hatever else may have been happening during the famous "ten years' silence" from 1832 to 1842, it is clear that Tennyson was refining his ironic techniques. There is, in his work, a strong movement away from elaboration toward compression and understatement, from amplification of a clear situation toward obliquity and spare indirection. Further, having mastered the presentation of ironic theme, Tennyson now turned to experiments with ironic rhetoric. The 1842 volume is filled with poems that create a subtle bondage within for their characters and an equally subtle bondage without for their readers. The general agency of this imprisoning rhetoric seems to be what can crudely be termed "ambiguity," and the means of achieving it are various: often the ironic formula of saying as little and meaning as much as possible is applied; often structural parallels are allowed to develop and reinforce meanings that are not explicitly stated.
But the most important technique is the removal of moral or ethical context poem after poem presents a situation which seems to demand a judgment or a series of judgments and which, at the same time, either make secure judgment impossible or makes contradictory judgments necessary. The greatest poems of this volume are those which inevitably project a moral or social dilemma without suggesting the means for solving that dilemma; they work equally hard to bring forth and to render doubtful our judgments and our decisive responses. They not only present but engender an ironic position. There are further treatments, in this volume, of ambiguities in theme and situation, as in poems like "Break, break, break" and "The Lady of Shalott", but Tennyson does seem to have become increasingly interested in making his traps work outside rather than inside the poem. He is even willing to allow his characters to escape in order to build walls around the reader [29/30]
"Break, break, break,"
But this rhetorical irony depends upon the compression he developed in presenting the usual "impossible case" of irony, the ironic theme. "Break, break, break," for instance, is a bitter poem on unrecompensed, pointless loss, but it achieves its power and makes its point very indirectly, largely through structural implications. The direct statement are deliberately localized and simple, making concrete the emotion of the poem without stating its implications. Because the poem is so indirect, a good many competing interpretations have been advanced, but all are based on perceptions of the poem's structure. The middle part of the poem — the image of the children's happiness and of the stately ships — is framed by an address to the sea. The explicit terms of the address change a great deal, of course, between the first and the last stanza:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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. [ll. 1-4, 13-16]
The original desire for poetic utterance ("I would that my tongue could utter") is fulfilled, it seems, and the unnamed, unformulated "thoughts" crystallize into one final summarizing thought. Though it has been argued that the last lines represent for the speaker a kind of acceptance, even a positive resolution,1 they seem to me not to release tension or to solve a real dilemma but to state an agonized perception. That is, the original problem of achieving speech yields to a greater, genuinely impossible problem. The and which begins the third line of the first stanza implies an imagined bond with the sea; the speaker searches for union with the blank, monotonous continuity of the indifferent, smashing waves. [30/31]
The middle two stanzas of the poem, however, present a vision of joy and assured life so alien to and distant from the speaker that, by the time he returns to the immediate focus of the rocks and the breaking sea in the last stanza, he senses, not fundamental unity — not even a unity with the sea's unconcern — but fundamental disjunction. The and is replaced by but: instead of nature's participation in his grief, he sees nature's absolute impersonality. He is mocked not only by the joy of the laughing children at play but by the bleak harshness of the sea as well; for he is denied even the continuity of memory.2 "The tender grace of a day that is dead" is as finally absent as the "vanished hand" (l. 11). The speaker's self-indulgent, romantic communion with the rocks and the indifferent sea whips back on him, and he is left only with the certainty that there is no continuity and no meaning in time, memory, or death. He is left in pointless, unheroic isolation.
Assad, T. J. "Tennyson's 'Break, Break, Break.' " Tulane Studies in English 12 (1963), 71-80.
Buckley, Jerome H. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Dodsworth, Martin. "Patterns of Morbidity: Repetition in Tennyson's Poetry." The Major Victorian Poets: Reconsiderations, ed. Isobel Armstrong, 7-34. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.Hellstrom, Ward. On the Poems of Tennyson. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972
Hornback, Bert G. "Tennyson's 'Break, Break, Break' Again." Victorian Newsletter, 33 (1968), 47-48.
Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue on Modern Literary Traditions. New York: Random House, 1957.
Pitt, Valerie. Tennyson Laureate. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1962.
Rackin, Phyllis. "Recent Misreadings of 'Break, Break, Break' and Their Implications for Poetic Theory." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 65 (1966), 217-18.
The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Longmans, 1969.
Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Tennyson, Hallam, Lord. Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir. 2 vols. New York: MacMillan, 1898.
Last modified 28 March 2001