Sound and Meaning Within Poetry

Alfred Lord Tennyson the Poet and his use of sounds

If you look for an answer as to “what is poetry” you are liable to find too many answers to be easily able to answer this question. For me though, there are a few things that define the difference between poetry and prose. One of those is a heightened attention to sound and rhythm. As in my last post we are going to explore further into how sound can contribute to meaning within poetry.

We are going to look at how one person, one poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson used sound to contribute to meaning within his poem Break, Break, Break.

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.

The above poem is a vision of grief and longing spelled out in the sounds and words of the poet about events that transpired within his life.

To fully understand this poem we have to know some personal details. Alfred underwent the most formative thing in his early life in 1833, the loss of his dear friend Arthur Hallam. Alfred would write about Hallam stating, he was* “as near perfection as a mortal man could be.”

So, at the age of 22, Arthor Hallum would come down with a fever and die, leaving Alfred with a level of distraught pain that T.S. Eliot would later describe as “an abyss of sorrow.” This poem is a window into that pain.

Break, break, break, // To begin with this line is the conjunction of three unstressed syllables without metrical pattern, but containing an alliteration of throbbing ‘B’ sounds contrasted against the sharp broken consonant “k” sounds. At this point there only the thudding repetitive beat of something breaking.
         On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! // In this line we are let into the fact that it is water breaking on a jagged rocky coast. The guttural sounds from the previous line continues, hinting at at a desolate scene. The long vowel sounds contained inside of the lines assonance mirror his desolate spirit. The three stressed words “cold grey stones” again repeating the atmosphere of the first line.
And I would that my tongue could utter
         The thoughts that arise in me
. // these next two lines have him wishing he could vocalize his thoughts, and though we do not know what thoughts those are the images and sounds within the stanza suggest what those might be. Those of untold anguish.

O, well for the fisherman’s boy, // Now in this stanza the sound and the images start to change into a vision of childhood innocence, naivety, and joy. This exists as a contrast to the thoughts, sounds, and images within the first stanza.
         That he shouts with his sister at play! // The sound of the poetry changes to reflect this difference, with use of sibilance (strong stressed consonants), assonance, and alliteration giving the stanza more melody, musical quality than that of the lines in the first stanza and their abrupt, broken, and disjointed qualities. This musical quality also mirrors the sailor singing in his boat.
O, well for the sailor lad,
         That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on // These lines have often been suggested to be a metaphor for Author’s death and his passing into the afterlife. The sibilance continues in (S)tately (S)ship(S) and the alliteration from the first stanza in (h)aven under the (h)ill. These sounds are a series of euphonic sounds, mirroring the atmosphere of stanza 2.
         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!
The peace and tranquility of the sounds and images within the 2nd and 3rd stanzas are not to last though, and act as a window away from the pain of his loss. The word “but” signals the return back to the broken, desolate world of hurt in the first stanza. “that vanished hand” and “voice that is still” points to the absence of his dearest friend.

Break, break, break //and so we have come full-circle with the literal break of the musical melodies and the abandonment of peaceful joyful images and a return to the harsh cruel guttural sounds of the breaking waves in the K sounds and harsh C and G sounds.
         At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead //Ending on him feeling no peace and only pain, and the heavy D sounds giving a sense of doom having come full circle.
         Will never come back to me.

So, in this brief four stanza poem, we have a poem that speaks to the depth of pain caused by loss of a loved one, and the jarring reality that the world is not as it was before, and the choices of sounds within the poem, the structuring of them all help progress the poem forward in the way the poet intended, even after almost 200 years.

  • You Can Do This — A Prayer
    To think a mans fate is decided not by the battle won or lost but by the heart alone is more
  • You Can Do This – Part 2
    But that was then and this is now. Today, even the gods of Rapa Nui
  • Yellowish pad
    My breath fogs the window, some promise out of science has arrived,
  • We Wish to be Kings not Free
    We wish to be a king not free of the autocrat or tyrant’s immortal knee on our airway— easier to be chained than change.
  • We
    Since first we rose from ocean’s active mud, since fins became the bending of legs, since legs hadn’t yet the strength,
  • Visions of Dust and Dirt
    It’s things grown old that hurt my bones, a spread of green can easily fold to visions of dust and dirt, and worse.

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