"Meeting at Night" seems to be a simple love poem of twelve adventure-filled lines, yet critics have found significant comment, within these twelve simple lines, about Victorian society and culture and about the poetic persona's personal struggles. How much information the poem gives up depends--as with all literature--upon the literary theory used to approach analysis of its twelve lines. Analysis of "Meeting at Night" is made more complex because, being the first half of a pair of poems--with "Parting at Morning" forming the second half--a theme made evident in the second poem can seep over and influence analysis of the first. Whether this is correct literary analysis or not depends, again, upon the critical literary theory used to approach it.
Essentials of Literature's Theoretical Approaches
There are essentially two kinds of critical literary theoretical approaches. The first kind of theoretical approach is concerned primarily with the text itself, while the second is concerned primarily with externals, such as history, society, culture, biography. These two basic kinds of theoretical approaches can be combined in various ways or can be used exclusively. To illustrate, Formalism uses exclusively text and Marxism uses Marxist theory to produce literary analysis, while New Historicism uses a combination of text, social, cultural, historical and biographical issues to produce literary analysis. Application of different theoretical approaches to a literary work, like "Meeting at Night," can yield sometimes very different results.
Background of "Meeting at Night"
The paired poems, "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning," originally formed one single poem when first published in Browning's Pomegranates and Bells in 1845. They were listed in the table of contents as one poem and were titled "Night and Morning; I. Night; II. Morning" as one single, but two-part, poem. It was in the 1849 reissue of the collection under the now familiar title Dramatic Romances and Lyrics that Browning separated the poems and presented them as individual poems under the present titles "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning." In a sense, this set the poems at an analytical disadvantage and gave a disadvantage to future readers who may be unaware of the two parts and the relationship between them. To illustrate, while it is clear from the last line of "II. Morning"/"Parting at Morning" that Browning alludes to the Victorian cultural emphasis upon the separation of the world of men from the world of women, the division of the poems into "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning" isolates that theme to "Parting," whereas a reading of them as one unit might illuminate "I. Night"/"Meeting at Night" under the light of the same theme. As individual, separate poems, however, this theme is not present in the text of "Meeting at Night" alone.
VICTORIANISM IN 'MEETING AT NIGHT'
The age of Victorianism, correlating with the 1837 to 1901 reign of England's Queen Victoria, was an age that spanned great optimism and great pessimism born of great social and philosophical turmoil. Optimism and confidence sprang from the prowess of the United Kingdom as it became the greatest power on earth with the greatest wealth, navy, colonies and industrialization. Pessimism and turmoil sprang from the moral and human conflicts bred in overly congested unsanitary cities where crime and disease reigned and babies died more often than they lived; from religious questionings and upheavals, such as those stemming from David Strauss's "historical Jesus" stripped of his divinity, Tractarians challenging the informality of Anglicanism, and nonconforming Evangelicals, like John Wesley, introducing new visions of personal purity; from scientific discoveries, such as those in geology and archeology and evolution, that called age-old religious belief and literalism into question. While optimism flavored the first decade of Victorianism, by the end of the period of the Industrial Revolution (c. 1850), pessimism had begun to reign.
Browning published some of his earliest poems on the cusp between these two philosophical mind-sets, optimism and pessimism, and on the verge of the merging of Victorianism and Industrialism. "Meeting at Night" is an example of this historical positioning of Browning's work since it was published (as "I. Night") in 1845. Heavily influenced by the poetic age preceding his own, Browning embraced the Romantic period emphasis on both beauty and hope. For this reason, he defined the Victorian conflict between optimism and pessimism as the conflict between facets of human nature. He was protected from pessimism by his acceptance of the Romantic tenet of transcendence over the uninspired through "Nature" and "Beauty."
In "Meeting," when analyzed as a separate entity from "Parting at Morning," Browning's personal optimism is apparent although it is a bit strained to go so far as to say that "Victorian optimism" is apparent: There is no sociocultural context to "Meeting at Night" at all when analyzed as a poem that is separate from "Parting at Morning." The scenario described in "Meeting" might have been as aptly true during the Renaissance as it might be aptly true during our own time (especially now that many are going "off the grid," making candles and matches less of an anomaly): There is no sociocultural reflection of Victorianism in the text of "Meeting at Night."
