Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

4.3 Analysis and interpretation

We have got to the point of recognising that this is a lyric poem, and of thinking that it is probably about a lovers’ meeting. But you cannot reach firmer conclusions about a text's meanings until you have looked at as many aspects of it as you can. I think we need to go back again to the detail of the poem, because the analysis is not full enough yet.

For one thing, there is something odd about the poem's syntax. If you look at the verbs in the first verse you'll see that they are all in the present tense: ‘leap’, ‘I gain’ and ‘quench’. This is what the waves are doing or the speaker is doing. We might expect that pattern to continue into the second verse. But it doesn't. The next verb, in line 2, is ‘to cross’. This does not suggest that the traveller is doing the crossing, but that crossing the fields has still to be done. What does that mean?

Activity 4

Just stop for a moment to confirm the change in verb tense for yourself. What are the implications of it; what do you think it might ‘mean’?

While you're at it, have a really close look at the last two lines in the first verse. What is being compared to what here? And what does this comparison suggest to you?


Well, I think the change in tense means that at the end of the first verse the traveller is beaching the boat looking forward to, or anticipating, the rest of the journey and the meeting. In other words, the things that ‘happen’ in the second verse, the journey over land and the meeting itself, are going on in the speaker's mind. What are the implications of that? Notice, he knows this journey pretty well – ‘a mile’ of beach, ‘three’ fields – and he knows exactly what signals will be exchanged when he gets to the farm. What this suggests, then, is that it is not the first time he has made the journey and met his lover secretly. This is a ‘love affair’ we have here, not a one-night stand. And perhaps what all this means is that, in a secret love affair, what goes on in our minds – or, anticipation – is a large part of the excitement and pleasure.

Making meaning: ‘Anything goes’?

‘Making meaning’ is a process that goes on in our minds when we come up against something in the world, or ideas in a text, that we try to make sense of. But it is clear from talking to other people that we do not always make the same meanings, even of the same events and texts. We may respond to and interpret them differently. Indeed, on that basis, some people think you can just say what you like about a poem, painting or piece of music; there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about it because we all ‘respond’ to it differently, emotionally and in our imaginations. So it means different things to us. In the realm of interpretation, ‘anything goes’. (Lovers’ or smugglers’ meeting? – it's all a matter of personal response.) But this is a big mistake.

In the first place, just because we sometimes interpret things differently does not mean that we always or even usually do. In fact, I'd say that very often we make similar meanings to others in our culture. That's why we can understand each other, often in subtle ways, and laugh at the same jokes. But in any case, we cannot say just what we like about a poem, painting or any of the other objects we study. If we think we can that is because we are only thinking about ourselves, about our feelings and fancies. We are forgetting about the other half of the equation – the text we are studying and trying to interpret the meaning of. That text imposes some limits on the interpretations we may make. We are limited by our understanding of the kind of text we are dealing with – by its conventional form – and by our knowledge of the conditions in which it was created, and read, seen or heard. In view of those limitations, what we should say is that there is a certain range of appropriate meanings we may make.

It is within that range that we may well disagree because of the differences there are between us. In some texts the range is wide, so there may be much to disagree about. But this is far from saying that ‘anything’ goes. Rather, it suggests that we can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ right in our interpretations.

Another pattern you may or may not have spotted is Browning's frequent use of articles (‘the’ and ‘a’), especially the definite article, ‘the’, in the first three lines of the poem. We noted before that we don't know where these events take place. It could be anywhere on and near a coast. Or is it ‘nowhere’ – not a ‘real’ place at all? The lovers are pretty shadowy figures too: one the muscular ‘I’ of the first verse, the other ‘a voice’ and, together, ‘the two hearts beating’. Why all this anonymity?

Is it that we are not supposed to be thinking of them as particular lovers, meeting at a specific place and time? Are they rather meant to represent or ‘stand for’ lovers in general? If so, this seems to be all of a piece with the implications of the change in verb tenses we discussed just now. That, too, led us to think in more abstract terms – about the role of anticipation in affairs of this kind.

So, taking these elements of the verse together, perhaps what we should be thinking about – and our feelings be engaged by – is the state of ‘being in love’. Rather than describing a series of events that actually happened in a real place involving particular people, what the poet seems to be doing is evoking this state for us: calling up our memories and feelings about it through the sounds and movement of the verse, and the kind of words and images he uses. Through that evocation, it is as if the poem ‘asks’ us to recognise that when we are in love, we human beings are fuelled with energy – we will go to extraordinary lengths and run all sorts of risk. We are full of excited anticipation, with every sense alert and heightened; we invest our surroundings with beauty and romance. And it is as if our very hearts beat a tattoo in our breasts. Perhaps the poem also suggests that, in a secret love affair, what we have is this romantic state ‘writ large’ – in its extreme form.

But are we quite right to think of this state as an extreme of ‘romantic’ love? What about the image at the end of the first verse? The male speaker is being compared to the boat: ‘I gain the cove with pushing prow’. Then the speaker's/prow's speed is quenched ‘i’ the slushy sand’. What does this comparison bring to mind? Well, within an interpretation of this as a poem about lovers, isn't it a sexual image? As people who live after Freud it is perhaps hard for us to interpret things like ‘prows’ penetrating sand (trains going through tunnels, and so on) as anything other than ‘phallic symbols’. Come to think of it, the image in lines 3 and 4 of the first verse is beginning to take on a whole new meaning now. Maybe the ‘spurt’ of the match is significant too…

But perhaps you are protesting at this point. Isn't that going much too far – reading things ‘into’ this poem from our present ways of thinking? Isn't that interpretation inappropriate, given the time and place in which the poem was written? Actually, I don't see why. Browning certainly didn't know about Freud (1856–1939) when he wrote the poem. But full-blown love affairs were sexual then as now. Also, the promise of such an encounter fits with the idea of being driven to extremes of exertion and of taking risks, fuelled by the excitement of sexual passion. Anyway, if Browning were writing about sex we would precisely expect to find it only ‘suggested’ in his verse rather than made plain. If he wanted his work to be published he could not have written about it explicitly at that time.

However, having said all that, this is an example of the kind of interpretation we might not agree about – within our understanding of the poem's ‘range of meaning’ as a meeting between lovers. We can at least agree that it is unlikely to have some other range of meaning altogether. (It's safe to leave the smugglers behind us, for instance.) That is because, in carrying out a fairly full analysis of the ‘formal elements’ of this ‘lyric’ poem, and taking account of the ‘conditions’ in which it was written and read, everything we have discovered chimes with the interpretation of it as a lovers’ meeting and nothing about it seems to suggest otherwise.

Key points

When you are interpreting a text, you should try to reach an understanding of the ‘range of meaning’ you may make by combining:

  • your knowledge of the text's form (the conventions that govern its composition); and

  • your understanding of the conditions in which the text was created and received.

When you also take account of

  • the outcomes of your analysis of its formal elements

you are able to make some appropriate interpretation of the text's meanings.

Now, we will try to make some judgements about the text.


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