n roughly the first third of "Evening on the Broads," Swinburne describes the transition from day to night — metaphorically, from life to death — as solemn and final, but also somehow natural, perhaps even beautiful. As night approaches and "the semblance of death out of heaven descends," the ocean shines with "the colours and clouds of the twilight." The light glows most brilliantly just before it disappears.

Swinburne uses a very benign image — a bird — to symbolize night's approach, to the effect that dusk falls tenderly in this first part of the poem. When the sun sets, the "broad-winged night" blankets "the brood of her worlds" — clouds, perhaps, or more generally everything visible during the day — with feathers, and "world upon world is enwound in the bountiful girth of her bosom." By hiding the clouds, the night grants the skies a reprieve from being "encumbered with flowers" and allows memories of life — "ghosts that are tired" — to rest without being "wholly forgotten," hidden only partially:

Lovely with shadows of loves that are only not wholly forgotten,
      Only not wholly suppressed by the dark as a wreck by the wave.
Still there linger the loves of the morning and noon, in a vision
      Blindly beheld, but in vain: ghosts that are tired, and would rest. . . .

The day, albeit "fearful and fain of the night," trembles "with love and delight beyond passion" at the prospect of being ended, and the gentle imagery continues even as the scene grows dark:

New-made night, new-born of the sunset, immeasurable, endless,
      Opens the secret of love hid from of old in her heart,
In the deep sweet heart full-charged with faultless love of the friendless
      Spirits of men that are eased when the wheels of the sun depart.

Reconciling Swinburne's imagery with his subject matter, then, might seem problematic; within the extended metaphor of the poem, after all, the world dies when the sun finishes setting. How, then, could the mood of this presumably tragic moment, the day's demise, border on acceptance, or even relief? Later in the poem, the motherly imagery disappears, gives way to something like resentment, sorrow:

No transparent rapture, a molten music of colour;
      No translucent love taken and given of the day. . . .

Love she hath none to return for the luminous love of their giving:
      None to reflect from the bitter and shallow response of her heart.
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.

Why the switch? What causes the poem's attitude towards night to change from contented acceptance to fear and contempt? It happens when the perspective shifts:

But here by the sand-bank watching, with eyes on the sea-line, stranger
      Grows to me also the weight of the sea-ridge gazed on of me,
Heavily heaped up, changefully changeless, void though of danger
      Void not of menace, but full of the might of the dense dull sea.

As soon as the narrator becomes a character — a human, with a stake in the contest between life and death, day and night — the death-is-natural attitude gives way to mortal fears. An objective third-person narrator might be able to step back and appreciate the majesty of the circle of life, but to a mortal creature, death signifies the absolute end, an event to be dreaded. To underscore the transition, Swinburne employs a critical ambiguity: "void though of danger... void not of menace" could be saying that the night lacks danger but has menace ("void" as a verb), but it could also mean the exact converse, that night is a dangerous but benevolent void ("void" as a noun).

Discussion Questions

1. What might Swinburne be suggesting about the process of dying with the vibrant, colorful sunset imagery in the beginning of the poem? Could he be saying that a person's finest (most reflective, most appreciative, etc) moments take place in the last hours of life, or does he mean that life as a concept — irrespective of the creature connected to it — is most appreciable just before death?

2. Connect "Evening on the Broads" to the climax of Phantastes, in which Anodos sacrifices his own life for the greater good. Anodos proves himself in his final moments, whereas the narrator in "Evening on the Broads" seems awestruck and terrified when faced (metaphorically) with the prospect of dying. Also consider Helen from Jane Eyre, who remains serene and devout even as her illness irreversibly worsens: "I believe; I have faith; I am going to God"(97). Which character feels most authentic? Does Helen's calm acceptance seem more or less believable than Anodos's last-ditch heroism, are the two similar, or are they entirely incomparable? How does the narrator in "Evening on the Broads" compare?

3. The shipwreck imagery in "Evening on the Broads" serves its intended purpose even today, but how might its effect have been different during the mid-1800s? Ian McEwan — a contemporary novelist — opens his book "Saturday" with the image of an airplane on fire in the sky, viewed in silence from a city apartment. Would a crashing plane be the modern-day synonym for Swinburne's shipwreck?

4. In what other literary works does the introduction of a third-person subjective narrator (a narrator who doubles as a character in the story) cause a tone shift?


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Last modified 11 April 2009