Wednesday 11/03/2010 09:09 am
Analysis of Meeting at Night by Robert Browning @ Meeting at Night: Analysis   by zelma


Zelma Catalan

Ref: Words and Images: Iconicity of the Text. Сборник на Institut Badan Literackich, Polskiej Akademii Nauk  и Институт за литература, БАН.  София, Издателски център “Боян Пенев”: 2008, ISBN 978-954-8712-48-4, pp. 180-194.


In his Theory of Semiotics Umberto Eco places under his scrutiny Peirce’s trichotomic classification of signs as symbols, icons, and indices to conclude that Peirce’s terms icon and index are functional only as “all-purpose, practical devices just as are the notions of ‘sign’ or ‘thing’” (Eco, 1979: 178). In Eco’s view, the reason for this lack of clarity and precision in Peirce’s numerous definitions of the icon lies in the way in which the father of semiotics defines the principles of motivation between the sign and the referent. Peirce alternately formulates these as likeness, resemblance, or partaking of the qualities of that which the sign signifies. There can be no such direct motivation, Eco contends, for even in what may seem the most arbitrarily coded iconic sign there is in play an element of conventionality. Conversely, in signs with a maximum degree of “resemblance”, the iconic experience depends to a large extent on the perceiver’s prior experience of the denoted object and not on any natural correspondence. Within the whole section devoted to his critique of simplistic notions of iconism (Eco, 1979: 191-217), Eco repeatedly asserts that it is not possible to sidestep the cultural convention which sets into operation the very process of finding similarity, likeness, analogy, resemblance or the sharing of properties between the sign and its object. Most importantly, by pointing to the inescapable cultural – and contextual – dimensions of iconic coding and decoding, Eco not only clears the original use of the term iconic sign of its vagueness and ambiguities, but he also enriches it by treating it as more than a element in a system: “An iconic sign is indeed a text, for its verbal equivalent (except in rare cases of considerable schematization) is not a word but a phrase or indeed a whole story … The units composing an iconic text are established – if at all – by the context. Out of this context these so-called ‘signs’ are not signs at all, because they are neither coded nor possess any resemblance to anything” (Eco, 1979: 215-216).

The new temporal and spatial dimension that Eco discovers in the iconic sign as a text is an element in the semantics of the now well-established brief definition of iconicity as “form miming meaning.” Within language, and especially in the context of its use in literary prose and poetry, this “miming” acquires a particular significance by virtue of the freedom with which the writer may structure his or her text. Here, the sign becomes additionally motivated on the basis of some kind of equivalence largely dependent on the writer’s individual, though inevitably culture-bound choice and decision – his or her own manner of code-making. Using another theatrical metaphor similar to “miming”, the philosopher Kenneth Burke speaks of literary form as “the dancing of an attitude” (Burke, 1973: 9). Poetry, by which he means “any work of critical or imaginative castр” is for him a symbolic act with a physical, bodily aspect which he illustrates by comparing evidence regarding the bodily movement and even quirks recorded about certain famous poets with the rhythms and overall style of their art. Most important for the present study is Burke’s understanding of “attitude” as a concept that extends from the narrowly individual, idiosyncratic specificities of behaviour to overall patterns of social style of interacting, working and thinking – that is, to the cultural code. 

 In their authoritative study Style in Fiction Geoffrey Leech and Michael Short take a like direction of thought as they stress the inherent potential of language to “produce an ENACTMENT of the fictional reality through the form of the text… we, as readers, enter [the fictional world] iconically, as a dramatic performance, through the experience of reading” (Leech and Short, 1981: 236; emphasis in the original). Yet, as reader-response criticism, discourse analysis and communication theories have well established, the process of reading is itself dependent on cultural conventions. The iconic experience both from the writer’s and from the reader’s perspective is therefore never direct and isolated but context and culture- dependent. Crucially, meaning-making in this experience will rarely, if ever, be identical for both participants in the literary communication act. That is, there will always be the inevitable displacement, addition or elision of cognitive content – a dynamism within literary reception that constantly nourishes the vitality of literature in particular and of art in general. As Tabakowska points out,

Traditionally, it has been generally assumed that iconic relations are one-way process: from expression to concept. However, if we agree that the ability to recognize a given similarity results from the language user’s knowledge of a given culture and language, then we can also reasonably assume that the process may be reversed: via the (linguistic) convention, the user of language might associate (by recognizing relevant similarities) certain expressions with certain concepts, and in consequence arrive at a certain view, or interpretation, of reality. (Tabakowska, 1999: 411)


