Analysis

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Last Updated on June 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

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Robert Browning’s poem “Meeting at Night,” first published in the 1840s, describes the unnamed speaker’s journey back to his lover. The poem is set at nighttime, and the speaker, in his boat, sees the outline of “the long black land” in the distance. As he approaches the shore, the “half-moon large and low” illuminates the water, creating a romantic picture, and “startled little waves” appear, which move “In fiery ringlets from their sleep.” The language here connotes an awakening and echoes the speaker’s emotions awakening now that he is almost back with his lover. When he reaches the shore the boat “quench[es] its speed i’ the slushy sand.” The ch and sh sounds in this quotation are onomatopoeic of the boat being dragged across the sand.

The second stanza describes the speaker’s journey across the beach and over fields to the farm where his lover lives. In the first three lines there is a notable absence of connectives—meaning that the lines are written as an asyndetic list. The absence of any connectives creates a quickened pace, reflecting the speaker’s haste to see his lover once more.

When the speaker reaches the farm, he taps on the window and then describes “the quick sharp scratch / And blue spurt of a lighted match” from within. The light imagery here is significant and symbolically suggests that, now he has returned to his lover, there is light again in his world. The significance of the light is of course emphasized visually by the fact that the poem is set at night. The monosyllabic lines here also help to compound the quick pace of the poem, also indicating perhaps the intensified beating of the speaker’s heart.

The poem concludes with the image of the speaker’s heart next to his lover’s heart—“the two hearts are beating each to each!” The exclamatory sentence emphasizes the happiness of the moment for both. The repetition of the word “heart” compounds the symbolic connotations of the heart: namely love and romance.

Most of the poem is written in iambic tetrameter, meaning that every second syllable in most lines is stressed and that, in these lines, there are four stressed syllables. For example, “The grey sea and the long black land” (emphasis added). The iambic tetrameter creates a regular rhythm, perhaps reflecting the heartbeat of the speaker—which becomes such a prominent motif in the second stanza. When, as in these lines, the final syllable is stressed, this also creates a rising meter, or intonation, which usually connotes a more upbeat tone.

There is also a regular rhyme scheme to the poem, whereby in each stanza the first and sixth lines rhyme, as do the second and fifth and the third and fourth. This rhyme scheme works with the iambic tetrameter to create a melodic, harmonious rhythm, reflecting the harmony between the speaker and his lover.

Significantly, Browning wrote “Meeting at Night” while courting the woman who would eventually become his wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett. Barrett’s father, however, disapproved of Browning, and these circumstances may have inspired the clandestine meeting described in the poem.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670

“Meeting at Night” is a short poem divided into two parts, each consisting of a single six-line stanza. The poem was originally entitled “Night and Morning” and included a third stanza that described the speaker’s departure; Browning later separated the concluding stanza and retitled the two poems “Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning.” Although “Meeting at Night” is written in the first person, Browning rarely directly identified himself with his speakers. When asked about this poem and “Parting at Morning,” Browning indicated that the poems’ speaker was male.

As the title suggests, “Meeting at Night” describes the speaker’s nighttime journey to meet his lover. The poem focuses on the speaker’s anticipation of the meeting and the stages of his journey. Although by the poem’s end the purpose of the journey is made clear to the reader, the speaker does not explain where he is going or why and never gives any details about his relationship with the person he is meeting. Given that the meeting takes place at night and at a remote location, it may be an illicit rendezvous.

In the first stanza, Browning takes advantage of the nighttime setting to create a contrast between the energetic speaker and the inert and featureless landscape. The reader is not provided with a narrative but is offered a series of images and details that suggest the speaker’s state of mind. The speaker, who is traveling by boat, begins by presenting a spare, camera-like representation of the sea, sky, and land. In the first two lines the speaker’s minimalist descriptions of the “grey sea,” “long black land,” and “yellow half-moon” emphasize the darkness of the night, which makes it difficult for the speaker to see what is around him. At the same time, the speaker’s response indicates that he is not interested in his surroundings but is instead focused on arriving at his destination. The remainder of the stanza emphasizes the speaker’s eagerness to reach land. The effect of the speaker’s vigorous rowing on the water is conveyed through a vivid metaphor in which “startled little waves” form “fiery ringlets” as they are awakened from “sleep.” Browning allows the speaker’s personification of the waves to parallel and foreshadow the end of the second part of the poem, in which the speaker is reunited with (and perhaps awakens) his lover. The speaker’s lover is thus identified with nature (the waves). The link between the speaker’s lover and the natural world is also important in the last lines of the poem, in which the image of the boat’s “pushing prow” coming to rest in the “slushy sand” takes on sexual overtones. By the end of the first stanza, the male speaker is identified as active and dominant over nature, which is identified as passive and female.

