Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘The Brook’ was written in 1886, not long before the poet died in 1892. The poem explores themes of mortality/eternity and nature through memorable images of a brook’s movements through the countryside. From the first lines, it becomes clear the speaker is a body of water, a brook. It narrates its own life as if recounting very human experiences. Tennyson allows it to have agency and knowledge of the human world that means readers and empathizes and understand its experiences. This is especially evident every time the river changes or experiences something new. 

The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Summary of The Brook

‘The Brook’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is an image-rich poem that describes the life of a brook that is going to “go on” for eternity. 

The poem begins with the speaker, the brook, describing its nature. It was at once a simple body of water before it started moving forward in a rush. Tennyson follows the progression of the brook through the valleys, around farms, and then into a larger river. The speaker talks about human life and the nature of a moral existence. Tennyson uses clear and evocative images to paint pictures of the scenes that require a reader to use a variety of senses to imagine them. Many of these images use juxtaposition to depict the varying states the brook exists in. The poem concludes by alluding to the fact that the brook, unlike humans, is going to exist forever. 


Structure of The Brook 

The Brook’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a thirteen stanza ballad poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, changing ends sounds from stanza to stanza. As a ballad poem, this rhyme scheme is slightly unusual. The most common ballad rhyme scheme is ABCB. But the structure of the quatrains is quite normal as is another feature of the poem, the refrain. The phrase “For men may come, and men may go, / But I go on forever” is central to the meaning of the poem and is used multiple times in the text. 

Tennyson uses the traditional meter of alternative iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter but adds an extra syllable onto the lines of iambic trimeter. This feminine ending that changes the meter slightly is not unusual in itself either. By adding the extra syllable, the poet is able to increase the sing-song-like nature of the rhymes and rhythm. 


Literary Devices in The Brook

Tennyson makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Brook.’ These include but are not limited to metaphor, specifically extended metaphor, allusion, alliteration, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important techniques at work in ‘The Brook.’ Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. 

Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In this case, a reader can find numerous examples that are quite evocative. For instance, the fourth stanza where the brook describes itself as “chattering” and bubbling and babbling over stones and pebbles. Another example can be found in these lines from the eighth stanza: “I make the netted sunbeam dance / Against my sandy shallows.” 

The previous two examples also provide the reader with two, of the many, instances of personification in this poem. Throughout, the brook is narrating its own life and describing its actions as a human being would. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. This entire poem might be considered an extended metaphor for the mortal progress from birth to death. While the brook doesn’t die, the poem does track its beginnings and the changes it undergoes as it joins with a river and then becomes a stream. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “haunts” and “hern” in the first line of the first stanza and “bubble,” “bays,” and “babble” in stanza four. 


Analysis of The Brook 

Stanza One 

I come from haunts of coot and hern,

I make a sudden sally

And sparkle out among the fern,

To bicker down a valley.

In the first stanza of the poem the speaker begins by announcing that it comes from “haunts of coot and hern”. From contextual clues, it is immediately possible to discern that this speaker is an unusual one. The “brook” referenced in the title is describing its own life and nature. It originated or was born (to stick with the extended metaphor at the heart of the poem). “Coot and hern” refers to two different kinds of birds that live in marshy places and in still bodies of water like ponds. 

The brook is going to undergo an interesting and meaningful transformation throughout the rest of the poem. This change starts in the second line when it makes a “sudden sally” or moves suddenly forward and down into the “valley”. Tennyson uses personification throughout the poem, allowing the brook to speak for itself in a very human way. 


Stanza Two 

By thirty hills I hurry down,

Or slip between the ridges,

By twenty thorpes, a little town,

And half a hundred bridges.

The next stanza details some of the stream’s progress as it moves through the countryside. It experiences various different homes, locations, and towns. It speaks about the hills, “thorpes,” or small villages, and the “half a hundred bridges” that it passes under. 


Stanza Three 

Till last by Philip’s farm I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

The third stanza describes how the brook moves past a farm owned by someone named “Philip” to “join the brimming river”. The brook has a real understanding of its environment and those who reside there. Knowing the name of the farm’s owner is an interesting addition to the brook’s abilities. 

When it joins in with the “brimming river” the brook moves forward in its aging process. It is no longer a tiny trickle of water or standing water in a marsh. Now it is stronger and much more powerful. This is solidifying its existence for an unknowable period of time. What the river does know about its life is that it’s going to live much longer than any mortal man. These “men” come and go and the brook is always there. The last two lines of this stanza are the refrain that appears several more times in the poem. 


Stanza Four 

I chatter over stony ways,

In little sharps and trebles,

I bubble into eddying bays,

I babble on the pebbles.

There is a good example of anaphora in the fourth stanza of ‘The Brook’. Here, Tennyson starts three of the four lines with the pronoun “I”. This makes sense as the brook is narrating its own life. It is making noises and moving as one would expect water to. These lines are quite rhythmic and connected satisfyingly through half or slant rhyme. 


Stanzas Five and Six

With many a curve my banks I fret

By many a field and fallow,

And many a fairy foreland set

With willow-weed and mallow.


I chatter, chatter, as I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

The poet begins the fifth stanza with an example of alliteration with “fret,” “field,” and “fallow”. These words are part of the description of the places that the brook moves through. They are also an example of how well Tennyson is able to crater the scene through simple and recognizable language. 

The refrain appears again in the sixth stanza after the brook reminds the reader that it is joining in with the “brimming river”. 


Stanzas Seven and Eight

I wind about, and in and out,

With here a blossom sailing,

And here and there a lusty trout,

And here and there a grayling,


And here and there a foamy flake

Upon me, as I travel

With many a silvery waterbreak

Above the golden gravel,

There is a good example of internal rhyme in the first line of the seventh stanza with “about” and “out”. These words help the reader picture the testing movements of the water as it goes “here and there”. In amongst the river’s weaves, there are different fish living. Such as “trout” and “grayling”. The journey the brook is undertaking can be compared to the journey of the human soul, or even the mind and body, through life. Although the brook is going to live for “eternity” it is still changing, learning, and experiencing more every day. 


Stanzas Nine and Ten

And draw them all along, and flow

To join the brimming river

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.


I steal by lawns and grassy plots,

I slide by hazel covers;

I move the sweet forget-me-nots

That grow for happy lovers.

The ninth stanza is another iteration of the refrain. It is followed by more lines that begin with “I” and explain how the river travels around beautiful images of flowers and “lawns and grassy plots”. There is darkness and there is light, as the next stanzas make clear. The speaker mentions the “sweet forget-me-nots” that it says “grow for happy lovers”. This displays a knowledge of the way that the human world works and the poet’s desire to make nature meaningful. It has intrinsic value and then added value when the human experience is connected to it. 


Stanzas Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,

Among my skimming swallows;

I make the netted sunbeam dance

Against my sandy shallows.


I murmur under moon and stars

In brambly wildernesses;

I linger by my shingly bars;

I loiter round my cresses;


And out again I curve and flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

Repetition in the next two stanzas helps bring the poem to a conclusion. These lines feel like the days of the brook’s life, passing one at a time, on and on without end. The images are emphasized through examples of sibilance with “skimming swallows,” “sunbeam,” and “sandy shallows”. Personification is at its clearest in the twelfth stanza as the brook lists off its very human actions. 

The final stanza is another repetition of the refrain. It emphasizes for one final time that the river is going to “go on for ever” when men are going to “come and…go”. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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