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Grief is one of the most powerful emotions that a human being can experience. This is the predominant theme of the poem 'Break, Break, Break' by Alfred Tennyson, written around 1834, approximately a year after the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. 'Break, Break, Break' can be interpreted as a written example of the grief felt by Tennyson at the loss of his friend. This essay will examine the various techniques used by Tennyson to convey his emotion to the reader.
The repetition of the word 'Break' in the opening line, can be viewed on a number of levels; at its most basic it can be seen to be a literal description of the waves breaking upon 'they cold gray stones', it could however, also be describing the heartbreak felt by the voice of the poem. When the repetition of the word 'break' is combined with the trimeter structure of the opening line, it forms a rhythmic beat, akin to that of a ticking clock; which symbolically can be perceived to represent not only the unrelenting breaking of the sea, but also the unrelenting march of time itself, which we all eventually submit to. On another level the breaking waves can be a metaphor for the waves of emotion breaking over the voice, drowning them in their grief.
In the final two lines of the opening stanza, the voice reveals their desire to communicate 'The thoughts that arise' within them, this exhibits a high level of irony given that the whole of the poem itself is an expression of their 'thoughts'. The theme of communication follows on into the second stanza; the descriptions of a 'fisherman's boy' shouting with 'his sister at play!', and a 'sailor lad' singing in 'his boat on the bay!', both show examples of the worlds ability to make noise which is in direct contrast to the voice. They both also show that despite the voice of the poem feeling as if the world has ended, it has in fact carried on. The use of an exclamation mark at the end of both descriptions can be viewed to signify both the voice's irritation to these interruptions to his silent grief, and also their annoyance at the worlds seeming indifference to their anguish.
The third stanza shows an example of Tennyson's careful choice of words when describing the destination of the 'stately ships'; he chooses to use the word 'haven' instead of the more obvious harbour. This works because of the two different meanings of the chosen word, when read in context it refers to the port where the ships are heading, however its alternate meaning of a place of shelter and protection fits perfectly with the underlying theme of the poem; being that shelter and protection from their grief is something that the voice is looking for. There is also a point of interest when noting the location of the 'haven' where the ships are heading, it is describe as being 'under the hill:', this could be symbolic of being buried, which would tie in with the themes of death and grief that are present within the poem. The final two lines of the third stanza reaffirm the yearning felt by the voice, this time for 'the touch of a vanish'd hand', and to once again hear the 'voice that is still!'; the notion of a mute voice is something that was originally seen in the opening stanza, this time however the 'still' voice is referering to the deceased, this link is something with strengthens the link between the voice and the source of their grief; this link between voice and departed is something that strengthens the connection of the two to the reader, allowing the grief of the voice's loss to feel more authentic.
The final stanza starts with the repetition of 'Break', seen in the opening line. This brings a sense of the poem coming full circle and allows the reader to conclude that the end is coming near. By using this repetition once again it is established that the voice's state of mind and indeed the theme of the poem remain firmly entrenched in grief; despite all that has gone before it the reiteration of the repetition of 'Break' construe that the voice's heart is still broken, indeed even that their mind, body and soul are broken too. This also forms a form of connection between the voice and the deceased, where we have the literally dead person, we also have the voice themselves, who is experiencing a form of living death, isolated within their own grief unable to share in the joy of the world exhibited by the 'fisherman's boy' and the 'sailor lad', but also unable to even communicate the immense sorrow that they are experiencing; on both ends of the spectrum of human emotion they are in isolation.
In conclusion upon reading 'Break, Break, Break', the reader is left in little doubt as to what the predominant theme of the poem is. Tennyson achieves this on two levels, firstly in a literal sense, upon an initial read through of the poem we are presented with a description of a person that has suffered loss and is grieving as a result; Tennyson reinforces this them to the reader through clever use of techniques such as repetition, structure and choice of language and punctuation, these work at a level where the reader does not have to be consciously aware of them in order for them to succeed.