Meeting At Night

 Overview

This is a beautiful short poem about the passion of young, forbidden romance. Our lover braves the dangers and risk of the night and the sea just for a mere glimpse of his girl and the sound of her voice. Through a range of dramatic natural imagery it explores the intensity of his feelings and his willingness to go through great ordeals for something seemingly so minor or insignificant as a whispered word.

The poem is thought to be represent Browning’s early relationship with his future wife (fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Her father didn’t want her to have anything to do with him, so, like all youngsters, they disobeyed and carried on and even had the cheek to get married in secret. As everybody knows, keeping things a secret makes things more exciting and sexy! Thus the intensity of the feelings in this poem.

Mini-Glossary
cove – a small bay useful for small boats to land on;
quench – putting out, in this case bringing the boat’s speed to nothing.

I 

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand. 

II
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each! 

Robert Browning (1812-89)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Browning is another highly renowned poet that I ashamed to admit to not having spent much time reading.

From a fairly well off family, Browning had a childhood where his passion for literature was nurtured and supported, with his parents sending him to two private schools, university and hiring a private tutor to allow him to explore his interests. However, you can imagine they must’ve got a bit fed up of him as he rebelled against being placed in private school, dropping out to study with a tutor, and only hacked one year at university. They shouldn’t have let him get away with this as he ending up remaining at the family home until his mid-thirties, while steadfastly refusing to get a job and trying to make a career of his poetry.

Browning married after exchanging letters of admiration with Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) regarding each other’s poetry in 1845. They ran away to Italy and married secretly as her father was a bit of a nutjob and did not want any of his children to get married – he disowned her when he found out.

This poem was published the year they met (1845). Originally it was actually published along with a third stanza, but this was later separated as a poem in its own right called ‘Parting at Morning‘.

 Themes

The main focus is on romantic love and the intensity of these feelings. There is also a strong link to nature as natural imagery is used to demonstrate these feelings.

Content

The narrative of this poem is very brief.

In the first stanza, our poetic voice brings his boat to land in the middle of the night where the world seems completely still and silent. In the second, he crosses the beach and some fields to arrive at a farmhouse. Here he gently knocks on the window and his lover strikes a match and they whisper together, while their heart thump with the intensity of their excitement and passion for each other.

Language and techniques

The matter of fact nature of the title of this poem belies the intensity of the emotions felt. However, ‘Meeting at Night’ should convey a sense of mystery and romance as it suggests something secretive and potentially illicit going on and this is exactly the case.

Browning uses intense imagery to render a scene not just of darkness, but complete stillness and silence. The boat approaches ‘the long black land’ conjures an image of everything being in silhouette and places us in the dead of night. This feeling is built upon by the idea of the personified sea waking from ‘sleep’ and being ‘startled’, which makes it seem as if everyone and everything on the Earth is at rest, still and silent. However, this is not a rough awakening as Browning describes only ‘little waves’ and ‘ringlets’ suggesting the motion of the boat and an oar being gentle and soundless. The scene is provided with only the candle-like glimmer of a ‘yellow half moon’ , which barely lights the sea around him so that it seems ‘grey’.  The moon too seems to be asleep as it is ‘large and low’ as if it is sitting on the sea rather than up above. This natural imagery does not just set the scene, but also communicates feelings of delicacy and fear of discovery. The oarsman has to be silent so as not to disturb this natural world and risk its wrath.

When writing about this in an essay, be careful not to miss the fact that the boat is in itself a metaphor. Browning and Barrett Browning did not actually do this, but it is presented this way as it intensifies the emotions felt and gives them a sense of being part of some epic quest rather than a simple relationship. The poetic voice arriving by boat is also significant as it has crossed the sea. Seas represent one of the most dangerous and unpredictable forces of nature and as such the journey represents the risk and danger of their romance. We can see this suggestion in the description of the ringlets caused by his gentle oar strokes as being ‘fiery’ and implying that if it were to be properly disturbed things could get a bit messy. When you consider the risks of braving the sea in the middle of the night, on a one man vessel and then a trek across a dark land, you have to ask yourself would you bother just to have a whispered chat with your girlfriend? Definitely not a good risk/reward relationship. However, this merely serves to highlight the intensity of the romantic passion as he is willing to take such risk for so little reward.

Arriving at the shore, the natural scene remains one of peace and silent beauty with a faint hint of a threat. He begins his trek across the ‘warm sea-scented beach’, which is no doubt pleasant, but the smell reminds us of the lingering threat and danger of the sea. As he approaches his love this threat has somewhat receded from his mind, but nevertheless is always present. The doubt and uncertainty of the relationship also remains as her home only ‘appears’ as he gets close as the darkness obscure it.

Browning uses the onomatopoeia of a ‘tap’ to again highlight the silentness of the scene. This barely audible sound is enough to get the attention of his lover immediately. This suggests to me that she has been waiting in the darkness and through the night for his presence and once again highlights the intensity of their feeling as she cannot sleep with the anticipation of his arrival. The sense of risk is again highlighted by her reaction in ‘the quick sharp scratch’ as she lights a match. Although a scratch is again a quiet noise, Browning’s use of ‘sharp’ suggests it seems to the lovers to be too loud and to risk giving everything away.

The poem returns to a romantic lighting with the ‘blue spurt’ of the match surely providing only a bare outline of each of the lovers. Low lighting is associated with romance because it intensifies the features of our faces and blurs our imperfections, but also because our pupils expand in low light as they do when they are excited and aroused, thus conjuring the same feelings. In this setting the poetic voice receives his prize in the form of a ‘voice less loud’ than the scratch of the match being lit and their beating hearts. All that effort for that? Rubbish! Anyway, her inaudible whisper is associated with both ‘joys and fears’ as she is both overcome by her feelings and almost can’t breath with excitement, but also she is terrified of discovery and the ending of their elicit affair.

Although the lovers are still separated by a window/wall, their ‘two hearts [are] beating each to each’ and thus they truly feel together and connected, despite the lack of physical contact, being able to see each other, or being able to hear each other. Purely being in each other’s presence is enough to excite and delight them.

Structure

One of the key things I would comment on here is the regular use of alliteration in the opening stanza. The elongated ‘l’s of the first three lines (‘long black land… large and low… little waves that leap’) are complimented by similar effects in ‘pushing prow’ and ‘speed i’ the slushy sand’ and serve to provide the poem with a gentle pace that mirrors the stillness of the imagery.

You might also comment on the fact that each stanza is in fact a single sentence. Although the poem is read at a slow pace, there is a sense of interconnectedness with every element as if each detail is building towards the ultimate goal of reaching the shore and then the lovers being together. This suggests an eagerness despite the calm of the poem.

There is also some clever stuff with the beats contained in the lines that at first appear to be in iambic tetrameters, but actually deviate at several points to demonstrate the interruption in the stillness, calm regularity of the scene with the beating of their hearts and intensity of their feelings. This is explain well here.

Tone

The scene in the poem of calm and stillness comes across in the way the poem is read, but we also have to appreciate that beneath this silence we have the passionate drumming of the poetic voice’s heart and a bubbling sense of excitement and anticipation.

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