F. R. Leavis

[on Browning's "Meeting At Night"]


There are, of course, innumerable ways in which 'movement' may come up for consideration. Surprised by joy was chosen as an extreme instance, in which 'imagery' hardly gave the analyst an opening at all. Commonly 'movement' and 'imagery' demand attention together. The following is a simple instance:

The gray 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.
The first two lines suggest a preoccupation with pictorial effects, and they invite a languorous reading -- or would, if we didn't know what follows. Actually, an approach might be made by asking how it is that, though the stanza is so clearly Victorian, we could have said at once, supposing ourselves to have been reading it for the first time, that it is clearly not Tennysonian or Pre-Raphaelite. The first brief answer might be that it has too much energy. We are then faced with the not difficult task of saying how the effect of energy is conveyed. To begin with,

the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep
clearly don't belong to a dreamy nocturne. The 'startled', itself an energetic word, owes some of its force to the contrast with what goes before (even though the first two lines are not to be read languorously) -- a contrast getting sharp definition in the play (a good use of rime) of 'leap' against 'sleep'.

It is an energetic couplet. The energy is active, too, in 'fiery', which is apt description, but doesn't reveal its full value till we come to 'quench' in the last line, the most interesting word in the stanza. That fire as well as thirst shall come in with the metaphor is ensured by the 'fiery', and in 'quenching' the speed the poet betrays (he probably couldn't have said why 'quench' came to him) how he has projected his own eagerness -- his ardour and desire for the goal -- into the boat, pushing on with his will, in a way that must be familiar to everyone, that which is carrying him forward. The nature of the energy that thrusts forward through the tranquil night has defined itself concretely by the time the second half of the poem has been read (it must now be given):

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!
Neither of the stanzas, it will have been noted, has a main verb, a lack intimately related to the mood and movement of the poem. The absence of main verb, it might be said, is the presence of the lover's purpose and goal: his single-minded intentness upon the goal and the confident eagerness with which he moves towards it are conveyed by the overtly incidental, by-the-way, nature of the sensations and perceptions, and the brisk, businesslike succession in which, from the beginning of the poem on, they are noted and left behind. Though incidental, they are vivid, as in a moment of unusual vitality and receptivity, and that this vividness -- it is at the same time a vigour of report -- should carry with it no attribution of value suggests the all absorbingness of the purpose and focus of attention. The succession of notes, in fact, conveys a progression. And the effect of energy observed at the outset derives from this particular kind of movement -- the particular sense of movement that has just been analysed. The movement, of course, derives its peculiar energy from the local vividness, but even such energetic imagery as

the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match
owes something to the general movement as well as contributing, and it can hardly be said that 'quench' in the first stanza (an effect of the same order -- it works along with 'slushy' as well as having the metaphorical value already discussed) contributes more than it owes.

The movement, it might be commented, isn't very subtle, nor is the total effect; and that is true. But the simplicity has its illustrative value, and the poem is an unmistakable instance of a strong realization. Vigour of that peculiar kind, obviously involving limitations, is characteristic of Browning, but is rarely manifested so decidedly as poetic virtue, and so inoffensively to the sensitive.



[from "Judgement and Analysis: Notes in the Analysis of Poetry," repr. in A Selection from Scrutiny (CUP, 1968), I.243-244]

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