In Swinburne's "Evening on the Broads," the light and dark that compose the evening hesitate, accelerate, break, and finally become calm just like the waves that Swinburne stands beside. The poem starts with a feeling of reluctance as the sun hangs over the horizon:

OVER two shadowless waters, adrift as a pinnace in peril,
     Hangs as in heavy suspense, charged with irresolute light,
Softly the soul of the sunset upholden awhile on the sterile
      Waves and wastes of the land, half repossessed by the night.

The words "suspense," "irresolute," and "sterile" all lend to a deceivingly still and dead atmosphere that in reality slowly moves forward, reminiscent of the crest of a wave before it breaks. Along with these images, Swinburne uses the idea of a bird that has yet to fully unfurl its wings and calls the sunset "fearful and fain of the night," implying that the sun is hesitant to dip below the horizon.

The next phase in "Evening on the Broads" represents an acceleration toward the ultimate crash of the wave of evening. Once the expectant stillness has been established,

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
      Eagerly, yearning forth of the deeps where the ways of them are,
Glad of the glory of the gift of their life and the wealth of its wonder,
      Fain of the night and the sea and the sweet wan face of the earth.

Where before silence and a sense of creeping forward dominated the mood, speed charactarises this section. This part of the poem not only uses words that denote speed such as "quicken," "hurried" and "eagerly," but it also one long sentence where the phrases are dragged over two lines, causing the reader to speed up while reciting them. This is the moment where the wave rushes forward in order to break upon the shore. Swinburne at this point makes the image of the wave very obvious by explaining that "the crests of it crumble and topple and change, but the wall is not broken". The exact moment at which the wave breaks is unclear, and so perhaps Swinburne felt himself engulfed by the wave of the evening, which spurs the flurry of words about life and death and the story of Perdita. Noticeably less focused than the rest of poem, this section could represent the moment of confusion underneath the wave.

Finally, the poem returns to a sense of calm, yet perhaps without the anticipation that accompanied it at the beginning: "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." Yet a feeling of commotion underneath the surface exists ("the wind's breath rising"), just like the undertow of a broken wave, and a sense of sad accomplishment accompanies the stillness, described using death and darkness.

Questions

1. In class we discussed how "The Triumph of Time" is written to seem like a series of waves. This poem resembles one giant wave. How does Swinburne create this distinction?

2. Swinburne most often uses the image of a shipwreck in poems about lost love. This poem, however, does not overtly concern lost love and yet it reuses the idea of the shipwreck:

Yearly she feeds on her dead, yet herself seems dead and not living,
      Or confused as a soul heavy-laden with trouble that will not depart.
In the sound of her speech to the darkness the moan of her evil remorse is,
      Haply, for strong ships gnawed by the dog-toothed sea-bank's fang
And trampled to death by the rage of the feet of her foam-lipped horses

Why would Swinburne use this image in this context?

3. Ruskin also describes a sunset when discussing art in "Of Truth of Colour":

"I speak especially of the moment before the sun sinks, when his light turns pure rose-colour, and when this light falls upon a zenith covered with countless cloud-forms of inconceivable delicacy, threads and flakes of vapour, which would in common daylight be pure snow white, and which give therefore fair field to the tone of light."

Compare the two artists' descriptions. After reading "Of Truth of Colour," how do you think Ruskin would have reacted to Swinburne's interpretation of the sunset?

4. According to Glenn Everett's biography of Swinburne, in 1879 Swinburne's legal advisor "Theodore Watts-Dunton took him in, and was successful in getting him to adopt a healthier style of life". Given this poem and "By the North Sea," both written after he was "adopted," what effects did this "healthier style of life" have on Swinburne's poetry?


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Last modified 6 April 2009