TENNYSON, ALFRED (1809-1892)
AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF HIS CELEBRATED POEM 'BREAK, BREAK, BREAK...' signed ('A Tennyson'), 16 lines in four four-line stanzas, 1 page, octavo, on pink paper, laid down on an album leaf, probably composed in early 1834, this manuscript dated 3 October 1845
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 the 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.
ONE OF TENNYSON'S 'HALLAM' AND MOST ANTHOLOGISED POEMS, 'Break, Break, Break' was said to have been completed in early 1834, and 'Made in a Lincolnshire lane at five o'clock in the morning, between blossoming hedges'. It centres on Tennyson's 'marmoreally controlled heartbreak' (Robert Martin) over the loss of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at the age of 22 years in 1833 and is the subject of In Memoriam, written over a period of seventeen years and published in 1850. Michael Thorn suggests that the poem was born during a trip to Mablethorpe, described in a letter to Ellen Hallam by Emily Tennyson, who later set the poem to music, 'The tides, which thou knowest at this time of year are excessively high and fine, tempted my kinsfolk, and so irresistibly, that they resolved no longer to delay their anticipated gratification, - viz., a sight of the darling breakers.' It was first published in 1842. Tennyson was living in Cheltenham at the time that he wrote this fair copy.
R.H. Hutton, commenting on the poem, wrote that 'No poet ever made the dumb speak so effectually' and continued: 'Observe how the wash of the sea on the cold gray stones is used to prepare the mind for the feeling of helplessness with which the deeper emotions break against the hard and rigid element of human speech; how the picture is then widened out till you see the bay with children laughing on its shore, and the sailor-boy singing on its surface, and the stately ships passing on in the offing to their unseen haven, all with the view of helping us to feel the contrast between the satisfied and the unsatisfied yearnings of the human heart. Tennyson, like every true poet, has the strongest feeling of the spiritual and almost mystic character of the associations attaching to the distant sail which takes the ship on its lonely journey to an invisible port, and has more than once used it to lift the mind into the attitude of hope or trust. But then the song returns again to the helpless breaking of the sea at the foot of crags it cannot climb, not this time to express the inadequacy of hum yearnings themselves. Thus does Lord Tennyson turn an ordinary sea-shore landscape into a means of finding a voice indescribably sweet for the dumb spirit of human loss.' (Jump). 'Break, break, break...' was selected by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney for inclusion in their anthology The Rattle Bag (1982).
PROVENANCE: Charles G. Kincaid (James Kincaid was author of Tennyson's Major Poems, 1975).
REFERENCES: Tennyson: The Critical Heritage, edited by John Jump, 1967; Richard Holt Hutton (1826-1897) 'Tennyson' Literary Essays, 1888; Robert Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, 1980; Michael Thorn, Tennyson, 1992; Christopher Ricks, Tennyson, 1989.