4 Interpreting meanings
4.1 Knowledge about context and author
After you had read the poem a few times, you no doubt pieced together that the ‘I’ of line 5 in the first verse, the speaker, is rowing in a boat at night. We probably realise that with the word ‘prow’. By the end of the first verse the boat is beached in a cove. The journey continues over the beach and fields to a farm (by foot, presumably, since we hear about no other means of transport). There the traveller meets someone. It appears that they exchange signals – the tap on the pane and lighted match. And all this, together with the whispering voice and beating hearts, suggests that it is some kind of secret meeting. I imagine we would not disagree about that pretty bald account. It seems to be a poem about a journey and a secret meeting. In fact the title of the poem is ‘Meeting at Night’.
But as far as I can see, we can't be sure about anything else. Although the verse is very visual, we don't know where this place is. We know the action happens at night, because of the grey and black of the surroundings in moonlight (and the title), but otherwise we don't know when it happens either. And we don't know who the speaker is, whether male or female, or who he or she meets, or why they meet. So there seems to be plenty of scope for interpretation here.
Starting with the ‘central character’ (traveller-speaker), I would guess that most of us just assumed he is male. If someone is doing something as strenuous and potentially dangerous as rowing about and walking alone through the countryside at the dead of night, we tend to expect that person to be a man. More to the point, what is known about mid-Victorian culture – the conditions within which this poem was written and first read – suggests that Browning's original readers would almost certainly have made that assumption. Then (and later) woman's place was firmly in the home, not pulling on oars and traipsing across fields at night (in a hooped skirt?). Given those conditions, then, we are in all probability right to think of the traveller-speaker as a man; this is an appropriate interpretation to make. The woman, if a woman is involved, is more likely to be the one who ‘waits’ in the farm ready to respond to the tap at the window-pane. And, if this is a poem about a lovers’ meeting, then it is also reasonable to assume that the lovers are male and female – if that was obviously not the case Browning probably wouldn't have found a publisher for the poem.
However, I am speculating here. Is it right to do that? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Interpreting texts from other times and places
Yes. Like everyone else, artists rely on communicating with their contemporary ‘audience’ on the basis of the understandings they share, as members of the same culture. So when you are studying a text that has come down from the past, or from a culture that is different from your own, it is important to find out as much as you can about that time and place – including the way of life, values and beliefs of the people for whom the text was written. Some knowledge of the conditions in which the text was written and received will guide you towards making appropriate interpretations of its meanings.
However, you need to be aware that acquiring that kind of knowledge is not a straightforward business. If your subject is Philosophy or History, you will be particularly interested in such questions as: what is ‘true’?; in what sense can we ‘know’ what happened in the past?; how can we find out? In that connection, notice that what I have just said is carefully worded. I have said that our knowledge of this period ‘suggests that…’; that we are ‘probably’ right to make certain assumptions about the poem on that basis; that it is ‘reasonable’ to draw a particular conclusion.
You have to be cautious in what you say about conditions in the past, and especially so when you are interpreting a text's meanings on the basis of your understanding of the past.
No. You have to be careful not to speculate on the basis of some kinds of knowledge though – such as what you know about the artist. For example, I know that Browning met a woman in 1844, Elizabeth Barrett (also a poet), and that they courted and married in secret. They fled to Italy immediately after their wedding in 1846. In view of this, I might be tempted to interpret the poem not just as the story of a lovers' meeting, but of the kind of clandestine meeting that may actually have taken place between these particular lovers. In this case I could simply be proved wrong: the poem was in fact published along with others in 1842, some two years before Browning met Elizabeth Barrett. But even if they had met earlier, I still couldn't be sure that Browning was writing about himself or about something he had actually experienced.
You should not make connections between what you know about artists' lives or times and their ‘works of art’ in a direct, unqualified way. We cannot get inside other people's minds, so we can never know for sure what artists feel or know or intend to do in their work. (And we can't just take what they themselves say at face value either because, like all of us, they may not be fully aware of what they feel or do.) Also, works of art are only ever partly ‘true to life’. They always contain imaginary elements – even when they are portraits of real people or of actual landscapes. Artists create their work; what they are concerned with is its composition. A landscape painter, for example, may ‘move’ a tree in order to make a more pleasing pattern on the canvas, or add a figure to the landscape for the sake of visual interest. And these imaginary elements may so transform what was ‘there’ that it is pretty well impossible to disentangle the one from the other. So, even when there seems to be an obvious connection between ‘real life’ and ‘work’, you need to argue your case for that relationship rather than just assume it.
For all these reasons, you cannot just assume that the ‘speaker’ of the poem we are looking at is Browning. You cannot make assumptions about what the poet feels or intends, or what he means by the poem. You can only talk in terms of what ‘the speaker’ says and does; what Browning ‘seems’ to be doing in the poem; and what the poem might mean. The same applies when you are talking about the ‘meanings’ of a painting or a piece of music.
When you are interpreting the meanings of a text you should:
try to find out as much as you can about the conditions in which the text was created and received (read, viewed or heard); but
try not to make assumptions about relationships between ‘real life’ and ‘the work’, or about the artist's beliefs, feelings and intentions.