Study Guide

Break, Break, Break Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

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

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.

  • Lines 1-2: The speaker uses apostrophe when he addresses the sea directly as though it were capable of responding to him. He also uses repetition within the first line, repeating the same word three times. The assonance in the second line, or the repetition of that long "o" vowel sound ("cold," "stones," and "O") helps to slow the reader down.
  • Lines 9-10: The speaker uses alliteration in line 10 when he repeats the "h" sound ("haven" and "hill"). The "stately ships" that go to their "haven under the hill" might be a metaphor for coffins – going "under the hill" sounds a lot like going underground, or being buried. As "stately" or fancy as these "ships" might be, that doesn't make us want to be passengers.
  • Lines 13-14: The speaker repeats lines 1-2 almost exactly, again apostrophizing the sea.

Utterances

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.

  • Lines 3-4: The speaker uses synecdoche, or substituting a part of something for the whole thing, when he wishes that his "tongue could utter." Because, yeah, your "tongue" is the part that does the speaking, but not on its own, unless you're talking in your sleep or something. The speaker uses metaphor when he says that his "thoughts" "arise," since thoughts don't literally move around.
  • Lines 5-6: The "fisherman's boy" is "shout[ing]," but we don't know what he's saying – it may be utter nonsense as he's playing with his sister. The "O" that opens the line is just as empty of meaning as the shouts of the boy.
  • Lines 7-8: The sailor's song is likewise without words – we don't know what he's singing; it might as well be "Tra-la-la." Again, the speaker's "O" that opens the line is just as meaningless. It's as though the speaker is starting to wonder if utterances – shouts, songs, or poems – have any meaning at all.
  • Line 12: Ah, here's why the speaker is so down on utterances lately. It's because of his friend's "voice that is still." Again, he's using synecdoche by imagining that his friend's "voice" stands in for the whole guy.

The "vanish'd hand"

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.

  • Line 11: The speaker uses synecdoche when he imagines that his friend's "vanish'd hand" is a stand-in for the whole person.
  • Line 12: More synecdoche. The friend's "voice," like his "vanish'd hand," is meant to stand in for the whole person. Why don't we get any descriptions of the friend? Why these references to the missing parts of him?

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