The Music Of Grief

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was described by T. S. Eliot as possessing “the finest ear of any English poet”. In ‘The Music of Grief, Joanne Loo shows us why, by exploring the melancholic metricality in two well-known lyric poems by Tennyson: ‘Break, Break, Break’ and ‘Tears, Idle Tears’. Through an insightful, auditory exploration of these poems. Joanne masterfully draws out the connection between Tennyson’s resonant rhythms and the emotional struggle that accompanies the death of a loved one. We are urged to delve into the intricate relationship between poetic technique and grief, and to evaluate our own responses to both.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson is well-known for a strong, inherent sense of musicality in the way he sounded words, both in his poetry or daily conversation. Literary critic Eric Griffiths states in The Printed Voice of Poetry that ’Tennyson’s verse sounds as if the body thought’, and recounts further on in the same volume that Tennyson was always eager to correct readers’ pronunciations of his verse. Of Tennyson’s particularities to do with poetic sound, meter was one of the most prominent. Ruth Padel recounts how the 10-year-old Tennyson’s favourite poem was Pope’s Iliad, which he expressed by writing hundreds of lines in Popeian meter. Though he outgrew Popeian meter by the time he became famous, his obsession with meter continued and permeates all of his writing. Isobel Armstrong recounts a rhythm ear worm she retained from Tennyson’s ‘Break, Break, Break’ at the start of her essay, ‘Meter and Meaning’ – ‘de de dum de de dum de dum de, de dum de de dum de dum’ (26). Frustrated with this rhythm ‘you cannot Google’, she struggled to recall the words that fit this cadence, remembering them wrongly on the first instance (26). Armstrong’s experience exemplifies the strong resonance of rhythm that poetry holds, which can exist on its own, untethered to the words that form it. This is not particular to Tennyson’s poetry; nonetheless, it remains a characteristic feature in them that makes his readers susceptible to their annoyingly sticky rhythms[1].

For this reason, I immediately thought of the poems Tennyson wrote on Arthur Hallam’s death upon reading Richard Ford’s words: “…[the] musically satisfying organization of words creates a kind of a stability. And I think that that’s what we are always trying to do with the experiences around us.” Ford was quoting Seamus Heaney, not Tennyson, but his words apply remarkably to Tennyson’s favourite expression of grief: poetry. The death of Hallam was arguably the most tragic event in Tennyson’s life and resulted in prolific outpourings of grief in poems throughout Tennyson’s life, most notably In Memoriam, a long sequence of poems collected over 7 years. It is precisely this confluence of grief and poetry that I see in these two poems – a perfect, artistic balance of grief that is both manufactured and calming in its symmetry. What of this then? The artistic harmony of poetry does not prove anything, of course, but it does suggest a compulsion to make grief into poetry. I suggest that poetry is a perfect medium for Tennyson to express grief because it simultaneously draws out the expression of grief—allowing for some kind of cathartic release—while allowing the poet to exert some control over this grief through the use of poetic form.

‘Break, Break, Break’ is controlled and processed in its form, ostensibly designed to contain the grief it expresses, yet simultaneously providing an excuse for the speaker’s grief to be expressed. In terms of its contents, it is symmetrical, made up of 16 lines in 4 stanzas, the last mirroring the first – an outcry of grief concentrated in the imagery of the sea – sandwiching the two stanzas that provide a point of juxtaposition in their alternative realities of human interaction. Its meter is regular, even if its rhythm and number of syllables might not be: the refrain ‘break, break, break’ beats out a metronomic time beat before the second line fills it like so many notes in a bar. The words naturally beat out a 4-beat rhythm, which propels the poem forward, no matter how softly or lyrically the words may be read. Because of this propulsion, the reader is left no time to linger over any emotion but to continue on speaking; even the poet’s loss for words is expressed in the opening stanza of the poem – ‘I would that my tongue could utter / The thoughts that arise in me’ – a fact that undermines its sincerity (ll. 3-4). This apparent lack of sincerity to be unable to speak is significant because it shows a desire to continue speaking that can simultaneously be attributed to the desperation of grief or the compulsion of poetic meter.

