Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
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” ), 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” ) 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 seasons, and the fifty-two lines are perhaps meant to suggest the fifty-two weeks in a year. It is as if Tennyson means to imply, through the very structure of the work, the passage of time —a passage that ultimately brings death to humans while not affecting the brook at all. It, finally, is far more permanent than we are.
Appropriately enough in a work describing a rapid and constantly moving body of water, the poem is brimming with verbs: “come” (1), “make” (2), “sparkle” (3), “bicker” (4), “hurry,” (5), “slip” (6), and so on and so on. There are fifty verbs in the fifty-two lines, not to mention many other words suggesting movement, such as “brimming,” “eddying” (15), and “sailing” (26). By using so many verbs, Tennyson mimics in his own writing the energy and vitality he ascribes to the brook.
Some of the poem’s uses of verbs are particularly striking and memorable, involving a kind of wordplay that helps give the work a charming, appealing tone. Thus the verb “sparkle” (3) implies both movement and the beauty of moving light, and “slip” (6) implies the subtlety and grace of the brook’s meanderings. The verb “chatter” (13) makes the brook sound both self-deprecating and full of energy, and the juxtaposition of “bubble” and “babble” (15-16) shows that Tennyson is as interested in the sounds of his own poem as he is in the sounds the poem describes. Particularly effective is the rush of verbs appearing in line 41: “I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,” where each verb is strongly accented and the effect of liquidity is highlighted by the alliteration of l and s.
Part of the interest the poem arouses and sustains derives from the geographical details the brook describes. In a sense, the brook lets the reader share in the journeys it makes, so that the poem is not simply about the brook itself but also about the attractive surrounding landscape. Colorful imagery sometimes adds to the poem’s sensuous appeal, as in the references to the “silvery waterbreak” and “golden gravel” (31-32) and to the “brambly wildernesses” and “shingly bars” (46-47). All in all, the poem achieves its probable objectives of celebrating beauty and thereby, perhaps, helping to preserve it.
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