"Meeting at Night" sounds a lot like a voice in someone's head, almost like a monologue spoken by a main character in a movie that is slightly confusing. You have no idea, for example, what he means exactly because he just starts talking, but then again it would probably be really, really confusing if you were inside someone else's head.
Anyway, he just starts describing natural features, like out of nowhere and with no context: grey sea, black land, yellow moon, waves, slushy sand. After about five lines, though, you start to get an idea what he's doing: he's describing the setting of his late-night rendezvous.
After that, it starts to sound like he's making a to-do list, enumerating all the little things he has to do in order to make this meeting happen. It almost sounds as if he were saying: "Ah, let me see, I've gotta cross a mile of beach, then three fields, then listen to a little tap and watch for a match in order to make this deal go down."
The title of the poem pretty much sums up what happens in the poem: the speaker describes a "meeting at night," or rather he describes all the things he must do to make his "meeting" happen. It is only in the last two or three lines that the actual meeting takes place, prompting the question as to what the title of the poem is actually doing.
On the one hand, the title is a little misleading. Why? Because the bulk of the poem consists of descriptions of the landscapes (sea, beach, fields) that the speaker must cross in order to make his date. On the other hand, the fact that the poem is called "Meeting at Night" suggests that the meeting is the most important event in the poem, even though the meeting itself only occupies four lines.
Imagine the first scene of a brand new movie. The point of view is first person, and it's like you're inside the main character's head, looking out. You have no idea who this person is, or what is going on. It is clear, however, the scene is changing rather quickly. You soon realize that this is because the person whose point of view you share is moving rather quickly.
You first notice that it is nighttime, and that there's a bright yellow moon. The scene shifts, and you notice that there are waves lapping against a boat. Suddenly, like something out of science fiction or a cartoon, they momentarily start to resemble flames. Before you can fully register the situation, you hear a sound, and notice that you're in a boat that is pulling in to some sort of cove.
You hear the sound of a boat being pulled onto the sand. The speakers starts to cross a really long beach, then enters a small wooded area before crossing a field, then another field, and finally another. Suddenly, a "farm appears" and you see a hand tapping on a window pane. A woman appears, and lights a match. You hear a deafening sound of beating hearts.
The speaker of "Meeting at Night" is kind of a Romeo – passionate, slightly daring, always managing to fall for girls whose parents don't like him, but dating them despite all the odds. Yes, admirable that he follows his passions, but also risky, right?
Imagine it like this: In school one day, a friend of yours meets a girl, and he falls for her immediately. Well, her parents take one look at him, decide he's not good enough, and pretty soon he's talking about how he has to ride his bike three miles late at night through the neighborhoods to go see her (he has to wait until her parents go to bed). So, your friend and this girl can't really date publicly, so they have to carry on in secret like this. After a while it would get old don't you think? Your friend disagrees, telling you one day, "Yeah but I really like her. I mean, you should hear our hearts beating each to each."
Well, that's how we picture the speaker. How do you imagine him?
"Meeting at Night" isn't a very difficult poem. Yeah sure, it's a bit confusing at first, but after you read it a few times (which only takes thirty seconds because its only twelve lines) you realize that it is pretty straightforward. Browning leaves out verbs here and there, but that's nothing you can't handle!
The very first lines of the poem give us a description: "The grey sea and the long black land; / And the yellow half-moon large and low." Fair enough, but it's not really clear what this description is doing because it's just sort of there. After about five lines, it becomes clear the speaker is on his way somewhere, and this is part of the setting. As the poem continues, the speaker gives us a list of more things; if it weren't for the title, we might be a little puzzled, but because of the title we presume the speaker is on his way to a meeting.
Either way, the poem is a bit confusing at first, and this is partly because of the unique, first-person point of view. In many ways the poem sounds like a monologue in somebody's head, and for that reason it can be hard at first to determine just what is happening. This is one of the hallmarks of Browning's mature poetry.
"Meeting at Night" is written in a very loose version of iambic tetrameter. This means that, theoretically, each line should contain four (tetra-) iambs (a type of beat that consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable – da DUM). Robert Browning, however, is no ordinary poet, and there is not a single line in the poem of "pure" iambic tetrameter; every line contains at least one substitution (the replacement of, in this case, an iamb with a different type of beat).
Take line 6 as an example, which is arguably the most regular line in the poem:
And quench | its speed | i' the slush-|y sand.
The first two feet (the divisions of a line of poetry) are clearly iambs, following the pattern unstressed-stressed (da DUM). However, the third foot (beginning with "i' the") contains two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (da da DUM). This is called an anapest, and nearly every single line in the poem contains at least one anapest (lines 1 and 10 are the only ones that don't). The final foot goes back to an iamb.
As one further example of the metrical variation on display in "Meeting at Night"), take the poem's concluding line:
Than the two | hearts beat-|ing each | to each.
The first foot (we've put in a vertical line to help you see the divisions better) is an anapest (da da DUM), but then the second foot is two stressed syllables (DUM DUM); this is called a spondee. The final two feet are iambs (da DUM). In this line alone, we have three – count 'em: three! – different types of beats represented. Browning makes good use of various metrical patterns to achieve different effects in the poem. Can you think of how this might affect the poem's meaning?
There are two other things that need to be mentioned with respect to the poem's form. First, it contains two stanzas of six lines each, for a total of twelve lines. This is dangerously close to a sonnet (which contains fourteen lines). While there is no reason to call this a sonnet, poems that come this close to being a sonnet should be given a closer look. Second, the poem has a very neat and contained rhyme scheme: ABCCBA ABCCBA. Here's an example from the first stanza:
The grey sea and the long black land; (A)
And the yellow half-moon large and low; (B)
And the startled little waves that leap (C)
In fiery ringlets from their sleep, (C)
As I gain the cove with pushing prow, (B)
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand. (A)
Notice how each stanza is bracketed by a rhyme (the A rhyme), and that there are two rhymes in the middle (the C rhyme), giving the poem a sort of palindrome effect (same forwards and backwards). It's almost like a set of Russian dolls or something like that, where each rhyme is nestled inside another rhyme.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
"Meeting at Night" opens with a description of the "grey sea," which is followed shortly thereafter by a description of some waves, a cove, and a beach. It seems that the sea, and the things associated with it, are always in the way in this poem; the speaker must negotiate them in order to reach the farm where the meeting will take place.
The poem is about a "meeting at night," so it's only natural that we should have several descriptions of nighttime (like the moon and the "black land"). We tend to associate darkness and night with secrecy, and the meeting that takes place in the poem is clearly an illicit or clandestine (a fancy word for "hidden" or "secret") encounter.
"Meeting at Night" is full of vivid, colorful imagery; in the first three lines alone the speaker mentions three different colors (grey, black, yellow). Later, there are references that clearly suggest other colors ("fiery" and "warm" come to mind). The presence of colors emphasizes that things are being viewed through the mind of a unique person, the speaker of the poem.
The poem describes waves as "fiery ringlets." There is a lighted match in the second stanza, and there are also various other things that remind us of heat, especially the "warm sea-scented beach." In addition to these more literal references to heat, however, we shouldn't forget to mention that the poem is partly about love and passion, a different, more metaphorical "heat" that is registered in the beating hearts of the concluding lines.
There's no obvious sex in this poem, but there are definitely a few suggestive moments. Indeed, the moment where the boat gets stuck in the sand – you know the part about the "pushing prow" and the "slushy sand" (5-6) – seems slightly sexual, as does the intense "beating" of the "two hearts" (12) at the end. There's nothing too steamy here, but it's just enough to warrant a PG-13 rating… you know, just to warn the more zealous parents.