Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Break, Break, Break by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

After yesterday's poem, "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen, my thoughts flew to one of the best-known, best-loved poems perhaps ever, "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas, a villanelle with the recurring lines "Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." That poem remains under copyright, however, and one of the few limits I've imposed on myself for this "Building a Poetry Collection" series is that the poems featured must be in the public domain here in the U.S. So, no Dylan Thomas today after all, although those of you inclined to read Thomas's exhortations to his dying father are free to follow the above link.

It then occurred to me to post "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" by William Butler Yeats, which I've posted twice before (although not as part of this series). But I've already posted at least two Yeats poems this month, and that seemed a bit too Yeats-heavy for me, even though he is one of my favorite poets. I considered going with "O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman, but then it occurred to me that I recently posted some Whitman, and that I haven't included any Tennyson this year. And thinking we could all use a bit more Tennyson in our lives, I came to today's actual selection, selected largely for its third stanza, although the repetition in this poem and its excellent recite-ability was a factor in the choosing:

Break, Break, Break
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Break, break, break,
  On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
  The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
  That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
  That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
  To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
  And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
  At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
  Will never come back to me.

Form: The poem is arranged in three rhyming stanzas, with the even lines in perfect rhyme. The metre is not fixed, but tends to include three or four stressed syllables per line (usually three). It trips off the tongue in what can be an almost sing-song manner, but were you to recite it aloud, you would of course try not to make it sing-songy.

Discussion: The speaker appears to be by the sea, watching the ships and boats as they come and go and the way the waves break on the shore. The second and first half of the third stanzas indicate that life is good for the fisherman's boy and the sailor and the stately ships, but the last two lines of the third stanza bring the speaker around to "the thoughts that arise in [him]": he is in mourning. In the final stanza, the speaker exhorts the sea to continue pounding against the rocks along the shore - or at least observes that the sea continues to pound - whereas the speaker will never again spend time with his lost loved one.

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