Study Guide

Break, Break, Break Themes

  • Death

    The speaker of "Break, Break, Break" never comes out and says that his friend is dead, but his complaints about wishing to "touch" the "vanish'd hand" and to hear "the voice that is still" make us suspect that he has passed away. The only thing that is described as explicitly "dead" in the poem is time: the speaker says that the time that he spent with his friend is like a "day that is dead" – it will never return.

    Questions About Death

    1. Does the speaker seem to be worried about his own future death?
    2. Why doesn't the speaker mention his friend by name, or describe what he was like? Why only the references to the missing parts of him, like his "vanish'd hand" and "voice that is still"?
    3. How many emblems for death can you count in this poem?

    Chew on This

    The speaker of "Break, Break, Break" seems unable to conceptualize the dead of his friend as an entire individual; rather, he can think of him only in parts – his "vanish'd hand" and "voice that is still."

    The speaker sees emblems of death in everything around him: the "cold gray stones" represent grave stones, while the "stately ships" that travel to their "haven under the hill" suggest wooden coffins being born to the cemetery to be buried.

  • Sadness

    In "Break, Break, Break," the speaker seems to worry about how much sadness is too much – when is he allowed to get over his grief and enjoy the sights and sounds by the sea again?  Is it disrespectful to the memory of his friend to enjoy things?  Does he need to be melancholy all the time?  At what point does his sorrow just turn into empty, meaningless repetition?

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Why is the speaker so sad?  Is it just the absence of his friend, or does there seem to be something else?  How would you describe it?  What lines would you use to back up your answer?
    2. Does watching the sea seem to relieve the speaker's sadness or add to it?  Why? 
    3. What about the other people around him – the "fisherman's boy" and the "sailor lad"?  Do they help to relieve his sadness?

    Chew on This

    The speaker's grief for the death of his friend makes him see his sense of loss in his physical surroundings.

  • Time

    The repetition in "Break, Break, Break" both suggests the consistency of the speaker's grief and also its slow-but-steady evolution.  The second line of the final stanza sounds like the second line of the first stanza, but with a slight difference.  The speaker seems to argue that time keeps progressing without change, in spite of his great loss, and yet there are lots of little changes, like in the phrasing of those lines.

    Questions About Time

    1. How much time do you think has passed since the death of the speaker's friend?  Explain your answer.
    2. Do you think the speaker's grief will be softened with time?  Why or why not?
    3. How is the passage of time represented in this poem?

    Chew on This

    The similarity between the first two lines of the first stanza and the first two lines of the final stanza suggests that time passes unchanging; however, the slight difference in word choice between lines 2 and 14 shows that change can occur over time, however slowly.

    Time seems to move more slowly for the speaker of "Break, Break, Break" than for the people around him; his grief has placed him outside of normal time.

  • Language and Communication

    The speaker of "Break, Break, Break" tells us that he can't express his thoughts or his grief, but 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? So he's probably worried for nothing, but the question of language and communication is still an important one in this poem.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why does the speaker say that he has a hard time expressing himself in lines 3-4? 
    2. Is the speaker comforted or bothered by the "shouts" of the "fisherman's boy" or the singing of the "sailor lad"?  Or is he completely indifferent?  Explain your answer.
    3. The breaking of the waves of the sea is the most persistent noise of the poem's world. Does this white noise in the background seem to comfort the speaker?  Why or why not?
    4. Why does the speaker wish to hear the "sound" of a "voice that is still," instead of actual words or conversation?

    Chew on This

    The speaker seems to worry that his attempts to express his grief for his friend will be as meaningless and empty as the "shouts" of the kids at the port or repetitive noise of the breaking waves.

    The speaker's longing for "the sound of a voice that is still" suggests intellectual as well as emotional solitude and his desire for conversation with an equal.