Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening Themes
The main themes in "Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening" are the limits of reason, the smallness of human existence, and the desire for order.
- The limits of reason: Smith characterizes reason as a "dubious" and "wavering" guiding light in the dark journey of life.
- The smallness of human existence: The sounds and lights of the sailors at port make a faint impression against the vast, dark seascape that surrounds them.
- The desire for order: The sailors' routines and Smith's own poetic techniques express the natural desire for order, however futile that desire may be.
The Limits of Reason
The central theme of “Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening” concerns the limits of human reason. For most of the poem, Charlotte Smith describes a coastal scene at night. The vast silence and darkness that pervade the port are broken by faint traces of humanity in the form of a ship anchored in the waters. The sailors’ cries and the lights of their ship mark their presence against the void that surrounds them. In Smith’s hands, this scene takes on metaphorical significance, with the sailors representing human reason amid indifference and oblivion. The two details with which Smith evokes the sailors—voices and lights—are both classic metaphors for reason. And yet these signs are distant, dim against the silence and darkness of the port.
In the final three lines of the poem, Smith traces another metaphor to express the same theme. This metaphor depicts human life as a “darkling way,” a journey shrouded in darkness. Guiding pilgrims along this precarious path is the “dubious ray” of reason. To refer to reason as a “wavering” light conveys the weakness of reason even more directly, suggesting that the traveler’s progress is precarious and perhaps compromised. The word “dubious” denotes both unreliability and doubtfulness, both of which meanings are apt here. The meter of the final line embodies this theme: the line is in hexameter, one foot longer than the rest of the poem’s lines, and this additional foot conveys a sense of stumbling and disorientation. Much like the misled traveler, the poem doesn’t achieve the satisfying arrival promised by the sonnet form.
The Smallness of Human Existence
“Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening” conveys the smallness of human existence against the environment that surrounds it. Smith primarily conveys this theme through the contrasting imagery of the anchored ship and the seascape around it. As she establishes in the poem’s opening lines, the scene of the nocturnal ocean, as viewed from the cliffs above, is dark and quiet. Aside from the light upon the waves below and the distant “roar” of the tide crashing upon the coast, the overwhelming impression is that of a vast and silent void.
Standing out against this scene is one small sign of human activity: an “anchored bark” far off in the waters of the port. The sailors aboard the boat call out to change shifts at the watch or to “[sing] the hour” and strike the bell. Along with these voices are the ship’s faint lights shining from far across the dark water. Otherwise, “Night… settles dark and mute,” and “All is black shadow.” There is a powerful contrast between the sailors’ activities—which are routine and even cheerful—and the silence and darkness that ensconces them. Despite the impression the sailors make, Smith’s language makes it clear that these sailors are but a minor sign of life. This sense of scale is underscored by the rhetorical structure of the poem, which emphasizes the overarching conditions of the scene before stating the small exceptions. From the broadest perspective, it can be argued that the conditions of Smith’s dark seascape are similar to the conditions of the universe at large: save for a few exceptions, “All is black...
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