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Analysis of Poem Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Browning

Robert Browning

Robert Browning And A Summary Analysis of Meeting At Night

Meeting At Night is a short poem Browning published in 1845 in the book Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.

With the publication of this book Browning consolidated his reputation as one of the most popular English poets of his time. This was also the year he firmly established a relationship with Elizabeth Barrett, a known poet who lived a secluded, sheltered life in London.

Their love for one another is clear and obvious from the many letters they exchanged, she putting off a physical meeting for months on end due to the overbearing presence of her strict and cold father, who limited her in every way but could not stop her creative urge.

Browning and Barrett eventually married in secret and eloped to Italy, becoming a celebrated 'couple' in the city of Florence.

Meeting At Night is a deceptively simple poem written at a time when Browning, in love with Elizabeth Barrett, corresponding with her at fever pitch for months on end, had to tread very carefully.

To his great delight she returned his love and friendship and became his soul-mate, despite her fragile health and initial inhibitions. They could not be kept apart, even by a doting if overcritical father.

The poem is an unusual take on a secret meeting, between lovers the reader has to presume, the language sparse yet musical, the rhythms varied, the rhyme full, strengthening, weakening as the speaker anticipates the rendezvous.

Meeting At Night

I

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.

II
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!

Analysis of Meeting At Night Stanza By Stanza

Meeting At Night is a short yet ambiguous poem full of seascape and landscape within which a person ventures, initially crossing the water before landing on the shore in 'slushy sand', then walking across beach and fields for a secret rendezvous.

The two stanzas takes the reader through a cinematic experience, the speaker's quiet commentary ranging in from an overview of land and sea, shifting focus sharply to intimate details of the waves and the beach.

Browning more than likely dreamt this little poem up during his long courtship with Elizabeth Barrett, using poetic license to bridge the gap between hope and reality as their mutual admiration and love grew with each letter they exchanged.

He had a long way to travel, she even further, before they could consummate their love in an adult fashion.

The rhyme and rhythms seem to reflect both natural elements and anticipatory meeting - the sea, the action of the oars, the rising tide - the coming together of full rhyme in the third and fourth lines a mini-climax.

The use of anapaests in particular help with this idea of build-up and slow rising.

Some modern critics suggest that the first stanza has a sexual undertone but this is stretching an idea too far - certainly the poem is sensual, even tactile, and the language encourages the mind to think, hang on a second, these two lovers are about to get it on.

First Stanza

Within the first six lines the contrasts are clear:

sea/land...grey/black/yellow....leap/sleep...fiery/quench...large moon/little waves...

which makes for a dramatic scene in which to place the lone speaker, male or female, as they enter the cove and make for the shore.

This is a sensual stanza, the language reflecting the senses of sight, sound and touch, the long and short vowels placed to enhance the idea of the rhythms of the sea and the emotional content.

Note how the rhymes come together in the centre of the stanza, then move away like a wave fading.

The speaker is crossing water, heading for a cove and observing the action of the boat, with its 'pushing prow'. The simple words set the scene, the repeated And a reminder of how small things build up and up before finally the bigger picture becomes apparent.

There's a personal touch, the first person speaker appearing in line 5 to confirm that the boat has landed and pushed into the soft shoreline. This is a conscious movement forward, the narration from lines 1 - 4 perhaps the speaker having to describe the landscape to justify being there.

Second Stanza

The reader at this point isn't certain if the speaker is male or female but we can assume it is a male (though Browning as far as we know never explicitly confessed to being the speaker of this poem) who is now walking across the beach, through fields, towards a farm.

From the title we know a meeting is to happen but what sort of meeting is anyone's guess. There is tension, at the end of line 8, quickly dissipated as the match is lit (for a lamp?) and the two people meet in a most excited manner.

The ambiguity is strongest here at the end because the reader isn't quite certain who is who - is the farmhouse already occupied by the other person, the female lover? Is the tap at the window from the inside or outside? Who lights the match and why? If the speaker can hear the scratch that must mean he's pretty close to the action.

What is certain is that two people meet, finally, and their coming together is a union of the heart, symbol of love, more powerful than the voice.

What is The Metre (Meter in American English) of Meeting At Night?

Meeting At Night has an iambic metrical base and is an example of how artistic Browning is in his use of stressed and unstressed syllables. This poem is dominated by lines of tetrameters - four feet per line - so its an iambic tetrameter poem, but the rhythms vary.

Each line is split into feet, the commonest being iambic (daDUM) the first syllable unstressed, the second stressed. The trochee is an inverted iamb (DAdum), the pyrrhic unstressed (dadum) and the anapaest

I
The grey / sea and / the long / black land;
And the yell / ow half- / moon large / and low;
And the start / led lit / tle waves / that leap
In fier / y ring / lets from / their sleep,
As I gain / the cove / with push / ing prow,
And quench / its speed / i' the slush / y sand.

II
Then a mile / of warm / sea-scent / ed beach;
Three fields / to cross / till a farm / appears;
A tap / at the pane, / the quick / sharp scratch
And blue spurt / of a light / ed match,
And a voice / less loud, / thro' its joys / and fears,
Than the two / hearts beat / ing each / to each!

Iambic beats dominate but the influence of the anapaest (dadaDUM) is noticeable, bringing extra rise and lilt to most lines. There is only one line with 10 syllables:

And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,

but because of a double anapaest it remains a tetrameter, four symmetrical feet.

What Are The Literary/Poetic Devices in Meeting At Night?

Alliteration

When two or more words close together in a line have similar sounding consonants. For example:

the long black land

large and low

little waves that leap

pushing prow

speed i' the slushy sand

less loud

each to each

Assonance

When two or more words in a line close together have similar sounding vowels:

black land

sea-scented beach

beating each to each

Caesura

When a line is paused midway by punctuation so the reader has to pause slightly:

And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears

Enjambment

When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, the reader carrying on with hardly a pause:

And the startled little waves that leap

In fiery ringlets from their sleep,

Internal Rhyme

Words that rhyme in full or by slant bring texture and echoes within the text. For example:

large/startled

sea/leap/sleep/speed

© 2020 Andrew Spacey

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 16, 2020:

Thanks for writing about the meaning behind this poem. Even without knowing more of the background, I enjoyed reading the short poem with its evocative descriptions.