Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening Analysis
by Charlotte Smith

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Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening Analysis

  • Charlotte Smith's "Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening" describes a coastal scene as night descends. With its rich intertwining of human emotion and natural environment, the poem's mode resembles the work of such Romantic contemporaries as William Wordsworth.
  • The poem's central conceit concerns the limits of human reason as a guiding force. This theme is illustrated in the depiction of a boat's artificial lights, dim against the dark seascape and misleading to travelers ashore.
  • The poem is a Shakespearean sonnet but diverges from the form in the final line, whose extended hexameter underscores the tone of uncertainty.

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Analysis

Charlotte Smith's 1800 poem "Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening" is a Shakespearean, or English, sonnet. The poem may be read as an extended simile about the limits of reason or as a more straightforward description of a seascape as night falls, with a telling analogy in the final couplet.

The poem's portentous title is reinforced by the ominous images of the opening lines. The huge vapors which "brood" in the first line are an instance of the pathetic fallacy—the projection of personal emotion onto an environment. Indeed, Smith uses the dark landscape to suggest the somber mood of the speaker. One might say the same of the "drowsy billows" in the fourth line. Smith’s evocative scenery shows why she is an important precursor to the Romantics, much admired by Wordsworth in particular. At the same time as suggesting emotions, these are powerful images simply in the way they describe appearance and movement. Consider the depiction of night settling on the ocean “dark and mute.”

There is alliteration as well as onomatopoeia in the "repercussive roar" of the billows, and this alliteration is quickly picked up in the "rocks remote" of line five. By this point in the poem, the reader who is familiar with Victorian poetry is likely to have been reminded of Matthew Arnold's 1851 poem "Dover Beach," which resembles this poem in setting, theme, and even technique. Smith's "repercussive roar" is echoed in Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the “Sea of Faith.” Even the conclusions drawn by the two poets, as they watch darkness fall upon the sea, are surprisingly similar, though Arnold’s is more despairing and universal, as befits the intellectual climate which influenced his writing of it.

The voices of the "seamen in the anchored bark" are more distant than the sounds of the waves, placing the first human presence on the scene firmly in the background. Their only speech is to mark the hour or to call out "Strike the bell!" These are the sounds of humanity attempting to impose order on the vast seascape through time, though in fact the time signalled by the bell is only applicable to the sailors themselves. The word "bark" for a ship was somewhat archaic even at the turn of the nineteenth century, but it conveys a sense of fragility, as though the ship were a mere sliver of wood floating precariously on the sea.

Although this is a Shakespearean sonnet, with the most significant turn coming in the final couplet, there is a shift between the octave and the sestet, classically known as the volta . The octave concludes as the sailors mark time in their artificial world of light and order, but the sestet begins by returning the reader to a darkness more profound than ever. In the foreground, on the beach, the darkness is only broken by the "lucid line" of the "light surf on the level sand." The echo of this in "the lone and level sands" of Shelley's 1819 "Ozymandias" is probably a coincidence, but Smith's verbal pairing of "light surf" and "level sand" is a careful deployment of consonance. The word "lucid,"...

(The entire section is 841 words.)