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

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Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening Summary

"Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening" by Charlotte Smith is an 1800 poem about a seascape at night, in which a lone ship at anchor is contrasted with the vast darkness surrounding it.

  • The speaker surveys a misty seascape as night descends. All is silent, except for the roars of distant waves and the shouts from an anchored boat.
  • The scene is entirely dark, except for the luminous waves and the faint lights of the ship below.
  • Smith compares these lights to the "fairy fires" that deceive pilgrims and meditates on the dubiousness of reason as a guide through life.

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Summary

Introduction

Charlotte Smith composed her eighty-sixth sonnet, “Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening,” around 1800. Like many of her poems, the sonnet approaches a natural scene with a sense of immediacy. The title collapses the space between poet and speaker, suggesting that the poem is a direct reflection of Smith’s travels and experiences. The setting—likely the coast of Sussex, where Smith lived for most of her life—provides both physical details and an occasion for Smith’s broader philosophical meditations. Smith’s somber tone, rich scenic imagery, and expression of doubt about the power of reason make the poem an exemplar of the Romantic movement in English poetry.

Summary

The opening lines of “Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening” describe the coastal scene at hand. The speaker looks upon the seascape before her, where “huge vapours” gather above the shore’s cliffs, and night falls upon the sea, “dark and mute.” These two lines establish an atmosphere that is dark and silent yet somewhat tumultuous. This sense of tumult is developed in the next two lines, in which the silence is pierced by the echoing “roar” of waves crashing against distant coastal rocks. The tension between silence and sound, between cessation and action, is embodied in the waves, which are characterized as “drowsy billows” and yet which “roar” in their coastal collisions.

Lines four through eight introduce a human element into what has thus far been a deserted seascape. Smith describes the far-off sounds of sailors whose ship is anchored in the port below. The sailors’ voices call out to relieve the current watch. There is also “one deep voice” that calls out the hour and bids “Strike the bell!” The distance between the speaker and the sailors emphasizes the vastness of the sea in which the sailors work, keep watch, and mark time. The darkness that subsumes the port—and the ship within it—further underscores the smallness of the sailors’ existence.

The ninth line marks the volta, the turning point, of the sonnet. Whereas the first eight lines, known as the octet, focus on auditory imagery, the ensuing six lines, or sestet, focus on visual imagery. In particular, Smith traces the contrast between darkness and light, with the former devouring most of the scene. As the ninth line notes, “All is black shadow.” In lines nine through eleven, Smith distinguishes the exceptions to this pervasive darkness: “the lucid...

(The entire section is 677 words.)