In 1844 Elizabeth Barrett published a successful and much-admired collection of poetry, aptly titled Poems. One of Barrett's many admirers was her future husband, Robert Browning, who was so inspired by her poetry that he wrote to Elizabeth Barrett. The two become pen-pals of sorts and eventually fell in love. (Barrett is now better-known under her married name, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You probably know her poem "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.") Like some Hollywood romance, however, Elizabeth's father did not approve of Robert Browning, and Elizabeth and Browning's courtship had to be conducted in secret.
While Browning was careful never to identify himself with the speaker of "Meeting at Night," many scholars and critics have interpreted the poem as a thinly-veiled description of, or reference to, Barrett and Browning's courtship. The two had to keep their romance a secret, and "Meeting at Night" captures much of the intense passion associated not only with a love affair, but with a dangerous and clandestine one.
Initially, Browning's poem contained an extra stanza, and it was called simply "Night and Morning" (apparently, the poem in its original form detailed the poet's departure as well). Browning eventually separated "Night and Morning" into two poems, and aptly titled the second part "Parting at Morning." You can read "Parting at Morning" here.
Have you ever had a crush on someone that your parents didn't approve of, or whose parents didn't like you? Maybe you have, or maybe you haven't, but that's not really the point. "Meeting at Night" isn't only about secret love affairs. It's about the lengths we go to satisfy our passions, the obstacles we're willing to overcome.
In the poem, the speaker sails over a part of the ocean, then walks a mile on the beach, then across three fields, before he reaches the farm house where, interestingly, he just hears a voice. Sounds like a pretty small reward for a ginormous amount of effort right? Maybe it seems like that to us, but we bet you can think of a time when you expended a lot of effort to do something you wanted to do really badly. (Maybe it involved a Black Friday sale… ) No doubt there were plenty of people who were shocked at the amount of effort you expended for what appeared to them to be a small reward. So maybe we're not so different from the speaker after all, even if we aren't having a forbidden love affair.
Browning on Poets.org
A brief biography of Browning.
Browning on Victorian Web
A great, scholarly site that has lots of links to Browning-related materials.
The full text of the love letters Browning wrote to his future wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, plus her responses. So sweet!
"Meeting at Night"
A video of "Meeting at Night," set in modern times.
A Reading of "Meeting at Night"
A (slightly) animated reading of "Meeting at Night."
Robert Browning Reads
A recording of Browning reading one of his poems (turn it up loud because it's hard to hear!)
An older Robert Browning, looking very handsome.
One of Browning's Manuscripts
A page from Browning's manuscript for The Ring and the Book (1868).
Robert and Elizabeth
Portraits of Robert and his wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Browning's headstone in Westminster Abbey.