(Back to Easter Egg Poems)

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 in 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, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Robert Browning

CST approved

A comparison of Meeting at Night and a poem by Auden

Firstly, the 'poem by Auden' doesn't have a name: however, it is part of his 'Twelve Songs' collection which I noded some time ago - the poem in question is the one in bold and italics, placed in the centre of the page.

The two poems that I will be comparing depict identical themes if read on a general level. Their distinct differences however become clear on further analysis, and this brings into doubt whether or not love can be considered as an all-encompassing term that is interpreted differently, or as a variety of emotions that have mistakenly been assigned a single phrase. In addition, both poems can be taken to a more general level that serves to add to their depth.

Auden, in his poem, begins by ensuring that the gender of neither the speaker nor the lover is divulged, allowing his themes of infidelity and rejection to be considered in any context; I feel that if the poem is read as a commentary on society it possesses the most depth. Furthermore, the generic nature of much of the imagery assists this in many ways. The ‘cavernous’ and ‘lofty’ ‘railway terminus’ functions as a metaphor not only for isolation and barrenness, but connotes the idea of a hospital, which in turn suggests decay. This is supported by Auden’s image of a ‘worm of guilt’ that deconstructs Romanticism to an extent, almost showing a twisted, rotting aspect to love that lurks beneath the surface.

Once again suggesting deterioration, the poem is clearly anti-romantic. In terms of the typology of the genre, conventional imagery is expected and instead we find hostility, stagnancy and passivity in rejection. In fact Auden’s claim that ‘Our whisper woke no clocks’ simply confirms his view of love as fleeting and transitory, suggesting the relationship, and so the concept of human love lacks durability. The solemn tone combines with language to create a joyful sanguinity in the face of rejection. In Browning’s poem, the contrast with Auden’s poem becomes clear immediately; the repeated images of stasis found in Auden’s poem are replaced with animation. However, the ‘startled little waves’ and ‘fiery ringlets’ still lack colour, and as the poem progresses the ‘grey sea’ and the ‘long black land’ shift to brighter hues, such as a ‘blue spurt’ and a ‘lighted match’. In what may be an allusion to Milton’s request, ‘What in me is dark/ Illumine’, I believe that Browning uses the change from light to darkness as a metaphor for progression from a state of ignorance to wisdom.

This moves the poem from being a merely one-dimensional commentary on love, to a condensed odyssey of search and fulfilment, where the reward varies upon interpretation of the poem. One can also read the journey considering the topos of homecoming seen in Renaissance poetry; the arrival becomes a metaphor for fulfilment of love, although whether this is positive remains to be seen, because I find that some imagery used by Browning seems ambivalent. Under the typology of the genre, the moon represents love yet also inconstancy and transformation. While one may find this image unresolved, I believe that its positioning at the beginning means that Browning intended it to function as a symbol for the change portrayed in the poem. While I expected my conclusion to deal solely with the depiction of love, the analysis of the poems has shown more than one layer in both poems. Auden’s poem contains a happy (or even naïve) optimism, yet it expresses a fear that is universal: that of being redundant. The ‘hostile eyes’ of watching lovers represent the hostility of society, and I enjoy the poem the most when considering the tone as grimly satirical, yet ultimately bleak. In ‘Meeting at Night’, the imagery contains a starkly contrasting confidence.

However, Browning explores his theme with a poem that changes its tone and language as its subject matter changes. His exploration of human relationships adopts a more romantic attitude, yet does not shy away from exposing aspects of love and human behaviour that could be perceived as negative. Browning simultaneously explores change, passion and fulfilment through a particularly effective allegory that can be interpreted on several levels. While I find Auden’s poem a more linear affair, his depiction of unbalanced love stands out because of its avoidance of conventional typology.

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