Also, the rhyme scheme is designed to tie up utterances in a neat cadence that aurally signals the end of a stanza. The resulting effect is that the enviousness expressed in the second and third stanzas is forced to come to a dead end, instead of lingering and perpetuating itself forever. The poet’s gaze can only linger on ‘the fisherman’s boy’ for two lines, before having to double up on itself and start again with the same words – ‘O, well for…’. This is not to say that the poem is entirely mechanical and devoid of spontaneous feeling – the subtle shift in rhythm in the third stanza, ‘But O…’ instead of ‘O, well…’, definitely places the stress on the vocative ‘O’ instead of its ambiguous position as a possibly stressed or unstressed syllable in stanza two. This stress draws out the sound, making it a sigh instead of a dismissive ‘O’ in stanza two, thus giving vent to a deeper surge of feeling. Yet, even this upsurge of emotion is subject to the relentless forward motion of the poem, which returns to the disciplining beat, ‘break, break, break’ in the fourth stanza. The repetition of the first stanza’s ‘Break, break, break’ and the rhyme ‘O Sea!’ and ‘me’ in the last stanza draws the poem full circle in a perfectly harmonious form, yoking the expression of emotion down into a beautiful poetic form. The beauty of this form and its potential to be read symbolically – as a way of signalling that the poet gets nowhere with his grief, for instance – gives the reader something to focus on apart from the grief, while enhancing the depth of grief expressed.

‘Tears, Idle Tears’ is less regular in its metrics than ‘Break, Break, Break’, but contains stylistic repetitions that similarly, can be simultaneously read as tying down emotional expression and enhancing the expression of grief. The most notable repetition is the refrain phrase that every stanza ends with, ‘the days that are no more’, which links all the stanzas, which explore different images. Because it is most naturally read with a falling cadence, it aurally signals an ending, which helps to create the illusion of an ending to the grief that is being expressed. Granted, the words themselves suggest a pensive attitude looking backward to ‘the days that are no more,’ but having no fodder to fuel the reader’s understanding of ‘the days that are no more,’ the ambiguous grief that is expressed cannot sustain itself for long beyond the dying of the last line. The positioning of this poem in the longer poem-narrative, ‘The Princess’, further supports this reading. This poem is sung as a song by a court musician in the forest, who is overcome with passion as she sings:

 She ended with such passion that the tear,
She sang of, shook and fell, an erring pearl
Lost in her bosom: … (IV, ll. 41-43)

However, the Princess cuts her short with mocking words in iambic pentameter, and the grief of the song is lost in the predominant verse rhythm. It is curious that Tennyson would choose to frame such an intensely emotional poem – written decades before ‘The Princess’ one afternoon when he was overcome with grief at Tintern Abbey, as he remembered the days he and Hallam spent together there – in this way, almost as if he wanted to bury his grief in an epic-style narrative filled with action. The necessity of moving on with life eclipses the momentary looking backwards the poem indulges, even as the poem itself creates a small, protected space that enables any reader to look back and mourn.

The other small sequences of repeated sounds that pepper the poem evoke a sense of doubling up and looking back, but also a sense of echoing sounds in order to spend the grief. The first stanza itself repeats ‘tears’ thrice within the span of about a line, evoking the sense of uncontrollable welling up in the eyes, but with the third mention of ‘tears,’ the word starts to lose meaning for being repeated so many times. The subsequent lines help to exhaust the riches of this simple image, and by the end of the first stanza, the reader is ready to move on beyond tears. A similar effect occurs with the repeated ‘d’ sounds in the last stanza – ‘Dear’, ‘death’, ‘deep’, ‘deep’, ’death’, ‘days’. The accumulation of these plosive sounds emphasise the doom of life without the dear departed. The palindromic pattern of words leads the reader back to where the grief began, the ‘days that are no more’, manifesting the sense of the speaker trapped in his grief. These effects enhance the speaker’s struggle with grief, but also cause the fatigue that comes with the repetitions of this same sound upon the ear. Because of this, the reader is content to let the poem end where it does, with no desire to perpetuate it further.

It should not surprise us that poetic technique enhances grief, and in so doing, spends it. After all, grieving expends energy, which can be channelled into creative productivity. Metrical starts and stops, as well as haunting sounds that are repeated over and over again, are beautiful metaphors for the human tussle with our memories and the past we have to leave behind. These poetic devices make their rounds through poetry, causing poetry to encapsulate the grief it struggles to express, while stanching it for the moment—until the poem is read again.

Works Cited:

Armstrong, I. (2011) ‘Meter and Meaning’. In: J. D. Hall (ed.), Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 26-52

Ford, R. (2014) Fresh Air, ‘Author Richard Ford Says ‘Let Me Be Frank’ About Aging And Dying’. Available from: http://www.npr.org/2014/11/12/363521353/author-richard-ford-says-let-me-be-frank-about-aging-and-dying

Griffiths, E. (1989) The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Padel, R. (2013) ‘Tennyson: Echo and Harmony, Music and Thought’. In: M. Bevis (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 324-333.


JOANNE LOO is a Secondary School Literature & English teacher, with a love for (almost) all things Victorian. She studied Tennyson & his poetry for her Masters thesis in Oxford. Her love for poetry was nurtured most during her undergraduate days at the University of Warwick. 

photo credit: all-free-download

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