The Victorian elements that might be said to be apparent in "Meeting" relate to poetic style. If the love poem is considered by itself, the narrative it tells of the adventuresome secret assignation between lovers fits any historic period. Yet the diction and vocabulary show Victorian influence. Wordsworth gave birth to the Romantic period by defining great poetry, in part, as that which is without high poetic diction; as that which can be read by any literate person; as that which uses the language of common speech (a point of contention between Romantic icons Wordsworth and Coleridge). The simple, though highly sensory, everyday diction, with brisk imagery, that Browning employs in "Meeting" heralds its Romantic influence and Victorian origins.
Although Browning employs the literary technique of pathetic fallacy (a form of personification specific to nature), e.g., "startled little waves," his use of nature treats those elements as natural forces in the Victorian mode; these are not inspirational forces of "Nature" such as Romantics would present them to be. To the contrary, Browning's presentation of natural elements does not call forth the Romantic lament of humanity's loss of unity with Nature and the consequent need for Nature's inspiring power. Rather Browning's nature calls forth an image of the persona's labor enjoined with natural forces, for example, enjoined with the "startled little waves" "pushing [the] prow" in "the slushy sand." Further, these forces of nature--the "little waves" and the "slushy sand" and the "mile of sea-scented beach"--do not present resistance or obstacles, as would be expected from later Naturalism and Realism, but rather they reflect the neutral scientific perspective of the Victorian Age.
BROWNING'S POETIC PERSONA
Browning in 1833 anonymously published Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession. Drawn from real-life personal anxieties and passions, it received some praise but scathing critical comment from John Stuart Mill. This permanently impacted Browning's poetic mode of expression and sent him on the quest that eventually resulted in "dramatic monologue." A small quotation from Pauline follows.
To cast away restraint, lest a worse thing
Wait for us in the darkness. Thou lovest me,
And thou art to receive not love, but faith,
For which thou wilt be mine, and smile, and take
All shapes, and shames, and veil without a fear
That form which music follows like a slave;
And I look to thee, and I trust in thee. (Browning, Pauline)
Browning opted to find a biography-neutral poetic mode and never wrote confessional, introspective poetry again [although American poet Walt Whitman succeeded about twenty years later in 1855 to publish even more highly introspective and confessional poetry in Leaves of Grass]. In Browning's letters to Elizabeth Barret, who became Elizabeth Barret Browning, he said, "all my writings are purely dramatic as I am always anxious to say."
While it is tempting to think that "Meeting at Night" represents a scene from Robert and Elizabeth's romance, with the poetic persona being a representation of Robert Browning himself, we have his word for it that his poetry is dramatic, exploring the human spirit's "layers of ice and pits of cold water," without confessional introspection, thus communicating nothing biographical to the reader:
"I am utterly unused, of these late years particularly, to dream of communicating anything about that to another person (all my writings are purely dramatic as I am always anxious to say)...." [Letters 74]
By way of confirming the conclusion that there is an absence of biographical quality in "Meeting at Night," Browning alluded to this non-biographical poetic mode by writing in the dialogue of The Ring and the Book, "I can detach from me." Consequent of these considerations--unless we want to disregard the truthfulness of Browning's letters--it is a mistake to think of "Meeting" as depicting in any regard the romance between Robert and Elizabeth. We must accept that the man "with pushing prow" quenching "its speed i' the slushy sand" is a dramatic creation of Browning's poetic inspiration: The poetic persona in "Meeting at Night" is not Browning; he is an immortalized dramatic character.
ANALYZING 'MEETING AT NIGHT'
The poem is about ardent young love, ardent enthusiasm, and feats of devotion. It is about a secret, stolen meeting between upper class lovers who were not yet married. We know they are upper class because of the poetic persona's vocabulary and expression of imagery: These are not common, lower class words and images. The narrative is a simple one expressed in two sentences, each sentence making up one stanza of six lines each. The first sentence ends in a "full stop" period and the second in an exclamation. In between are semicolons and commas, with each stanza having enjambment, no line-end punctuation, in the third line (enjambment: the carrying over of a thought to the next line without line-end punctuation).
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.
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!
Sentence terminal punctuation:
"i' the slushy sand."
"beating each to each!"
