Student Question

Who is the poet addressing in the first stanza of "Break, Break, Break"?

Expert Answers

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The speaker is addressing the sea. He does this through the use of a figure of speech called an apostrophe (not be confused with the punctuation mark of the same name). This involves an address, often to an inanimate object, which employs the vocative exclamation "O" or "Oh." So in the first stanza of "Break, Break, Break," for example, we have:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! (Emphasis added).

The speaker wants the sea to crash hard against the rocks—to break against the "cold gray stones" and to provide him with an example of how life goes on. The speaker, in his overwhelming grief, may not be able to express himself, but the waves can, and the speaker realizes that, by continuing to crash hard against the rocks, they are effectively in the same boat as him.

Yes, the waves can express themselves, but like the speaker, there's a limit to what they can do. The waves can no more move beyond the rocks than the speaker can bring back to life those happy times he spent with his close friend. Both the waves and the speaker are essentially just going through the motions. In that sense, the speaker has been dehumanized by grief: reduced to the same level as a feature of the natural world.

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