Yet, if the iconic experience always has that individual, and hence, subjective dimension, can there exist any rigorous methodology for analyzing the phenomenon of iconicity? One approach that has by now gathered sufficient validity in literary poetics and stylistics is through syntax and text structure. This approach, though from slightly different perspectives, was endorsed in two early but influential studies that set the agenda for the research on iconic phenomena in literary texts. Uniting them are two assumptions that practically all later investigations have used as their launching ground. The first is that syntactic schemata act as universals among the users of the language that the text is written in; their avoidance or disruption creates therefore a second coding that cannot fail to draw the attention of and have an effect upon such readers. The second is that iconicity in literature is a creative principle that has the power to produce a secondary coding and thus generate a new line of meaning-making: from form to content. Thus, in their aforementioned book Geoffrey Leech and Michael Short stipulate two basic and universal aspects of iconicity: sequencing and juxtaposition.[1] Sequencing, on its part, can be presentational (which is non-iconic, as it is oriented towards communicating information to the reader and producing special effects, such as suspense), chronological (according to the purported sequence of events presented in the text) and psychological (where the record of the impressions building the consciousness of the narrator or character is syntactically ordered on the first-is-most-important principle) (Leech and Short, 1981: 236). Juxtaposition is the impression of proximity in the fictional world created by the proximity of words or larger structures in the text (Leech and Short, 1981: 239). Of these, it is psychological sequencing and juxtaposition that are of greatest value to the analysis of iconism in literature, as they extend from an “imitation” or “enactment” of the real/fictional world to an “imitation” or “enactment” of the theme and structure of the work in which their appear; iconicity makes the discourse of the work become self-reflexive.

The same idea was propounded by E. L. Epstein in an earlier and extremely influential paper The Self-Reflexive Artefact: The Function of Mimesis in an Approach to a Theory of Value for Literature (1975).  Like Leech and Short, Epstein focuses on selection and arrangement as formal principles that, in instances of iconism (for which he prefers the term mimesis), produce schemata analogous to those present on the lexico-semantic level. Also, he is just as careful to distinguish between non-mimetic forms and mimetic forms. The former include self-conscious and highly elaborate games with syntactic arrangement that employ rhetorical figures such as antithesis, chiasmus, and the like for merely decorative purposes. Mimetic forms can be objective, subjective, or self-reflexive, dependent on whether the meaning mimed is one commonly shared, based on the speaker’s individual perceptions of reality, or created within the text itself, for the nonce, in order to reflect ideas and structures communicated on the broader lexico-semantic and structural level. So, with their common emphasis on the complexity of iconicity as not only a semiotic, cognitive and psychological phenomenon but also on the possibility of minimizing arbitrary identification and interpretation of iconic phenomena in literature, Epstein, and later Leech and Short offer a solid methodological framework. The rest of this paper will exemplify the viability of their approach through a study of two poems by the English poet Robert Browning, Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning, moving from an analysis of their linguistic and structural schemata to the cultural significance of their iconic features.

Robert Browning (1812-1889), who, along with Alfred Tennyson, was the dominant figure in Victorian poetry, established his position of eminence by venturing into a practically uncharted territory – that of the dramatic monologue. This is a variety of the lyric mode in which the speaker is caught at an intense moment of self-questioning and soul-searching. According to Harold Bloom, in its Victorian version it is “a barely disguised High Romantic crisis lyric, in which antithetical voices contend for an illusory because only momentary mastery” (Bloom, 1979: 3). Browning’s choice of genre was certainly not accidental. Like most of his contemporary writers he, too, was deeply concerned with the problem of finding a form of artistic expression that carried the stamp of sincerity and authenticity – the two basic moral and psychological tenets of the Victorian social mindset. For him, they could be achieved by a conscious renunciation of rationalism and total reliance on fact and intuition for the creation of an objective and morally responsible representation of the individual psyche. And whenever he dealt with the subject of love, he approached it from the perspective of the inner conflicts it engenders. His chief concern was, predictably, the clash between sincere and authentic projection of emotion versus the restrictions of social conventions.

Meeting at Night, published in 1845, is among the most celebrated English love poems but it also holds a unique place among Browning’s lyrics. In the first place, it is one of his shortest works, comprising just twelve lines. More importantly, it does not view the topic from the angle that Browning adopted in the rest of his poems, both narrative and lyric - that is, treating love as a desire felt disproportionately by one of the lovers or as a conflict between intense passion and excessive, sometimes even pathological possessiveness. And although written in the first person singular and carrying the voice of a male persona, it is not a dramatic monologue in its pure form in that it does not encapsulate an inner debate or a moment of crisis of faith, duty or moral integrity. Meeting at Night simply describes the speaker’s journey to his beloved who lives on a secluded farm across the bay, and it does so by merely recording the facts from his environment that the persona captures through his senses. The topic is anything if not overexploited, yet the poem makes a powerful impact as an expression of rising passion. This is due to the careful avoidance of all that is non-factual but mostly to the syntactic choice and organization of the text.

