Although we can recognize some similar themes in “By the North Sea” and “Evening on the Broads,” the latter poem has a very different form.
1. How would you describe this form? How does it affect your reading?
The poem is not separated into stanzas, and its lines are long (about 17 and 14 syllables, alternating). Many lines are also broken by caesura and enjambment. All this can make the poem much harder to read aloud.
2. In what state does the poem open?
The poem begins with a sunset over the waters. As in “By the North Sea,” the poet presents the image as explicitly liminal: it “hangs as in heavy suspense.”
3. What words, what phrases, contribute to this sense of suspension?
repetition of “hardly”
double images of womb/tomb and seed/grave
“only not wholly forgotten / Only not wholly suppressed”
“at least for a little while, awhile”
In this poem, however, we can observe a distinct progression. Partially, this has to do with the initial focus on the temporal, as opposed to the geographical. A sunset must eventually give way to nightfall, but the border between land and see won’t become one or the other; it can only move.
The night that proceeds from the sunset has some qualities that we might not traditionally associate with the end of day. First, the metaphor of an enveloping bird gives it a “bosom” of “bountiful girth.” Later on, night takes on the properties of creation and new life, as day fades to death:
Loftier, aloft of the lights of the sunset stricken and dwindled,
Gather the signs of the love at the heart of the night new-made.
New-made night, new-born of the sunset, immeasurable, endless,
Opens the secret of love hid from of old in her heart.
Faintly the heartbeats shorten and pause of the light in the westward
Heaven, as eastward quicken the paces of star upon star
Hurried and eager of life as a child that strains to the breast-ward.
After describing the onset of night, the speaker turns to the geographical location. Again, the speaker is on a “sand-bank,” the border of land and sea. He describes this sea-ridge as “changefully changeless”: the waves rise and fall, return and return, so that the change occurs in an essentially changeless pattern. As in “By the North Sea,” the elements here interact in an endless, repetitive play.
Perhaps because of this repetition in the border state, the speaker seems to experience spatial confusion:
Up to the sea, not upon it or over it, upward from under
Seems he to gaze, whose eyes yearn after it here from the shore:
A wall of turbid water, aslope to the wide sky’s wonder.
Sea becomes sky, and sky becomes sea, as the two merge at the point of the horizon; the light reflected up becomes indistinguishable from light that shines down.
The reflection of light, however, should not be confused with its origin. Sea lights have a paradoxical quality: “the light is dense as darkness, a gift withheld in the giving.” The sea, again presented as a figure of death, only, and insatiably, receives: “Yearly she feeds on her dead, yet herself seems dead and not living.”
From this vision of the darkened sea, the speaker turns to a meditation on another tale. Thus:
Here in Shakespeare’s vision, a flower of her kin forsaken,
Lay in her golden raiment alone on the wild wave’s edge,
Surely by no shore else, but here on the bank stormshaken,
Perdita bright as a dew-drop engilt of the sun on sedge.
4. What is Swinburne referring to here? Why might this text be relevant to the poem?
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale relies on the seacoast for a pivotal plot point; its ending involves a kind of rebirth. Formally, it also embodies the qualities of the borderland in that the tragicomedy, or romance, straddles different dramatic genres.
Turning back to the landscape before him, the speaker fixates on the wind that moves over the waters:
For the spirit and soul of the waste is the wind, and his wings with their waving
Darken and lighten the darkness and light of it thickened or thinnedÉ”
5. What possible allusions does this passage call to mind?In the Biblical account, creation begins as an act that divides into separate elements a liminal, formless state:
King James Bible, Genesis 1:1-5: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”
Swinburne’s poem closes thus:
And the sunset at last and the twilight are dead: and the darkness is
With fear of the wind’s breath rising that seems and seems not to sleep:
But a sense of the sound of it always, a spirit unsleeping and deathless,
Ghost or God, evermore moves on the face of the deep.
These very explicit allusions encourage a reading of the poem as a meditation on the act of creation and the conditions that enable it. On the one hand, poetry often thrives on ambiguity; on the other, it requires the imposition of order. In this sense, we can read “Evening on the Broads” as a self-referential poem, a poem about what poetry is and what it means.