In the second stanza, readers learn that the speaker’s journey is by no means over: He must still walk a mile on the beach and cross three fields before he will arrive at his lover’s farm. The first stanza’s pattern of moving toward and finally arriving at a destination is thus repeated. Since the speaker is still traveling in darkness, his description of his reunion with his lover is related almost entirely through his sense of sound: his tap at the window, the sound of his lover striking a match, the sound of a voice, and in the last line, the sound of their two hearts beating. The sounds the speaker relates are in themselves commonplace, but here they take on intense meaning and enhance the mystery and excitement of the speaker’s reunion. When the speaker’s lover lights the match, one realizes that the darkness of the speaker’s journey is finally over, both in the literal and the figurative sense. The poem ends with the speaker’s implied claim that the lovers’ reunion is a kind of epiphany that blots out the “joys and fears” of everyday life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter, but many of the lines include anapestic feet that hurry its pace. Browning’s use of a traditional yet somewhat irregular meter seems appropriate for this speaker, who is both in control and in a hurry. Browning uses the rhyme scheme to insert a subtle contradiction of the poem’s implicit assertion that love is the speaker’s ultimate goal. Each stanza follows the same pattern: abccba. In this rhyme scheme, the last three lines (cba) reverse the sequence of the first three (abc), and the last line rhymes with the first. Thus, while each stanza moves forward toward a goal (the beach, the lover), the rhyme scheme moves backward, signalling that the speaker cannot remain with his lover indefinitely.

As indicated above, Browning also uses imagery and figurative language to convey the speaker’s situation and attitude. The poem’s opening lines present the bleak and almost colorless setting of the speaker’s journey: “grey” sea, “black” land, and a “yellow” half-moon. The poem’s tone seems to shift when the speaker personifies the waves, which “leap” to form “fiery ringlets”: Suddenly the water is full of motion and color, but only in response to the speaker’s actions and preoccupations. The speaker’s first use of “I” takes place in the fifth line—“I gain the cove”—as if to reinforce the notion that he is in control of his environment. Browning uses personification not to enhance the role of nature in the poem but to emphasize the speaker’s sense of dominance.

In the second part of the poem, Browning’s images shift as the speaker reaches land and nears his goal. Although a mile of beach still separates him from his lover, the beach, unlike the bleak and cold water, is “warm” and “sea-scented.” As discussed earlier, the imagery from this point on is predominantly aural, with the exception of the “blue spurt” of the match. The flash of light recalls the “fiery” appearance of the waves in the first stanza and strengthens the connection between the waves and the speaker’s lover.

At the end of the poem, the speaker uses figurative language again, this time hyperbole, when he claims that the lovers’ hearts are louder than a human voice; at the same time he downplays the importance of the “voice” and its “joys and fears” by not telling readers whose voice it is (it could be his or his lover’s). The speaker’s hyperbole attempts to bestow permanence upon the ecstatic moment, in which the heart, emotion, and union take precedence over the head, reason, and separation.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

The poem both asserts and questions the idea that passionate emotion, especially love, is not only powerful but also enduring and vital. The speaker argues for the power of love by insisting upon his ability to conquer all that separates him from his lover. Time, distance, and even the lovers’ “joys and fears” cannot stand in his way and are not important once the two are together. Displaying characteristic Victorian optimism, the speaker believes firmly in his ability to achieve his goals and ends the poem at the precise moment when he has done so.

At the same time, the speaker’s own words amply demonstrate the difficulty of attaining the kind of experience that he exalts. Most of the poem’s few lines are devoted to recounting the distance that the speaker must travel and the obstacles he must overcome. The fact that the speaker must travel a considerable distance to reach his lover’s farm is especially important. The speaker says nothing about his day-to-day life, but he obviously lives far from the rural setting that his lover inhabits. The physical distance between the lovers points to other ways in which they, as a man and a woman, are different and irrevocably separate. Both before and after marriage, Victorian men and women lived within separate social spheres; men were increasingly called upon to identify themselves with work and with the world outside the home, while women were encouraged to participate primarily in domestic activities and to nurture the emotional and spiritual life of the family. It is therefore significant that the meeting takes place within the female lover’s home, because the experience itself is nonrational and belongs within the domestic and private women’s sphere.

The speaker must eventually leave the farm, along with the realm of female experience and emotion, to return to the male world (which he does in the four-line “Parting at Morning”). The journey depicted in “Meeting at Night” is thus in part a journey from the male world to the female; this accounts for the long distance that the speaker must travel and for his need to separate himself from the passivity he associates with nature and the female realm. Although the speaker’s intense emotion causes him to represent the moment of reunion as all-powerful, the distance between the speaker and his lover remains, like the distance between the social worlds of men and women, and this distance marks the reunion as a rare and transitory event.

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