The pointedly overt empiricism of the poem can be seen to stem from two sources. In the first place, as already noted, Browning was the foremost propounder of the Victorian approach to poetry as the medium whereby the concreteness of reality can be revived and thus made accessible to the poet and reader without recourse to general truths. The poet, in this view, is a resuscitator of the original reality of facts, a reality they had before they became facts of reason and discourse and therefore were caught in the web of generalizations and logical thinking.[2] But the dark and mysterious atmosphere, the aura of illicit love that characterizes Meeting at Night also bears the imprint of the relationship Browning was involved in at the time he wrote and published the poem. In January 1845 he had started a correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett who had the previous year achieved great popularity with her collection of poems. Elizabeth Barrett was at the time living in virtual imprisonment, confined to her room both by her infirm health and by a jealous and despotic father who controlled every single movement of his three daughters and placed strict limits on their social contacts. After a number of clandestine meetings, Browning followed the example of his idol, the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and abducted his beloved from her home. The two got married and escaped to Italy, where they lived until Elizabeth’s death in 1861. Meeting at Night and its companion poem, Parting at Morning, were first published in December 1845 in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.


Meeting at Night

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.

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!


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.



The structural-syntactic “plunge” into the “authentic” facts in Meeting at Night starts from the very opening of the poem and continues until the end. A strictly paratactic sequence orders the speaker’s perceptions to shape a temporally defined narrative of his journey to his destination. Certainly, the timeframe is charted first of all on the lexical level - the first two lines

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low

produce the inference that the speaker begins his monologue in late twilight or early evening, when the sea and the land are still distinguishable from each other, and the moon is low. Lines 9 and 10

 … the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,  

mark a moment later during the night when darkness envelops all, thus making visible the first spark’s blue colour, unnoticeable in the presence of another light source. But the building of a chronological sequence of events between these two points in time takes place purely on the syntactical level. The poem is composed of a succession of noun phrases, each of which records a new visual, auditory, olfactory or tactile sensory impression, so that the very parallelism becomes a means of recreating, or mimetically imitating, the narrator’s unswerving progress towards his goal. This overall sense of a steadfast onward movement is created by the main syntactic peculiarity of the poem – the ellipsis of the verb in the main clauses. A reconstruction of the elided predicates (in square brackets) results in the following:


[I can see] 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.

Then [there will be] a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
[I will hear and see] A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And [I will hear] a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!


This reconstruction, the only that is possible without violating the cohesion of the text and its rhythm, together with the deictic use of the article, indicates that for each noun phrase, the speaker’s “I” has fixed temporal and spatial parameters.[3] That is, the end of the first stanza positions the persona at the moment when he touches land and therefore at a point before the actual meeting, while the second stanza represents his “plans” for the future. Yet, the brief timespan between “now” and “then” is saturated with such a dynamism that it truly exemplifies “the dancing of an attitude,” in this case the cumulative rise of the speaker’s passion that explodes in the climactic last line. The effect is due to the tight interweaving of the chronological sequencing with a psychological one. In the first stanza, the selection of the recorded impressions follows the speaker’s glance – directed ahead in the gray sea and the long black land; slightly upwards in the yellow half-moon large and low; downwards in and the startled little waves that leap… - in a way that is, for all its patterning, disorienting from a temporal point of view. At the same time, the perceptual facts of light, darkness, colour, sound, smell, and touch are equally and simultaneously active, as can be seen from the attributive use of adjectives denoting sensory data and the direct and indirect onomatopoeia in long/land/large/low/leap; push/prow; slushy/sand. There is obviously some temporal order, yet it is not objectively determined – in Epstein’s terms, we are dealing with subjective mimesis, “an imitation of the observation of [the mind’s] own proper action” (Epstein, 1975: 185). In the second stanza, the facts become more and more subject to chronological sequencing, as the numerals make their appearance to indicate the number and succession of obstacles – three fields, a tap, a match, two hearts. But again, their order follows the speaker’s individual, subjective perceptions, as in A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch/ And blue spurt of a lighted match/ and a voice… /… the two hearts….

