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Poem of the week: Night and Morning by Robert Browning


Two perspectives on either side of a nocturnal liaison make up a strikingly contrasting diptych

This week's choice is an intriguing diptych by Robert Browning. "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning" were paired on their first publication in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), under the title "Night and Morning; I. Night; II. Morning." The present titles come from the Poems of 1849.

In length, metre and mood, the "twins" are distinctly un-identical. One is a nocturne, the other, a kind of aubade, or alba. They are part of the same narrative, but as different as night and day.

The first poem itself has two stanzas, but, despite their separate numbering, the effect is unitary. It begins in boldly impressionistic, even imagistic, style, as the salient features of the scene are listed in lines of lightly-flowing tetrameter. The syntax is casual, as if lines had been lifted from a notebook. Browning paints in contrasted colours and shapes, and deploys some brilliant chiaroscuro. It's visually stunning, and the auditory effects, the plashing and rippling captured in sound, are no less impressive.

The informal repetition of "and" in lines two and three helps move the syntax along with the rhythm of a traveller impatient to arrive. The boat's swiftness is evoked in the description of the little waves as "startled", and the oarsman's mood, perhaps, in the word "fiery". The pathetic fallacy hardly intrudes, so acute are the observations. Browning has taken some stock Romantic images and thrillingly re-bottled them, not least of his triumphs being that determinedly realistic "slushy sand".

Masculine energy certainly informs the activity of this stanza, but seeing it as erotic metaphor, a view which tempts some commentators, may be a case of premature imaginative ejaculation. The excitement of the sexual encounter subtly implied in the second stanza is spoiled if the first becomes merely a colourful (and noisy) preview.

The second stanza begins on foot, in a scene no less magical. The speaker's way is a long one, across "a mile of sea-scented beach" and the three fields, with the landmark of the farm signalling arrival, or near-arrival, at the lover's house. But there's no sense that the journey is arduous, and the sensuous relish intensifies. The auditory effects have been chosen to tell a highly compressed story. The tap on the glass, the scratch and spurt of the match, the low voice, the heartbeats, are pure radio. The rhyming is denser than before, thanks to the similarity of the "d" and "f" rhymes: beach/ scratch/ match/ each. That reiterated "ch" sound creates a sort of stuttering which heightens the excitement.

The phrase, "the two hearts beating each to each", might seem decorous to a modern reader, but for a Victorian poet it must have nudged the limits of the permissible. Because of the compression of the narrative, we can't be sure if it records the embrace of greeting, or if the lovers have by now bared more than their hearts.

And then there's the morning after. Browning's alba opens with a panoramic view and an optimistic, open-air flourish. The rhythm changes, or seems at first to change: the reader can hardly avoid stressing the opening word, "Round". There are no adoring backward glances, no wishing the sun could be the moon. The "world of men" doesn't threaten the speaker: he has, in fact, a "need" of it. The sun itself is given a masculine pronoun ("him"). That "path of gold", its suddenness and steadiness captured in the single word, "straight", welcomes a traveller now firmly outward-bound.

The dramatic monologue, as every literature student knows, is Browning's particular innovation (though he was not the originator of the term). More than a decade earlier, "Pauline: a Fragment of a Confession" marked his first foray into the genre. So could the "Night and Morning" poems qualify as dramatic monologue? Not if we consider the essence of the genre to be irony – that is, the speaker's unintended self-revelation.

I've sometimes felt that the "Parting" quatrain spoilt a perfect lyric: it's too forthright, after the earlier subtleties, and the implied gender polarisation seems simplistic. And yet, re-reading it, I appreciate how well it fills out the characterisation and develops the story embodied in the first poem. Browning's dramatic genius so often insists that he push the poetic boat out. Composing a two-part love-lyric that exposes contrasted psychological forces is a characteristically bold move, and, if not quite adding up to a dramatic monologue, this odd coupling seems to be a rather wonderful by-product of the genre.

Meeting at Night

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, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Parting at Morning
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim –
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

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