This is a poem that manages to sound a lot like what it describes. The steady, lulling rhythm of the poem – the repetition, with slight differences, of the same sounds over and over – sounds like the repeated crash of waves on a shore. Try reading it out loud, or listen to one of the recordings in the "Best of the Web" section. It's easy to imagine floating on your back in the ocean, letting the words and waves wash over you. The lilting repetition of some of the same sounds ("O, well," "O Sea!") and the consistent and simple rhyme scheme can practically lull you to sleep. Don't be fooled into falling asleep, though – there's a lot going on in this poem beneath the smooth surface.
The title of the poem is just the first line: "Break, break, break." In the context of the poem, it's the speaker telling the sea waves to "break, break, break" against the rocks. But lots of other things break, too, right? Like mirrors, or glasses, or hopes…or hearts. You get the picture: it's not a happy word, generally speaking.
The repetition in the title is important. The first line (and the title) emphasizes that the ocean waves are going to keep breaking, and breaking, and breaking, no matter what the speaker does. Time continues to pass, even in the wake of great tragedy.
We're at the seaside. Now, before you start imagining palm trees and white beaches, we should add that we're by the sea on a coast in England somewhere. The sea is gray, and the coast is rocky. Not a lot of beaches around here. The waves keep crashing, smashing, splashing against the rocks. It's not a deserted spot, by any means: there are fishermen, and their kids are playing. Sailors are singing while they work and ships are sailing by. Not so bad, right?
Wrong. It's all about the setting you bring with you, and our speaker is a very sad guy. He's mourning the death of his best friend, and until he comes to terms with that loss, all the great stuff at the seaside is totally wasted on him.
The unnamed speaker of "Break, Break, Break" is sad. He also tells us that he can't express himself well. Grief has made him tongue-tied. And then he goes on for three more lyrical, lovely stanzas about how much he misses his dead friend. Who says he can't express himself well? Our speaker is too modest.
He is standing (or imagining that he is standing) by the ocean, perhaps in a port, watching the waves break. He can see and hear the local fishermen's kids running around, and can hear a sailor singing. Ships are cruising by. Our speaker can see and hear all of this, but he doesn't appreciate it – all he can think about is his absent friend. He might be observant, and maybe, if he weren't grieving, he'd be a nature lover. But as things are, all the beauties of the seaside are wasted on him. They just remind him of the way the earth keeps turning even after his friend has died.
The language of this poem is pretty straightforward – not too many unfamiliar words to trip up unwary readers. But there are some more difficult poetic tools (check out the "Symbolism" section for more on those) that make this poem more complicated.
Tennyson often complains (in his poems) about his inability to express himself properly. Well, he wrote enough beautiful poetry that we're not really convinced that he had a problem, but he seemed to think so. He worried that his many poems about his grief for his friend Hallam were just empty sounds, like the many repeated "O's" in the poem "Break, break, break," or like the "shouts" of the kids, or like the sound of the breaking waves.
OK, before you think, "snoresville" and head for the "Steaminess Rating," let us explain. A huge part of the effect of this poem is due to the rhythm of the words and the rhyme, and "quatrains in irregular iambic tetrameter" is just the fancy way of describing that rhythm.
A quatrain is a four-line stanza. This poem is broken into four stanzas, each with four lines. It's awfully symmetrical. Each quatrain can be broken down further according to its rhyme scheme: the rhyme is a regular ABCB – the second and fourth lines always rhyme. Check out this example from the first stanza:
Break, break, break, (A)
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! (B)
And I would that my tongue could utter (C)
The thoughts that arise in me. (B)
See how the end words for lines 2 and 4 rhyme? In every stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme.
But that's where the symmetrical regularity ends. The meter of the poem – the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – is all over the place. Almost every line has three stressed syllables, which is why we call it "trimeter" (tri = three). If we bold the syllables that you'd naturally emphasize when reading it out loud, you'll see that there are three stresses. Check it out:
And the state-ly ships go on
So what's so irregular about it, you ask? Well, even though there are usually three stressed syllables per line, the total number of syllables per line varies quite a lot. The first line, for example, has only three syllables, total, and they're all stressed:
Break, break, break.
Compare that to line 14:
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
Why all the irregularity, then? Believe us, it's not because Tennyson didn't know any better. Quite the opposite, in fact. The regular stresses, but irregular total number of syllables, could be seen as a throwback to Anglo-Saxon poetry, like Beowulf or "The Wanderer." Could Tennyson have consciously been mimicking the Old English form in "Break, Break, Break"? Why would he do this? What would the ancient form suggest?
The rhythm of the lines often reflects the mood of the poem. The abrupt first line, "Break, break, break" sounds "broken" up both by the commas between the words, and by the absence of other unstressed syllables. Line 14, on the other hand, with its lilting rhythm, suggests the rolling of the waves at the shore before they break on the rocks. The irregularity and slight unpredictability of the rhythm could highlight the unpredictability of the sea, or the instability of the speaker's state of mind. Or maybe both. What do you think?
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The sea is an appropriate image in this poem. Have you ever heard the expression "the tide waits for no man"? Well, that's what the speaker is realizing in this poem, and it totally bums him out. Now that his friend is dead, he can't imagine the world continuing without him. And yet, the waves keep breaking on shore, over and over, as though nothing has happened. The sea doesn't seem to care.
The speaker is awfully interested in who gets to talk in this poem. In the first stanza, he says he wishes that he could express his thoughts, but he can't. Then he describes the kids who are shouting and playing, and the sailor who is singing. These guys get to express themselves – why can't our speaker? Then, in the third stanza, we start to figure out why he can't talk: it's because his friend's "voice is still." Our speaker is all choked up on grief that he doesn't know how to express.
OK, there aren't any zombies in this poem, but the speaker's dead friend is still an important part of "Break, break, break" – after all, he's the motivation for writing. The speaker never comes out and says, "my friend died," he just keeps talking about how much he'd like to shake that "vanish'd hand" one more time, or hear "the voice that is still." The dead friend is never named, but he's an important presence in the poem, anyway. He's not even described. He's just represented by a series of absences: the absent hand, the absent voice, and finally the absent time (the "day that is dead") that the poet knows will never come back.
Sorry, but there is absolutely no sex in this poem. It's about a guy standing by the ocean thinking about how much he misses his dead friend. If you want a sexier Victorian poem, we suggest you try out "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti.