Exploring Grief in Tennyson’s ‘Break break break’

April 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

‘Break break break’ is a poem that was published in 1842, during the early Victorian epoch. It explores Tennyson’s feelings of loss concerning the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam. The poem syncretises the perpetual cycle of nature with the speaker’s bitter desire for the world to stop. The purpose of this poem could be to unite the masses’ experience of grief, thus providing comfort in the knowledge that most individuals struggle to cope with tumultuous and taxing feelings of bereavement. However, Tennyson’s speaker may also be confronting the idea that loss itself can have challenging effects on rationality.

Before delving into the argument presented, it is important to define ‘rationality’ in order to avoid mystification of the conveyance of various meanings. V.B Shneider suggests one should be aware of context that definitions have emerged out of, especially following the ‘rationality phenomena’ of Anglo-Saxon social philosophy and the philosophy of science. After examining dictionary definitions, he concludes that rationality is ‘reasonably based normativity which guarantees an expedient process of activity.’ However, the question of what ‘normal’ is consequently follows. He proposes that there are two principle types of norms in cultural reality, the traditional which has ‘spontaneously arisen in the process of social development’ and other norms that are ‘textually’ formed on logical argumentation. This has significant ground as social standards have a strong influence on the idea of ‘normal’. Normal, seen through the eyes of the beholder, is distorted by the hazy lenses of society. To a great extent, the speaker allows his grief to overcome rationality, however one should not condemn him for this emotional response. His bitterness only extends into words, not actions, therefore satisfying the utilitarian methodology of adopting lawfully apt actions that produce non-damaging consequences to society.

Tennyson showcases the speaker’s bitterness by employing the imperative command. This is further embedded with the use of repetition, thus emphasising the speaker’s acrimony directed at the impermeable barrier death creates. ‘Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O sea!’ The use of conduplicatio builds poetic intensity and encourages the reader to pursue further. The staccato-like rhythm, created by three consecutive stressed syllables, suggests anguish is a continuous cycle, dominated by desultory memories of the past. Alternatively, one could argue Tennyson used this method in order to concoct a haunting poignant image. The harsh ‘k’ could depict cracks spreading across the speaker’s heart, demonstrating the ruinous effect of loss. In her landmark 1969 book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross popularized the idea of five stages of grief. This could suggest why there is a concurrence of capricious emotions throughout Tennyson’s poem, ranging from resentfulness to nostalgia to acceptance. Consequently, the erratic nature of the speaker’s emotions suggests grief replaces rationality. The polarised and intermittent emotional turmoil is directed at various destinations, including lifeless entities such as the sea. This is a detachment from the label society procured as ‘normal’, however it is questionable whether an absence of normality in grief is possible. Perhaps Tennyson is suggesting that irrationality validates grief and demonstrates authenticity.

The speaker’s yearning for the spiritual dimension could suggest his grief has overcome rationality. ‘But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand, And the sound of a voice that is still!’ Tennyson constructs a sense of urgency and desire by using the archaic vowel ‘o’. The vowel has a voluminous quality, as the prolonged sound paints a melancholy vacuum filled with sorrow. The synecdoche of the ‘hand’ and ‘voice’ could suggest memories of the deceased individual are already fading from the speaker’s mind, providing more reason for his bitter emotional ache. Alternatively, one could interpret this as hope. If the speaker is insinuating there is a spiritual plane that corresponds with Earth, then this could imply the deceased has a platform to reappear. During the Victorian period, Christianity pervaded the political and social realms. There was a harmony between religion and science, mediated by various forms of theology of nature. Due to the rapid advances in science, the natural and the supernatural often became blurred in popular thinking. Therefore no area of the literary culture was exempt from this interplay of magic and science. Tennyson appeals to his cultural context by investigating the diverse strands of death. He tiptoes around the concept of a transcendent realm, provoking eschatological discussion.

In Tennyson’s poem, the speaker inevitably allows grief to replace rational thought. This elegy attempts to communicate the pain that arises from the loss of a loved one. However, the scope extends beyond an individual cry of pain and despair. Tennyson places permanent and lasting images juxtaposed with the temporariness of human life, constructing a poignant message of appreciation concerning our transitory existence on Earth. Without irrationality, the magnitude of the speaker’s grief may not have been expressed successfully; therefore, one might consider it an essential component in the process of literary effectiveness.

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