"waves that leap"
"quick sharp scratch"
The rhymes are different in the two six-line stanzas but each follows the rhyme scheme pattern of abccba, which is a common six-line, or sexain, stanza rhyme scheme pattern. Each stanza contrasts light and dark. In the first stanza, the boat in the darkness, the "black land," the "grey sea" and the "little waves" are illuminated by the contrasting glimmer of the "yellow half-moon large and low." In the second stanza, the "sea-scented beach," the "[t]hree fields" and the farmhouse window "pane" are illuminated by the "blue spurt" of flame gotten after a "quick sharp scratch" from the "lighted match." Although small, the "lighted match" symbolically cuts brightly into the glimmer of the "yellow half-moon." The chiaroscuro effect of light contrasting with dark symbolizes the dichotomous nature of their secret love: their love is their light though hidden in secretive darkness.
The boat used by the poetic persona is a small dinghy that is either a rowing or sailing dinghy. In either case, such dinghies are not meant for traveling great distances across ocean waters. Therefore, our poetic persona has not traveled far, perhaps no further than from up the coast slightly or across a fjord. The boat, since it is a dinghy of a sort, does not imply danger in crossing the sea but excitement and expediency in arriving as quickly as possible. Thus the sea cannot be represented as an obstacle to the persona; the boat with "pushing prow" signifies, in contrast, the haste and ardent energy of the young lover.
Similarly, the man's journey across sea, beach and fields is made without great physical exertion. No imagery of sound or feeling gives an indication of physical strain while facing great obstacles in a quest to perilously reach his beloved's side. On the contrary, the man speeds effortlessly along his way as though with the winged sandals of Mercury (Hermes for the Greeks). The first physical effort recorded is his "tap at the pane." This is followed by the physical effort made by his beloved as she, with a "quick sharp scratch," strikes "a lighted match." Earlier, when the boat came ashore, he gains land, but it is the wave-sped momentum of the boat that gains land and the friction of the sand that slows the speed of the boat. Thus, since his rowing or sailing is completed upon reaching land, the effort alluded to in stanza one is not his own but that of the cooperative forces of nature.
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.
Since "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning" are presented as separate poems, their settings seem to suggest different locations. In "Meeting," the mile of beach transitions into three fields approaching the farm and house (the farmhouse, though not mentioned, is implied by the "pane" of a window). In "Parting," the four-line text of which is added below, a cape ushers in the morning sea and morning sun, which is shinning over the mountain top and beaming a path of golden light across the ocean.
Parting at Morning
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim;
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
Seeming to be two different places, one setting is characterized by "long black land," a "cove," a "mile of beach," and "three fields," while the other setting is characterized by a "cape" and a "sudden" rush of "sea," with "a path of gold" from "over the mountain's rim." To reconcile the differences, we might suppose that if the mile of beach in "Meeting" were to terminate in cliff formation, with the three fields running parallel to the cliff-bounded coast, and if the farmhouse were at the cliff edge, then the "cape," "sudden ... sea" and "long black land," "[t]hree fields" and "mountain's rim" might indeed describe two environs of the same setting.
Even though the poems are read independently of each other now, with readers sometimes not knowing of the existence of the other part of the pair, Browning did originate them as forming a poetic unit, therefore it is reasonable to understand them as occupying the same setting. Since we know the setting has sea, cove, beach, fields, cape (cape: a large raised piece of land jutting out into water, usually the ocean), and mountains, it is clear the secret lovers are at the seaside. The specific of "warm sea-scented beach" inclines us to think the seaside may be in the Mediterranean area, perhaps in Italy since Browning spent so much time there.
Poem Diction and Sounds
Diction refers to the categories of word choices a writer makes. The two primary categories of word choices are formal (high) words or informal (low) words. Other categories of word choices are concrete versus abstract words and emotive versus non-emotive words. Diction determines a writers vocabulary, tone and style, which in turn determine a reader's reaction to a work. Poetry, even after the advent of Wordsworth's Romantic era convention of poetry in common (or informal) language, is most often written in high, formal poetic diction with figurative and symbolic language. Nonetheless, there are degrees of formality in poetic diction. "Meeting at Night" presents a meeting of informal and formal diction.
Browning's vocabulary choices are informal, monosyllabic words. [Vocabulary is comprised of the various diction choices, like feline versus kitty, comprised versus made of, is not versus ain't, proximal versus near, etc.] Yet stanza one contains high formal poetic diction in a wonderful pathetic fallacy on the sea waves: "startled little waves that leap / In fiery ringlets from their sleep,...." Browning uses high poetic figurative language to give waves personality and reactions. He first makes them them sleepy and startles them with the presence of the boat pushing its prow toward land. He then gives them ringlets, as found in young beauties' hair, that are lit by the yellow glow from the large, low half-moon. In our mind's eye, we complete the image of the startled, sleepy waves joining in the effort to get the boat speedily to the slushy beach sand of the cove.
