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In the poem "The Brook", Tennyson speaks about the journey of a small brook which later joins a mighty river. The poem is narrated in the first person by the small brook:

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally,
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

I was pondering why it is written in first person by the brook? What does this choice of narrative style add to the poem? Is there any reason, apart from the obvious one that it was simply Tennyson's style, for him to write like that?

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  • There's no reason that the poetry of one Poet Laureate need bear any relationship to the poetry of another Poet Laureate. – Peter Shor Feb 14 at 2:47
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    I think the question would be acceptable if it were rephrased so as to not to ask about the poet's motivations — for example, "What is the rhetorical effect of the poem being narrated by the brook?" – Gareth Rees Feb 14 at 10:28
  • @GarethRees My edit (almost at the same time as your comment) has tried to do that: removing the comparison with Wordsworth and asking what this choice of style adds to the poem, in order to focus less on what was in the writer's head and more on the writing itself. – Rand al'Thor Feb 14 at 10:59
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There are two things I think the choice of first-person adds to the poem: novelty, and a sense of movement.

The novelty factor comes from the point of view being, well, novel. Bodies of water can't talk, and they aren't usual narrators, so a reader will likely find a poem written from a brook's perspective novel and interesting. For example:

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.

Here the brook does some unusual, interesting things. It "chatters", which is a human activity, but then immediately reminds the reader of its non-humanness by noting that it "flow[s]". The brook says it will "join" the river, which is not something that would happen with a human narrator. Personally, I laughed here, considering how yes, the brook's winding path is just to join a larger river.

The next two lines are more explorations of the novelty which can be taken from this point of view. The brook contrasts the normal lives of humans - they "may come" and "may go" - with itself, because it will "go on for ever". This is another compelling novelty; the brook, in its novel perspective as a natural feature, will go on forever.

A natural question is why a similar effect couldn't be achieved if the brook was simply described, without the first-person perspective. I would answer that by saying that the use of an "I" pronoun for these novel activities - remember, the brook says "I go on forever" - adds to the novelty. The "I" claims humanity, and the non-human contrast of what the brook does adds humor and novelty.

I could go on like this about every stanza of the poem, waxing eloquent about how the first-person perspective adds novelty. However I shall spare you that, dear reader, as I'm running out of ways to say "novel" and "interesting".

What do I mean by "a sense of movement"? The brook's narration contains many "movement" words. It "makes a sudden sally", "bicker[s] down a valley", "hurr[ies] down", "slip[s] between the ridges", "flow[s]", etc. These phrases create a relentless sense of movement, barreling with the reader through the poem and down the lines.

Making it an "I" who does these movements is a way of drawing the reader along with the movement. You are more likely to be dragged along by a bubbly, energetic friend than by a description of a bubbly, energetic friend. By declaring an identity with "I", the brook's movement words are more effective in pulling the reader along for the ride.

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