Meeting at Night thus exhibits a tightly structured and original use of syntax to achieve a high degree of iconic power - both objective mimesis and subjective mimesis in Epstein’s terms - by phonological and syntactic schemata. It is objective because the exclusive use of ellipsis and parataxis and the resulting cumulative effect mimic the erotic experience, which is independent of the volition of the experiencing persona. It is subjective because the ordering of the sensory data is determined by the speaker’s unique structure of experience. No surprise that such a discriminating critic of poetry as F. R. Leavis singled out Meeting at Night as a superb example of how a poem can convey energy and vigour through selection and arrangement of simple, seemingly incidental detail (Leavis, 1968: 243).

Against this context, the companion poem Parting at Morning appears to perform the same operation in reverse order. The inversion in the first line is strongly motivated by the event in the fictional world, enacting the speaker’s physical movement away from the farm and his subjective perceptual experience. Thus, the arrival of “the sea” at the end of the line and of the clause imitates the sudden emergence of the sea before the man’s eyes as he walks towards the place where he has moored his boat. Spatially, too, the event is given parameters that correspond in a reverse order to his movement back to the point from which he gave his monologue in the first poem: the cove has become a cape, the moon has been replaced by the sun, the horizontal landscape (the long black land) has given way to the vertical one (the mountain’s rim). And instead of the elliptic syntax, with the exception of the fourth line, here the clauses are complete, with a leisurely quality that indicates the state of calmness and relief following the sexual experience. The iconic enactment of meaning takes place also on the purely graphic or visual level: the shortness of the second poem contrasts with the length of the first one, quantitatively reflecting the release, the discharge of sexual energy. This kind of juxtaposition and exact mirroring points to Epstein’s self-reflexive mimesis: whereas the first poem has a life of its own, the second one does not: it is entirely dependent for its meanings, including those constructed by its iconic elements, on its companion, on the antecedent where Browning has “made” the code. At the same time, for all its independence, when read in the context of its tailpiece, Meeting sounds even more intense, the gradation even more ready to erupt in an ecstatic climax after the closing union announced in two hearts beating each to each. 

So, where, in this consistent use of iconicity, do we locate the cultural component? And is such an extension of the analysis relevant to the analysis at hand? The answer to both questions derives from the affective impact produced by Parting. What strikes the contemporary reader about the second poem is its blandness, which stands in contrast with and interrogates the powerful projection of immediate sensation of the first one.[4] Again, it is the deliberate linguistic choice that accounts for this effect. The use of the past tense, together with the structural completeness of all the lines but one, builds a contemplative, retrospective narrative which distances the experience from the presumed emotional content of such a traumatic event as parting from the beloved. As in Meeting, the basic structural principle is anaphoric polysyndeton that seems to serve the same function of building a chronotope and ordering the sensory impressions making up each clause. Still, the result is quite different, as is evident from the use of clichés such as the sun looked over the mountain’s rim and a path of gold. The visual image in the latter especially dissolves in the ambiguous elliptic closing line: and the need of a world of men for me. The reconstruction of the missing predicate in this last and only elliptic clause leads to the clumsy and in fact meaningless and the need of a world of men for me [was straight]. This rather infelicitous syntactic choice has a back effect, too: the image becomes displaced from the cognitive field of sensory data and shifts its meaning into the semantics of social life, where the metaphor acquires a rather ironic connotation. Intentionally or not, it resonates with the vision of material wealth, an idea that clashes with the lyric slant of both poems.

More importantly, it is the relationship between the two poems that carries an additional load of iconic significance, for it is in itself a sign that equates the spatial disposition of Parting to Meeting with the Victorian textualization - or, as more often is the case, its suppression - of sexuality and the female gender. In the juxtaposition of the two poems we can see problematized the very existence and status of the event that connects them. Yet this hiatus creates the “story” Eco speaks about in his discussion of iconicity. For if the sexual encounter exists only as a goal in the first poem and is elided there, and in the second one the parting is pushed into the past, where and when does the desired union of the two lovers take place? The answer is that it is spatially and temporally positioned between the two poems, in the space that separates them. The event anticipated in the fantasy of the chaste embrace of two hearts beating each to each becomes a non-event - it is only a blank space, a pause, a silence. Ellipsis has turned from a syntactic to an ideological component of the text, an iconic sign that creates its own story with each reading of the poems - the story of forbidden love and of clandestine meetings, of obstacles, of fear and danger - very much the story of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Yet significantly, the woman herself is also absent from the text: in the first poem she is only a synecdoche, her personality coded through the lighted match, the barely audible voice and the beating of her heart, while in the second one she may be the mute presence determining the point of view from behind, following the speaker as he recedes into the distance. In addition, there is the parenthetical phrase through its joys and fears, which is the only parenthetical phrase in Meeting and the only reference to emotion. Against the context of a regularly occurring pattern - the sequence of parallel noun phrases containing attributes in pre- and post-position, the break in the internal norm is motivated neither semantically nor syntactically, even though considerations of rhyming cannot be ruled out. The presence and positioning of the parenthesis can therefore be interpreted as another instance of psychological iconicity: it comes as an afterthought, indicating that the lover is much more engrossed in his own sensory – and sensual – experience than in that of his beloved. And the very antithesis joys and fears reflects the Victorian cultural and linguistic convention which stereotyped women specifically through this pair of opposites. Thus, whereas the accumulation of noun phrases produces the effect of rising erotic impulse, the presence, the place and the very meaning of the parenthetical phrase tempers its energy and ardour.