Sounds play another significant role in high poetic diction. Some poetic techniques employing sound commonly used are alliteration, consonance, assonance and rhyme. The rhyme Browning uses repeats in an abccba pattern: rhymes land, low, leap / sleep, prow, sand and beach, appears, scratch / match, fears, each.
Stanza one builds harmoniousness--even in haste of "pushing" toward the cove--with consonance of /l/: long black land, startled little, leap, ringlets sleep. He builds friction and suspense into the act of arriving yet still having farther to go by using consonance of /s/ /sh/ /sl/ and /ch/: sleep, slushy, pushing, quench, speed, sand. Consonance of /p/ /g/ /q/ /d/ and /c/ adds conflict and tension: gain, cove, pushing, prow, quench, speed, sand.
Browning further uses sounds of letters to build other sensations, for instance, using /sh/ /ch/ /sl/ and /shy/ to stem the strength of speed and energy as the man reaches the cove in stanza one. Then, in stanza two, he uses /ck/ /scr/ and /tch/ to define the power and eagerness of the woman's actions as she performs the contrastingly small gesture of striking the match at the window pane.
From the diction and sounds of the poem, we can ascribe a tone to the poetic speaker that is energetic, cheerful and bright, as bright as the "yellow half-moon large and low." Note that in this case "low" refers to proximity to the horizon, which governs perceptual size, brightness and light dispersion. "Low" also represents the poetical sensation of being able to reach out and touch the moon. It is interesting that the moon is a "half-moon": it symbolizes the clandestine, secretive, half-hidden nature of the lovers' tryst. We can ascribe a mood (mood: the emotional feeling within the poem based on diction, setting and characterization) that is quiet, calm (a half-moon, sleepy waves, dark long beach, slushy beach sand), not uncooperative, pleasantly accommodating.
Poem Obstacles Confronting the Man
While it might be tempting to think that the sea, mile walk on beach sand and three fields to traverse present obstacles to be overcome and defeated, the idea of conflict against physical obstacles cannot be supported through the text. A reader's responsive reaction might be to see the man's journey as comprised of obstacles that he faces and overcomes, but is there any indication in the text that the man sees or feels the parts of his journey as obstacles?
The only action words apply to the waves. The man doesn't row, run, walk, exert breathlessly, stumble blindly, jump over field stiles. He only "gains the cove" as though effortlessly and on the curls of the "startled little waves" leaping with "fiery ringlets" alight in the beam of the "yellow half-moon." The only action he actually performs is to "tap" on the "pane" of the window. Even his embrace is implied, rather than stated as an action, in "two hearts beating each to each!" No dark straining struggling words or sounds intrude on his effortless journey to the farm. Thus there is no indication that this poem is about obstacles met with, faced and overcome.
There are several textual elements that contradict the idea of a journey against physical obstacles. We've considered the elements of diction, tone and mood, none of which point to conflict or obstacles. What would we expect to find in the text if obstacles were a theme of the man's journey? We might expect to find dark, straining words and sounds; dark tone and mood; dark figures of speech. Let's examine a few literary techniques and see what we do find.
- There are no dominant dark words: "grey" and "black" are counterbalanced by "yellow" and "warm sea-scented"; "fiery" is counterbalanced by "ringlets" and "little waves"; "long black" is counterbalanced by "half-moon large and low."
- Line one opens the poem with mono-syllabic words that are dominated by consonants that stop air flow, /g/ /l/ /ng/ /bl/ /d/; this sound technique adds energy and speed but doesn't add darkness or strain.
- Words with more than one syllable are used for describing elements of nature and create a cheerful tone: yellow, half- moon, startled, little, ringlets, sea-scented.
- Browning uses diction choices and pathetic fallacy to give nature a decided playfulness by creating "startled little waves," "waves that leap," waves that have "fiery ringlets," waves that are awaken "from their sleep" (symbolic of innocence startled into wakefulness); playfulness even extends to the flame of the match, which comes into life with an enthusiastic "blue spurt."
- The tone conveys optimism and strength, not anxiety, exhaustion or exertion: they are said to "gain the cove," not reach or crash into the cove; there is a "pushing prow," not a struggling boat; there is no jarring halt, but they "quench its speed i' the slushy sand."
