Study Guide

Break, Break, Break

Break, Break, Break Summary

The speaker is looking at the ocean and wishing he knew how to express his grief. He sees a fisherman's kid hanging out with his sister, and he hears a sailor singing, but they don't cheer him up – they just remind him of the "voice that is still," or the voice of his dead friend that he can't talk to anymore. The ocean waves keep breaking on the beach, and time keeps marching on, but the speaker can't go back in time to when his friend was still alive.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-4

    Break, break, break,
    On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
    And I would that my tongue could utter
    The thoughts that arise in me.

    • The speaker addresses the ocean directly, telling the waves to "break, break, break" onto the stony shore.
    • After telling the sea to keep doing its thing, the speaker regrets that he can't express his thoughts.
    • He doesn't come out and say, "I can't utter/ the thoughts," he says that his "tongue" can't "utter" them. This makes him seem kind of passive – he's not speaking, his "tongue" is doing it.
    • He's not really thinking, either – the thoughts "arise in" him almost spontaneously, without effort.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-8

    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!

    • The speaker thinks it's all well and good that the fisherman's kid is "shout[ing]" and "play[ing]" with his sister.
    • Repeating the same sentence structure, the speaker says it's great for the sailor who is "sing[ing]" in his boat.
    • The repetition makes it sound like maybe the speaker doesn't really think it's all well and good for these people to be cheerful. Is he jealous, perhaps, of their happiness? Or of their ability to communicate it, since he admitted back in Stanza 1 that his "tongue" can't "utter/ the thoughts that arise"?
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 9-12

    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!

    • The fancy, "stately ships" pass by the speaker and head to their "haven," or protected port.
    • The port is "under the hill," so there must be a big hill overlooking it.
    • The speaker isn't distracted by the ships, though. Sure, he notices them, but his mind is elsewhere.
    • He's just wishing he could "touch" the "vanish'd hand" and hear "the voice that is still." This is the first explanation of why the speaker is so sad. He's grieving for someone he loved who is now dead.
    • He doesn't come out and describe the dead friend, though – he just lists a series of missing things: the "hand" and the "voice." The lost friend is described as a series of absent parts.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 13-16

    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.

    • The speaker repeats the first line again, telling the waves to "break, break, break" again.
    • But it's repetition with a difference: in the first stanza, he tells the waves to break "on thy cold gray stones," and in the last stanza, he tells the waves to break "at the foot of thy crags."
    • It's not exactly the same – time has gone by, and even the breaking of the waves has changed slightly. Maybe it's the tide coming in.
    • The waves have changed slightly, and we see that time is passing, despite the tragedy that the speaker has suffered. Mournfully he says that the happy old days when his friend was alive will never return.