Both graphically and syntactically, then, Browning’s Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning dramatize and glorify a male solipsistic sexual ardour in a way typical of the mid-nineteenth century. Like the two lovers, they poems stand united in an embrace that enacts the story of love as told by the Victorian age. This was the most prudish period in English cultural and moral history. At no other time were the semantic boundaries of the unspeakable so extended; yet at no other time did writers exercise greater inventiveness and ingenuity of form to indicate the forbidden content. This is the reason why the succeeding generations rose with such vehemence against what they saw as the hypocrisy of their fathers and grandfathers. The truth, however, is that most of the major writers – for example, Dickens in David Copperfield, Thackeray in Vanity Fair, Browning in the two poems under discussion – managed to “dance” their meanings and attitudes, to arrange their patterns along the lines of gripping scenarios. Thus they could effectively speak to their audience, which gave them their due appreciation in spite of the pressure of the publicly sanctioned codes of verbal behaviour. 



2001. Alderson, Simon.  Chance and Imagination in Literary Iconicity.” European Journal of English Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 17–29

1990. Ariel, Mira. Accessing Noun Phrase Antecedents. London: Routledge.

1979. Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” In Bloom, Harold and Adrienne Munich (eds.) Robert Browning: A Collection of Critical Essays, - Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. 

1947, 1967, 1973. Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: U of California P

1979. Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

1975. Epstein, E. L. “The Self-Reflexive Artefact: The Function of Mimesis in an Approach to a Theory of Value for Literature.”  In Fowler, R. (ed). Style and Structure in Literature: Essays in the New Stylistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 166 - 199.

1967. Langbaum, Robert. “‘The Ring and the Book’: A Relativist Poem.” In Langbaum, R. (ed.). The Victorian Age: Essays in History and in Social and Literary Criticism (2nd rev.ed.). New York: Fawcett World Library, 225-251.

 1968. Leavis, F. R. “Judgement and Analysis: Notes in the Analysis of Poetry”. Repr. in A Selection from Scrutiny. Cambridge UP. 

1981. Leech, Geoffrey and Michael Short. Style in Fiction. London: Longman.

1999. Tabakowska, Elzbieta. “Linguistic Expression of Perceptual Relationships: Iconicity as a Principle of Text Organization.” In Max Nänny and Olga Fischer (eds.). Form Miming Meaning: Iconicity in Language and Literature. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 409 - 422.

[1] In a paper that addresses skepticism about iconicity in literature, Simon Alderson proposes that the challenge can be fruitfully met by “grounding discussion in the latest linguistic research into the role of iconicity in language and cognition. By understanding the general range of iconic functions in language, we can avoid accusations of amateurism and subjectivity in literary analysis” (Alderson, 2001: 28). This is precisely what Leech and Short emphasize in their pioneering study. 

[2] This primacy of empirical authenticity in Browning’s poetry is what made him a favourite with his public, in spite of the notorious obscurity of his style. His readers found his art congenial with Victorian pragmatism and anti-intellectualism. As Robert Langbaum points out in a seminal study of the long verse narrative The Ring and the Book, Browning’s highest achievement which tells one and the same story from ten different points of view, the poet’s talent “lies in the ‘surplusage of soul’ which enables him to project himself into the facts, apprehend them sympathetically and thus apprehend their life. His poem establishes a pole for sympathy, so that the reader, too, can project himself into the facts and apprehend their life. …Meaning comes not from theoretical interpretation but from the intensest concreteness” (Langbaum, 1967:249).

[3] In a book that develops the Accessibility Theory, Mira Ariel makes the useful point that the reference to non-accessible entities (i.e. ones that do not occur in antecedents) as if they were accessible are aimed at creating a vivid picture, “vividness means ‘here’ and ‘now’” (Ariel, 1990: 149). The use of the definite article throughout most of Browning’s poem indubitably acts as a strong incentive to the reader to identify with the speaker’s chronotope and empathize with his subjectivity. 

[4] This may safely be assumed to be the reason why Parting at Morning is so rarely anthologized, unlike Meeting at Night.

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