Victorian Poetry Sample

Break, Break, Break” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

There is nothing worse than inability to tell about the sorrow, that tears the soul to painful pieces. The unspeakable pain is expressed in the poem “Break, Break, Break” by Alfred Lord Tennyson written during early 1835 and published in 1842. (, 2015) The title of the poem allows to  make assumptions concerning the genre of lyric ( a philosophical poem). The theme of the poem is to express the Tennyson’s feelings of melancholy along with his feelings of nostalgia after his friend died. The idea of this poem consists in expressing the insignificancy of human life in comparison with the infinite of entity.

This poem is typically Victorian in its subject (death and sorrow), tone (elegiac), expression (lyrical), theme (despair) and its musical quality. (, 2015) The lyrical hero is associated with poet. The poem written in four stanzas of four lines each. The title “Break, break, break” repeated throughout the poem and, on the one side, used to describe the waves, which symbolize a force that “breaks” up Tennyson’s friends and him. On the other side, the poet’s thoughts seem to break up on his tongue before he can explain how he feels. (“I would that my tongue could utter The thoughts that arise in me”).This connection between the sea (as a symbol of eternity) and the poet is reinforced by the fact that “sea” rhymes with “me”. (Shaw, 1976) In addition, the two lines about the sea and the two lines about the poet have the same three-beat rhythm. (Anon, 2015)

In stanza two, there are two images that express the continuance of usual life (the fisherman’s boy is playing and the sailor lad the sings), but the grief of the poet remains. In the third stanza, the poet says that the majestic ships fly on their destination under the hill. The indirect reference to the friend, through phrases such as “a vanish’d hand” and “a voice that is still’”, lifts the expression to a universal level.

In the forth stanza he is standing near the spot of his friend’s burial on the seashore but he would never enjoy the tender beauty of the days when his friend was alive (“… will never come back to me”).

There are such vivid and emotional images in the poem: visual (“gray stones”, “fisherman’s boy”, “sister at play”, “sailor”, “boat”, “ships”, “haven under the hill”, ‘sea”); auditory (“tongue utter”, “shouts”, “sings’, “the sound the voice”) and tactile (“cold”, “the touch of a vanish’d hand”). There are also some references to abstract concepts: “a hand” symbolizes friendship, “sea”- eternity, “boat”- people’s life.

The figures of speech and stylistic devices help to create the imagery of the poem: personification as a variety of metaphor (“thoughts arise”); epithets (“cold, grey”) that are more logical attributes characterize the object and imposing on reader. Oxymoron (the tender grace of a day than dead) expresses the feeling of displeasure, pity, regret; ordinary repetition (“break”) emphasizes the emotional meaning.

Polysyndeton (repeated use of conjunctions (“for”, “and”, “but”) has strong rhythmic impact. Alliteration “b-h-d’ expresses deep sorrow, “s-l-sh”- the sounds of sea, “o-ai”- lament.  Syntactically the line is a broken sentence. The rhyming scheme is “abcb”, but in the second stanza, the rhyme also adds up to “aaba”.

 “Break, break, break” is one of the great short lyrics. It has somber music, vivid pictures, and profound feeling, expressed in a style marked by simplicity, economy, and directness of appeal. All elements and aspects (phonological, syntactic, semantic and stylistic) of the poem are integrated.


1., (2015). Alfred, Lord Tennyson : The Poetry Foundation. Available    at:

2.   Anon, (2015).Available at:.

3., (2015). Salient Features of Victorian Literature. Available at:

4.    Mustard, W. (1899). Tennyson and Virgil. The American Journal of Philology, 20(2), p.186.

5.   Shaw, W. (1976). Tennyson’s style. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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