Meeting at Night
The gray 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.
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, through joys and fearsome,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
A man is going to meet his lover at night, describing the natural scene he crosses to get to her. Robert Browning was a Victorian poet who was famous for his dramatic monologues, and his character based poems. It is possible that this poem is either from his perspective or that of a character. The poem uses pathetic fallacy and descriptions of the natural world to mimic the meeting and his lover. The poem was written during Browning’s courtship of his future wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and is often considered one of the most intimate poems which he wrote at this time. Barrett Browning’s father did not approve of their relationship, so they at first had to meet in secret.
Title sets up a romantic and mysterious atmosphere, ‘night’ suggesting intimacy and secrecy between the two lovers, as though they are not allowed to be together.
L. 1: ‘Gray’ unusually shows the sea as it looks at night, with the colours all gone. ‘Long black land’ accurately shows the silhouette of the landscape he is approaching at night. Creates an atmosphere of cold, foreboding and silence. Length of the words in the first line are very short, and alliteration and assonance are used in ‘long black land’, creating the effect of slowing down the line, creating quite a languid atmosphere.
L. 2: ‘half-moon large and low’ uses alliteration to again slow the line down, creating a sense of the moon as extremely heavy. Heaviness creates a sense of calmness, as well as of gravity and seriousness, as though this moment means a lot. ‘Yellow’ contrasts with the colour of the land, making the scene more vivid, whilst a half-moon may represent the speaker, waiting for the other half (the lover) to complete it. Also suggests a lack of light, enhancing the mysterious atmosphere.
LL. 3-4: ‘Startled’ personifies the waves as shocked by his presence, as the waves ‘leap’ between the lines using enjambment. Alliteration of ‘t’ sound creates a sense of jumpiness, mirroring the waves. Creates a sense of liveliness, contrasting the rest of the landscape, and also seems to be a girl. ‘Fiery ringlets’ continues this sense of the waves as feminine, now personified as a woman’s hair. Putting the narrator as a boat in this feminine landscape has very sexual connotations, as though the two are in bed together. The ‘sleep’ of the waves is likened to him waking up his lover.
LL. 5-6: ‘Pushing prow’ suggests the narrator as eager to see his lover, conveyed through the alliteration. ‘Gain’ shows a sense of possessiveness towards her. Finally, the narrator gets to shore, ‘quenching’ the speed of the boat, as though his desire itself were fiery in the relief of having at last found his lover. Sibilance mirrors the sound of the waves meeting the sand and the boat being moored.
The first stanza is extremely sensory and also very sensual, comparing the two lovers to the natural landscape, as though the sea has become his lover.
Ll. 7-8: The warm sea could reflect his lover, and certainly creates a sense of emotional warmth and sensuousness. ‘Warm’ and ‘scented’ again show the passion of the narrator. ‘Three fields’ shows the difficulty of the journey, but also how he’s now so impatient that he is counting down every field. This impatience is also shown the by use of ‘then’ to start the stanza, as though he is trying to move quickly onwards. Semi-colons at the ends of the lines suggest an ongoing journey, and also deliberately slows the lines down, showing the obstacles he faces before he can get to her.
Ll. 9-10: He describes quickly a ‘tap’ at the window, the quietness of his action suggesting that he doesn’t want anyone else to know. The short clauses show the tense nature of the actions which happen quickly as he tries to wake her. The ‘short, sharp scratch’ is a slightly odd phrase, at once it suggests him scratching at her window to try and wake her, yet also suggests the movement of lighting a match so that they can see each other. The match is so hot it glows with a ‘blue’ flame, suggesting his love and passion for her, and his impatience to see her.
Ll. 11-12: In the last lines, the poet conveys the interchangeable nature of ‘a voice’, which could be either of their voices, yet is also less important than the sound of the heartbeats. The two lines form the climax to the poem, with two people standing together, and more ‘two hearts’ communicating, showing their love. The phrase ‘each to each’ shows how mutual their affection, and also ‘through joys and fears’, shows how every worry they might have about their relationship becomes irrelevant when they are together.
The length of the lines in the poem varies, showing and mirroring the waves. Waves are an important consideration in the poem as they are not only the means by which he returns to his lover, but also suggest natural inevitability, suggesting that he must return to his lover.
The fact that the poem has two stanzas suggests the two separated lovers, which nevertheless form a mirror the each other, as they are nearly identical in all aspects. Whilst in the poem they are apart, they nevertheless form the one whole of the poem.
Rhythm is a mixture of iambics (heartbeat) with inverted syllables at the opening of some lines and some anapests within other lines, mirroring the quickened heartbeat.
Rhyme is abccba, mirroring the movement of the waves, and his emotions. The rhyme comes to a climax in the middle of stanza and then moves outwards again, suggesting the steady peak and then decline of the waves which move.