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Summary and Analysis

In “The Brook,” by the English poet Alfred Tennyson (1812-1889), the brook named in the title speaks for itself, describing its origins, its travels, and its ultimate union with a large, brimming river. The poem is typical of the interest many nineteenth-century English poets showed in writing poems about the attractive aspects of nature. In the 1800s, England was losing much of its natural beauty, thanks to the growth of huge cities and heavy industry during the so-called Industrial Revolution. It is not surprising, then, that many Romantic poets (such as William Wordsworth) and many Victorian authors (such as Tennyson) celebrated, somewhat nostalgically, the lovely landscapes that were so often threatened by the rise of the new mechanized, industrial culture.

“The Brook” is shaped like the very thing it describes. On the page, it looks long and narrow. Rather than using the common ten-syllable line that had become very conventional in much English poetry by this time, Tennyson instead chooses alternating lines of four syllables and three syllables. The poem thus has a shape that seems appropriate to the appearance and rhythms of a brook, now moving outward, then moving inward, and then back outward again, much as a brook’s waters might move. The poem’s effect would be different if every single line were exactly the same length. Instead, Tennyson makes the work move in a pattern that is at once irregular and predictable, much like the brook itself.

Tennyson’s decision to let the brook describe itself and its routes makes the stream seem almost alive. Rather than depicting the stream from a distanced, objective perspective, he gives the brook a kind of literal vitality by personifying it. Apparently, the brook begins in a kind of lake populated by water birds (“coot and hern” [1]), but no sooner does the poem allude to this place of origins than the text, like the brook itself, makes a “sudden sally” (2), a noun suggesting a quick movement or leap. The brook moves swiftly, and so does the poem: only eight lines into the work, the stream has already passed twenty villages (or “thorpes” [7]) and fifty “bridges” (8), presumably small rural bridges made of wood or stone rather than the kinds of massive, imposing steel bridges being erected elsewhere.

Finally the brook flows past “Philip’s farm” (9), phrasing that again suggests that the brook is almost alive, almost human: it is aware not only of human dwellings in general (as in the reference to the “thorpes”) but of one human being in particular. And, just as the brook flows in a regular pattern, so does the poem, since the very same rhymes and the very same refrain begin to appear at the end of every fourth stanza: the brook proceeds

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

Paradoxically, although the brook is in constant motion, it also seems immune from time and mutability: it existed long before the people who live near it were born, and it will exist long after they are dead. Few of them probably pay much attention to the brook, but it will probably long outlive them. Part of the purpose of the poem, in fact, is perhaps to make the reader notice and appreciate aspects of nature that are easy to overlook or ignore. Another purpose, it would seem, is to humble humans by reminding us of our inevitable mortality. We think we can control and manipulate nature, and to some extent, we can. But even the continued existence of the small brook helps remind us that our powers are far more limited than we like to assume.

Lines 11 to 12, like lines 23 to 24, 35 to 36, and 51 to 52, insistently remind the reader of one of the poem’s key themes: the theme of time. The refrain appears like clockwork, and the fact that there are exactly four repetitions of it, in a poem that is precisely fifty-two lines long, does not seem an accident. Instead, the four refrains are perhaps meant to symbolize the four...

(The entire section is 1,042 words.)