What is the refrain of the poem "The Brook" by Lord Tennyson?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Used frequently in music, a refrain is a repeated line or two that is often called a chorus. In lyrical poetry a refrain serves the purpose of lending musicality and emphasizing an idea. The refrain in Tennyson's "The Brook" is composed of two lines: 

For men may come and men may go, 
But I go on for ever. 

In his poems, Alfred Lord Tennyson skillfully composes the music of the English language into harmonious verbal melody. His poem "The Brook" extols the talents of the stream that moves from a mountain and meanders through grassy areas, fields of flower, brambles, to the "shingly bars" where it finally joins the river.  While men live and die, the brook survives and "goes on forever," attesting to the infinite power of nature. So, in "The Brook," the refrain is thematic, as well as melodious.

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skyey-i | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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A refrain can be a phrase, a line or a couple of lines repeated at regular intervals in a piece of music or verse. Poets often employ this literary device to enhance the musical effect in their work, and for the sake of emphasis. The repetition of specific lines helps in highlighting the important theme of the artistic work.

The refrain in the poem “The Brook” is:

 ...flow 
To join the brimming river, 
For men may come and men may go, 
But I go on for ever. 

The poem is about a swiftly flowing perennial stream. It has been flowing since time immemorial and would continue to do so till eternity. Though many obstacles stand in its way to thwart its progress, it never stops. It moves on incessantly overcoming every hurdle until it “joins the brimming river.”

Man’s life has similarities to the brook. In the journey of his life, man, too, comes across many obstacles and difficulties. He continues through the ups and downs of life until death brings an end to his journey. So, we see that unlike the stream’s journey, the man’s journey is short and limited.

In the refrain, the poet juxtaposes the movement of the brook with that of man. Here lies the central theme of the poem – the eternal nature of the brook and the transient existence of man. Thus, by highlighting the central message of the poem, the refrain lends support to the thematic structure of the poem.  

Moreover, Tennyson was excellent at creating music with words. This particular poem illustrates how perfectly he creates verbal melody using mostly monosyllabic and disyllabic words. The poem is written in the ballad or common meter, comprising four lines that alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

Let’s consider the following lines of the refrain:

For men may come and men may go, 
But I go on for ever

The first line has four metrical feet with each foot consisting of unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The second line has three metrical feet with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. However, the closing foot of the second line ends with an extra unstressed syllable, and thus, it has a feminine ending. On the other hand, as the closing foot of the first line ends with a stressed syllable, it has a masculine ending. In this way, every time the refrain is repeated, it creates verbal music into the readers’ ears.

Therefore, we see that Tennyson makes use of the device of refrain for both achieving musical effect and lending thematic structure to this wonderful lyric of his.  

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