Glenis studied for a B.A (Hons) in English Literature after taking early retirement. She was awarded her degree at the age of 67.
A Context for Robert Browning's Poem 'Meeting at Night' (1845)
Robert Browning published the poem Meeting at Night (1845) early in his relationship with Elizabeth Barrett. The couple had fallen in love soon after first meeting in the Spring of 1845. But Elizabeth's father disapproved of Browning and the pair were placed in a situation which forced them into a clandestine relationship. They secretly married, on 12th September 1846, and eloped to Italy one week after the wedding.
An audience reading Meeting at Night in the knowledge of the contextual background might well conclude that Browning's inspiration for the poem, about a clandestine love affair, had been fuelled by the circumstances of his relationship with Elizabeth.
Meeting at Night by Robert Browning (1845)
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.
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!
Robert Browning's Poetry Critically Acclaimed by Elizabeth Barrett
Going against the grain of the general opinion of critics, Elizabeth Barrett wrote favorably of Robert Browning's monologue poems in her 1844 publication, Poems. Browning wrote to thank her for her praise and suggested that they meet each other. She was initially reluctant to accept and prevaricated. But they eventually met for the first time on the 20th May 1845, at the Barrett family residence in Wimpole Street, London.
I had a letter from Browning the poet last night, which threw me into ecstasies
— Elizabeth Barrett. 11th January 1845. A letter written to her friend, Julia Martin
Why Analyse the Content of a Poem?
Critical analysis of a poem often focuses on the technical aspects of the text - the form - drawing attention to the poetic devices, such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, etc., that are involved in the creation of poetry. But our enjoyment of a poem, if we search between the lines for deeper meaning, can be increased by an in-depth analysis of narrative.
Form and Content in a Poem
Form concerns such aspects of the poem as tone, pitch, rhythm, diction, volume, metre, pace, mood, voice, address, texture, structure, quality, syntax, register, point of view, punctuation [...] content is a matter of meaning, action, character, idea, storyline ...
— Terry Eagleton
What is Meant in Poetry Analysis by the Terms ' Voice' and 'Tone'?
The voice in a poem is the person who we perceive to be speaking the words. The voice is not necessarily that of the poet - who might have decided to use an invented character to present thoughts and ideas to his readers.
Tone can be explained in terms of everyday speech. I might speak in a way that sounds neutral to my listener, but I could say the same words in a variety of different tones. Through the tone of my voice, I could suggest emotions such as impatience, anger, sarcasm, love, fright, etc. To demonstrate the point, you might like to think of the different ways in which you could say The bus is late. Afterward, think of how you would interpret those words if you read them on the page. Clue: Perhaps you would think about the context of the statement to arrive at a decision about the implied tone of voice.
An Interpretation of the Content of Browning's Poem "Meeting at Night"
Robert Browning chose to make the subject matter of this poem explicit in his title, preparing the reader for a description of a night-time encounter.
It is safe to conclude that Browning intended the voice in the poem to be male. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the poem was written, it would have been an unusually bold woman who ventured out alone at night, in a rowing boat, risking her reputation and her safety.
The vivid images that Browning created by poetic formal devices in the first four lines are delightful in themselves. His poem could possibly be a simple self-contained narrative of a boat ride. But the many repeated alliterations of the letter L, which is enunciated slowly and sensually, suggests that there may be more to the poem than a simple narrative description.
The reader's response to the air and tone of the stanza is further influenced by line 5. Here Browning reveals, in his use of the first- person verb form I gain, that the poem is an interior monologue. We now realise that we have been given direct access to the thoughts of the person rowing the boat. We are reading his mind. Consequently, our interpretation of the verse is affected by his thoughts and observations.
The traveler (the voice) is undertaking his journey in the dark, by water, and he is taking careful note of his surroundings. Semi-colons at the end of each the first two lines are signals for strong pauses that allow space for the auditor (we, the reader) to think about the implications for the traveler of the landscape. Does he perceive that there are difficulties to be overcome? We might conclude that he is conducting a risk assessment, calculating the likelihood of being discovered. Perhaps this is not an innocent journey.
Browning has managed to arouse his reader's curiosity. We are led to wonder if the meeting referred to in the title has been pre-arranged; if so, what is its purpose? Or will it be an accidental meeting? And why has the voice thought of unusual metaphor fiery ringlets? Has a memory of somebody who he knows been brought to mind? The stanza entices us into reading on to seek answers to these questions
Robert Browning by Michele Gordigiani (1858)
Browning's Unusual Choice of Grammar in the Second Stanza of Meeting at Night
Before analysing the content of the second stanza, you might first like to study the grammar that Browning has used. His choice of verb tense/ lack of verbs can be challenging:
- Note that in this stanza, Browning did not repeat the first-person verb form that in the first stanza revealed an interior monologue poetic form. We must take it for granted that the monologue is continuous (what we are reading is still the thoughts of the voice).
- Browning chose not to include a verb in the first line of the second stanza. It might, therefore, mean that the voice has already crossed the sand, or is in the process of crossing it; or is thinking about the prospect of crossing it.
- In the second line, Browning used the infinitive verb form to cross. There is not a future form of the verb to cross. The voice in the poem is thinking ahead to fields that are to be crossed and the farmhouse that will appear.
- In line 3, Browning used the indefinite article, a, with the noun form of the verb to tap. He could have chosen to write I will tap at the window, but this phraseology would not have produced the concise linguistic effect that we expect in a poem. Similarly, in line 4 he chose the noun a scratch rather than specifying, by the use of the verb form, who will scratch the match.
I will discuss in the next section how Browning's linguistic choices impact on the air of the poem.
The Content, Air, and Tone of the Second Stanza of the Poem "Meeting at Night"
Browning begins the second stanza of the poem with the traveller's description of his walk. His voice speaks of crossing a mile of sand and then three fields. A cross-country walk in the dark is difficult, so the traveler must feel that it is important to reach his destination. He approaches a farmhouse and taps on a window.
The curious reader is perhaps now wondering why the man has not knocked at the door. Curiosity increases when some person inside the building immediately strikes a match but does not light a lamp. The pair speak in whispers. The air of the content of the poem suggests that there are other people in the farmhouse and that the pair are trying to avoid being discovered.
The reader is approaching the end of the poem and Browning has still not revealed the purpose of the meeting and why the pair are secretive. An air of suspense and tension, picked up by close readers of the content, has increased line by line.
Browning offers both the voice in the poem and his audience a cathartic release from tension in the final two lines, describing a whispered joyous greeting and a close embrace - the meeting is between secret lovers. An ecstatic tone in the last lines is highlighted by the exclamation mark that brings the narrative to an end.
Eagleton, T., How to Read a Poem (2008)
Professor Eagleton has produced a book that is scholarly whilst also witty and accessible to the general reader. It should prove of great benefit to students of English Literature but also interesting to anyone interested in understanding more about how poems are created. Recommended.
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Browning (accessed 14th June 2019)
© 2019 Glen Rix
Jo Miller from Tennessee on June 10, 2019:
Are there two more romantic poets than Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning? I never get enough of their story and their poetry. Thanks for adding to my store with this well done article.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 03, 2019:
This is such an interesting article, and I learned so much that I did not now. This article was so well written, and I like the way you explained so many details.
Glen Rix (author) from UK on June 03, 2019:
Liz Westwood from UK on June 03, 2019:
This is an interesting and comprehensive analysis of the poem. I appreciate the way you set the poem in context.