Algernon Charles Swinburne's poem, "Evening on the Broads" (1880), depicts the same bleak world view that characterized most of the author's later works, such as "By the North Sea" (1880). Swinburne uses similes and vivid imagery to describe a particular moment in time - the interval between day and night, which could also potentially symbolize the transition from life to death.
The poet describes a natural setting, in which he employs several contradictory images regarding both the positive and negative aspects of the scene. For example, toward the beginning of the poem, he personifies the sunset as a doubtful spirit, which is simultaneously "sick" and "fearful" and "lovely" and delightful:
Still is the sunset adrift as a spirit in doubt that dissembles
Still with itself, being sick of division and dimmed by dismay
Nay, not so; but with love and delight beyond passion it trembles,
Fearful and fain of the night, lovely with love of the day:
Fain and fearful of rest that is like unto death, and begotten
Out of the womb of the tomb, born of the seed of the grave:
Lovely with shadows of loves that are only not wholly forgotten,
Only not wholly suppressed by the dark as a wreck by the wave.
As with many other similes in the piece, this passage presents readers with a series of paradoxes: hope and despair, birth and death, and shadows and light. Swinburne also compares the sunset to numerous other elements, including, "a ship on the waters upholden." In many instances, the poet's similes result in tangents, and he ultimately references everything from natural elements such as wind and earth to living species, including birds and kings and conquerors.
Despite Swinburne's occasional positive references, the piece possesses a predominantly negative tone. This pessimism appears most obvious in the poem's final lines, in which light resigns itself to darkness:
And the sunset at last and the twilight are dead: and the darkness is breathless
With fear of the wind's breath rising that seems and seems not to sleep:
But a sense of the sound of it alway, a spirit unsleeping and deathless,
Ghost or God, evermore moves on the face of the deep.
Not only does this passage describe the literal end of the day, but it also reflects Swinburne's rejection of religion.
1. Whereas Swinburne's dramatic monologues, such as "The Triumph of Time" and "Laus Veneris", lament the results of tragic love, "Evening on the Broads" regrets the transition from day to night. Thus, the poet adopts a sorrowful tone for both his sexual and landscape poetry. What other similarities or differences can you identify between these two poetic forms?
2. What is the effect of Swinburne's excessive use of similes? What other poets might have influenced Swinburne's use of that particular writing technique?
3. Swinburne openly denounced organized religion in favor of more pagan belief. In what ways does "Evening on the Broads" reflect the poet's anti-religious beliefs? How does the work handle the issues of life and death — are these topics indicative of Swinburne's faith?
Swinburne, A. C. Poems and Ballads. Penguin paperback.