- There is the representation of beauty in the man's journey in the "warm sea-scented beach," the "[t]hree fields," and in the moment when the "farm appears."
- Energetic sounds and sights dominate the second stanza with the "tap at the pane," the "quick sharp scratch," the "blue spurt" and the "voice less loud" than the quick sharp scratch.
- Personal emotions implied are mostly of elation with "two hearts beating, each to each," although they face both "joys and fears."
It is also not possible to suppose distance presents an obstacle that the man must overcome. We do not know that he is separated by a long distance. We know only that he is separated by an inconvenient distance, a distance most easily traversed by small boat. He is not in danger in the "startled" waves with "ringlets." He is not faint from exertion once he crosses the third field and approaches the farm and taps on the pane of the window. We can suppose only inconvenient distance, not great distance. Therefore we cannot suppose that distance and dangers of travel present obstacles to be faced and overcome.
After a careful analysis of the text, what we find is that there is a harmony between the diction, sounds, tone, mood, imagery and figurative language. We find that none point to physical obstacles that threaten to defeat and must be overcome. While personal experience or individual perspective may tempt a reader response that identifies "fiery waves with ringlets" and "warm sea-scented beach" as conflict of man against physical obstacles, the text points to the antithetical position of harmonious enjoining of personified natural forces and the man's expectant efforts.
Sociocultural literary theory, such as New Historicism, may suggest there is a sociocultural theme in "Meeting at Night" that highlights the upper and middle class Victorian emphasis on the separation between what was becoming more stringently defined as the man's world and the woman's world. The separation between men's and women's roles was becoming more and more deeply embedded in Victorian sociocultural life. The men's realm was strictly seen to be work, productivity, thought and learning, while the women's realm was even more strictly seen to be rearing children, managing the home, guiding spiritual development, supporting the man's advancement and the family's nurturance and being well educated but not to the learned degree men were.
However, it is clear from even a casual reading that the text of "Meeting at Night" offers only vague opportunities to substantiate the presence of this theme. Two elements may be used to assert the theme of "separate worlds." The first element is implied and the second is in the text of stanza two. The implied element is that the characters of the man and the woman are separate from each other. He is not where she is and is coming to her. She is kept apart from him and waiting for him to join her. It may be said that this separation of the characters, which is the foundation of the poem, represents the separation of the mans' world from the woman's world. On the other hand, if sociocultural literary theory is not applied, then the separation is a natural part of the love story that also forms the foundation of the poem: they are separate because they are young lovers who have not yet married.
The stated element in the text is the word "fears" in the penultimate (next to last) line of stanza two: "a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,...." It might be said that their fears comprise the fear of the separateness between men's and women's worlds that keeps their worlds at a distance psychologically, socially, culturally and, at times, physically. Yet, since there is no direct connection to sociocultural issues, it would be well to point out that fears is best analyzed as having a tripart meaning: (1) personal fears, (2) social fears and (3) cultural fears. Personal fears would be the fears all young lovers have, such as fears of waning love and personal dangers. Social fears might be fears of society's disapproval and rejection of a marriage because of such things as wealth and social class. Cultural fears might well include the of culturally enforced separate worlds for men and women. Even so, a textual analysis of "fears" must include all three kinds of fears since there is no overt indication in the text of the theme of separate worlds for men and women.
Analysis of "Meeting at Night" becomes even more complicated for readers who are familiar with the historical pairing of the poem with "Parting at Morning" and who know the significance of the last line of "Parting": "And the need of a world of men for me." Here, there is a clear textual indication of the cultural theme of separate world's: One is the "world of men," while the other is the textually implied world of women. There is a textually implied dichotomy and a separation between the two. For the short time when the two poems formed one unit as "Night and Morning; I. Night; II. Morning," there was a clear overlap of the cultural theme of separate worlds from "II. Morning" backward to "I. Night," but now, with each former half standing independently of the other, the textual foundation for analyzing "separate worlds" in "Meeting at Morning" is greatly weakened. Nevertheless, this analysis of theme is still prevalent even though, to someone new to Browning's work, the reason for ascribing a cultural theme of separation between the Victorian "world of men" and world of women is elusive or confusing. Even so, when "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning" are read as being related to each other, the presence of the separate worlds theme is clearly notable although application of the theme to the text of "Meeting at Night" is supportable with only a weak argument.