Discussion Topic

The imagery and allegorical functions of the sea in "Break, Break, Break."


The sea in "Break, Break, Break" serves as a powerful image and allegory for the relentless passage of time and the unceasing nature of grief. The waves breaking on the shore symbolize the poet's enduring sorrow and the unstoppable forces of life and death, reflecting the emotional turmoil and loss experienced by the speaker.

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What image of the sea is presented in stanza 3 and its allegorical function in "Break, Break, Break"?

The sea is not directly referenced in the third stanza. There are two ways to look at the other images in this stanza. The "stately ships" suggests ships that they are majestic, moving slowly, and in grand style. This could be an image of a funeral procession and therefore the speaker sees this as an homage to his lost friend. But given the speaker's general tone of grief and frustration, he may just be noticing the ships but not caring about their superficial stately maneuvers. Or, he might be implying that the stately ships (and those on them) are so far away that they are beyond the speaker's cares: perhaps mocking the upper classes who sail on such ships who do not care about the problems of common people. 

The ships go to their haven (which sounds like heaven) and this is "under the hill" which again suggests a funeral procession to a grave and afterlife. This is one way to look at it, but it could also be that the ships are going to a safe place (a haven, guarded by a hill). This contrasts with the speaker's position: being in a vulnerable place. The ships are safe and comfortable; the speaker is vulnerable and grieving amidst an indifferent sea. (This is the recurrent image of the sea: that the sea is indifferent to the speaker's cares.) 

He longs for the "vanish'd hand" of his loved one who has died. He longs to hear this person's voice - the "sound of a voice that is still." This word "still" means that he longs for a voice that is motionless (which would make time motionless) If time had stopped prior to this person's death, he/she would still be alive. And if this person was still alive, he/she would "still" be there to talk and listen. 

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What image of the sea is presented in stanza 2 of "Break, Break, Break" and what are its functions?

The repetition of the word "break" suggests that the waves keep breaking, over and over again. It suggests that things change and time moves on ceaselessly: regardless of human actions. The waves crash on "cold gray stones," a phrase (especially given the grieving tone of the poem) that suggests a melancholy and a comparison between the stones and grave stones.

The waves (nature) crash and wash over the (grave) stones. The speaker is so overcome with emotion that he can not find words to match his thoughts. The waves washing over the stones suggests that nature (and time) do not pause to mourn the dead (as the speaker does). The waves are wild, free from grief and care. In this stanza, the waves and the sea represent nature and the unceasing movement of time. From the speaker's perspective, the sea means these things, but also the notion that nature (personified) does not care to note the speaker's grief. 

In the second stanza, the children play freely and without care. This just shows a comparison of their joy and the speaker's grief. But the children's carefree spirit could be paralleled to the allegory that nature is also carefree; that is, nature and the children are not affected by the speaker's grief. The children are still young and wild (like the sea); not yet burdened with life's hardships. The waves will always break, children will always play, time will always move on. 

The two stanzas differ in emotional tone. The first is quite melancholy. The second gives illustrations of joyous play, but the speaker does note these illustrations with a kind of sarcasm and/or mocking tone: "O, well for" them who don't have to deal with such grief. 

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Analyze the sea's imagery in the first stanza of "Break, Break, Break."

As is frequently the case in his work, Tennyson gives us the sense of an irresistible power in nature in the opening of this famous poem. If the first stanza is looked at in isolation, the meaning is one in which a dichotomy is set up between the force residing in the sea and the weakness and vulnerability of the speaker, whose tongue cannot articulate his thoughts.

No stanza that is only a part of a given poem can be examined totally in isolation. It's conceivable, however, that Tennyson could have ended "Break, Break, Break" after only the first four lines, because this contrast between natural—or by extension, divine—power and human frailty is a complete thought in itself. It is the flip side of the description of nature at the start of "The Lady of Shallot," in which the serenity, the benign rural scene, is ironic in the context of the tragedy that will be enacted:

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky ...

The sea is the opposite of the peaceful (and man-made) fields. Though the speaker views the ocean's force in negative, remote terms ("thy cold, gray stones"), it becomes clear that it is only to him that it is in some sense alien.

As we read on, what is the significance of the other humans who come into play—the "fisherman's boy" and the "sailor lad" singing? The speaker feels remote from not only the force of nature, but from other people who interact with it and seem to revel in it. His expression is dominated by a sense of loss of the "vanished hand" he will never again touch and the voice he will never hear.

But what does this loss have to do with the indomitable sea? The contrast with his own grief can be seen in both negative and positive terms. If the sea is characterized by its cold gray stones and crags, it also indicates something that goes on in perpetuity. It is an abode (to paraphrase Shelley in "Adonais") where the eternal is, and thus, it also suggests that the loss the speaker has endured can perhaps be remedied by the idea of eternal life symbolized by the sea.

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