shadings of his sadness at his friend's death. Tennyson always acknowledges that the world is huge and mysterious and unfathomable. Here's a little bonus poem that emphasizes this:

Flower In the Crannied Wall

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;—
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

See what I mean? His sorrow is always tinged with the knowledge that not all things can be understood. This is a giant concept, by the way. Disconcerting in its truth, yes?

Here's where we've talked about Tennyson before:

and here:

The picture of Tennyson is a detail of the one painted by George Frederic Watts in 1895.

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