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.