Study Guide

Break, Break, Break Quotes

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

  • Death

    On thy cold gray stones, O sea! (2)

    The image of the "cold gray stones" could suggest the cold gray <em>tomb</em>stones of a cemetery.

    And the stately ships go on
    To their haven under the hill (9-10)

    The "haven under the hill" sounds rather macabre – it suggests burial mounds in cemeteries, where the dead find rest or "haven."  If so, then the wooden "ships" might represent wooden coffins moving steadily toward burial. This kind of makes us think of the elves in The Lord of the Rings heading off to the Grey Havens (though Tolkien wrote than many years after Tennyson wrote this poem).

    O for the touch of a vanish'd hand (11)

    The speaker longs for the company of his dead friend, but he doesn't imagine the whole guy – he only imagines this disembodied, "vanish'd hand."  Kind of like "Thing" in <em>The Addams Family</em>…

    The sound of a voice that is still. (12)

    Again, the speaker longs to speak with his dead friend, but he doesn't imagine chatting with him – he only imagines a disembodied "voice" that is now "still."  Instead of imagining his friend in his entirety, he imagines him only as a series of absences.

    A day that is dead (15)

    This is the only time the word "dead" comes up in the poem, so it must be important.  But the speaker doesn't describe his friend as "dead" (only as "vanish'd" and "still") – it's the time that he spent with the friend that is "dead" and gone.

  • Sadness

    Break, break, break (1)

    The speaker is telling the ocean waves to "break," but we don't realize that until the second line where he finishes the sentence.  As we first read the poem, we just see this word "break" repeated three times.  It's not a happy word – we break bones and hearts and vases.  The word itself is a harsh word, with that "br" sound at the beginning and the hard "k" sound at the end.  And the repetition, with the commas in between, "breaks" up the line, suggesting the speaker's "broken" heart…you get the picture.

    On thy cold gray stones, O sea! (2)

    The repeated long "o" sound (in "cold," "stones," and "O") sound almost like moaning.  And "cold" and "gray" surroundings are almost always setting the scene for something sad.

    That he shouts with his sister at play! (6)

    The children of the fisherman seem unaware of the deep grief of the speaker as they play around happily.

    As he sings in his boat on the bay! (8)

    The "sailor lad," too, seems totally oblivious of the speaker's sorrow – he's singing away like he doesn't have a care in the world, because he probably doesn't.

    But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
    And the sound of a voice that is still (11-12)

    The speaker breaks down and expresses his longing for the presence of his dead friend beginning with that moaning "O."  The conjunction "But," with which he separates his own sad longing from the business of the "stately ships," suggests how out of sync his sorrow is with the busy activity of the rest of the world.

    But the tender grace of a day that is dead
    Will never come back to me. (15-16)

    The speaker realizes that time goes on, and he'll never be able to relive the days that he spent with his dead friend.

  • Time

    Break, break, break,
    On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! (1-2)

    The repeated "break[ing]" of the waves of the sea suggests the inevitable progress of time – you cannot stop time from moving forward any more than you can stop the tide.  The repetition also suggests that time passes without changing much.

    The fisherman's boy (5)

    The presence of a child in this poem about grief and death seems important; it could suggest a kind of hope for the future, since that happy "fisherman's boy" and his "sister" are going to grow up.

    Break, break, break
    At the foot of thy crags, O Sea! (13-14)

    These lines repeat, almost exactly, the first two lines of the poem.  The repetition suggests that time passes without changing anything, but the difference in phrasing of line 14 ("at the foot of thy crags" instead of "On thy cold gray stones") might be more hopeful.  The difference might suggest that as much as time seems to repeat itself with no change, year in and year out, there are subtle changes happening all around you.

    But the tender grace of a day that is dead
    Will never come back to me (15-16)

    Because time keeps moving forward, the speaker realizes that there's no way he can go back to the time before his friend died – those days are now "dead."  It's rather a grim way to describe the passage of time.

  • Language and Communication

    Break, break, break,
    On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! (1-2)

    The sound of the sea waves "breaking" is repetitive and meaningless, setting up the theme of the speaker's worry that his own crying and grief is equally repetitive and meaningless.

    And I would that my tongue could utter
    The thoughts that arise in me. (3-4)

    The speaker claims that he is unable to express his own thoughts, which seems odd, given that he goes on to finish one of the more famous poems in the English language.  He phrases his inability rather passively: he doesn't say, "I can't utter what I'm thinking," but rather, says that his "tongue" can't "utter" it, as though his tongue were somehow separate from the rest of him.

    O, well for the fisherman's boy,
    That he shouts with his sister at play!(5-6)

    Here's that syllable "O" again – it's a meaningless sound, like the sound of the waves or the happy "shouts" of the "fisherman's boy."  The fisherman's boy is not shouting words – at least, the words are not repeated by the speaker – he's just making noise, but without expressing anything.  The speaker is worried that that's exactly what he's doing in this poem.

    O, well for the sailor lad
    As he sings in his boat on the bay!(7-8)

    Like the "fisherman's boy," the sailor makes noise, but without articulating any words (again, none that the speaker tells us about).  And again, the speaker repeats that meaningless syllable "O" at the beginning of the line. 

    And the sound of a voice that is still!(12)

    The speaker doesn't say <em>what</em> he wishes the voice was saying; he just wants to hear the "sound" of it.  This poem is awfully full of inarticulate sounds – i.e., sounds that have no words or real meaning associated with them.