Analysis of Break, Break, Break by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson was a poet in the era of Romanticism. There he elaborated nature contrasting it with the human world. Break, Break, Break is considered as an elegy by Alfred Lord Tennyson on the death of his friend Arthur Hallam as it is written right after the sudden death of his friend in 1834. The speaker seems to be standing near the cliff on the seashore and addressing to the sea waves which are lashing the rocks repeatedly. 

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Title: the repetitive imperative ‘break’ is seemingly a releasing of desperate emotions of somebody which he or she is incapable of. Break is associated with sea waves here, which is a natural force occurs spontaneously; the poem is seemingly a juxtaposition of the natural force vs the human emotions at a loss.

Rhyme scheme: abcb except 2nd stanza(aaba)

Form: elegy (lament for the dead) written in four stanzas of four lines each: the first four and the last six are about grief, and the third stanza falls short of giving happy life.

Tone: mournful, nostalgic, understanding

Theme: impermanence of life, short lived nature of happiness

Narration: First person, voice seems to be the poets himself, or a lover who lost his or her beloved.

Main technique: juxtaposition, contrast


Deep end analysis

Break, break, break, 

On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter        

The thoughts that arise in me.


apostrophe: speaker addresses the sea as to a human being.

personification: on thy cold gray stones, O Sea! (he may draw parallels to his own heart vs the stone)

rhythm: like sea waves are breaking ashore

color symbolism: grey (color of death and decay)

refrain: break, break, break (see title)

juxtaposition: poet juxtaposes the spontaneous break of sea waves upon the stones which try to break upon them (though futile) vs his inability to express his vast sorrow (which is too futile because it won’t bring his beloved friend back) However, releasing emotions helps to overcome the sorrow battering the heart.  

assonance: long ‘o’ sound (creates a wailing &sighing sound slowing down the pace of the poem)

synecdoche: my tongue could utter (represents the sound or speech)


The poet juxtaposes his bottled up emotions which he cannot release due to the pain of his friend’s departure. He might be commanding the sea to break at cold grey stones hard which might break his emotionally paralyzed heart which acts like the ‘cold gray stone.’ The broken sentences and the use of harsh sounds depicts the mental state of the speaker. He admits his desperation with regard to releasing of his emotions which enhances his sufferings. The sea’s loud roar, its ability to vent its energy, is something he lacks.


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!


Use of exclamation mark: depicts his emotional loss, he compares his sadness with the happiness of others which deepen the sorrow inside his heart.

repetition: O, well (continuous wailing of his loss)

alliteration: line 2nd and 4th lines (‘h’ sound, just like sighing, shows his state of emotions)


He wails for his loss and sees the world is moving as usual in front of his eyes. He is not jealous of them but they might remind him of his happy moments with his friend. The fisherman’s boy and the sailor lad possess joy and fulfillment, whether together or alone, but he does not. The brother and sister have each other; the sailor has his boat; the speaker is alone. They have reason to voice pleasure, but he does not. These sharply contrasts his loss and what sorrow it can bring to him.


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!


alliteration: haven under the hill

metaphor: haven under the hill (horizon, to their goal, some suggests it as afterlife – death, ships considered as coffins!)

visual imagery: stately ships (ships that are befitting a royal ceremony)

synecdoche: voice that is still (represents his lost friend)

word pun: still (suggests the loss of voice and memory that is still available)


Ships moving to the horizon is a common poetic expression to death - a person moving across from this life to the other. Haven is the goal for a dead person but beloved people lived around him or her suffer due to his or her departure. Stately ships may be suggestive of the positive sense upon the dead person reaching towards his goal, the haven; it is sharply contrasted with the lamenting of the speaker of his material loss. (loss of touch) Either way, the ships and the dead seem contented with the destination. That end means the end of activity; there is no more hand to touch, no more voice to hear which shows the transitory nature of life. However, the stateliness of the ships contrasts with the poet’s emotional imbalance; and the ships move forward to an attainable goal the speaker is not yet ready to let the beloved person to leave.


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.


metaphor: tender grace of a day (his perfect happy life with his friend)


Poet realizes the futility of both the actions of himself and the sea. He sees that the see cannot go beyond the crags however how much it forces upon the crag. Similarly, the poet’s lamenting is fruitless because it will never bring back his friend to life nor he can restore the past. The understanding of the real incident of his friend’s death strikes us the more with the heartrending appeal to the ‘sea’ – a vast image of sorrow of the sad.

However, the poem ends with a positive sense of understanding the nature of life. Life is a temporary thing which can evaporate at any moment. What is your idea about the poem? Please leave a comment below. Please share the post if you find it useful. One share, a lot of care.



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