In Night and Morning, by Robert Browning, what does the last line mean?
September 12, 2017 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Describing his dawn parting from a lover, the narrator closes with "And the need of a world of men for me." What's he referring to?

"And the need of a world of men for me."

I've always taken that to mean the demands of daily life, which require the narrator to part. Not sentimentally but energetically, off into a bright sunny world. The promise of the day makes it easier to leave the nighttime refuge of his lover. (Modern day example: "Bye honey. I gotta be at work at 8. Big day!")

But others think the phrase refers to HIS OWN need for the wider world, and even for the company of men specifically,

Any insights, O Poets of the Green?
posted by LonnieK to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I... don't understand the difference. Yes, it's the narrator's own need for the wider world, the "world of men"; how does that differ from your alternative in the previous paragraph ("energetically, off into a bright sunny world")?
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on September 12

languagehat and anyone else who's confused, I think the previous paragraph parses the line as "And the need [...] for me," i.e. the world of men's need for the narrator.
posted by cogitron at 9:36 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

I think the OP is taking about the real longing is to stay or to go. Is the need of the world a burden or a joy to the narrator? Additionally, I think the OP is also saying the "world of men" phrase has been interpreted both as a general statement of the world at large and to mean the world of men specifically, in a romantic sense. There seems to be a lot of debate on all these issues on the internet, so maybe a Browning scholar will weigh in.
posted by LKWorking at 9:37 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

the difference between I have to go, men need me! and I have to go, I need men! right?

I think it is the latter, but the whole thing bewilders me because I can't read it as anything other than the female narrator of a heterosexual pair, and the "him" in the preceding line as him -- the dude, not the sun. I know this is incorrect. grammar, et cetera. but it's much better than what Browning did mean.

plus it is not clearly the "wider" world that the narrator wants -- it's that, or it's the narrower world of men (commerce, society, prosaic daylight business) vs. the wider world of the sea, and boats, and the moon. but yeah, probably. men come and go on the broad roads of the world, women stay inside in their cupboards waiting to be taken out for a night and put back again.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:38 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

The world rushes back to the narrator, not the other way around. "Round the cape of a sudden came the sea. The sun "looks over" the edge of the mountain, like it's peeking out to see what's there. Its path is laid out straight in front of it, as the narrator's path is for him. Just like the sun can't do anything but follow it's path, neither can the narrator. It's a very passive construction, especially compared to Meeting at Night which is in the active voice. I do think that the last line is intentionally vague. I think the reader should be questioning how passive the narrator really is. But I think the narrator would say they are reluctantly dragging themselves away.
posted by muddgirl at 10:04 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

As opposed to a bright sunny day and things to do, time to get with it! I would take it as "this whole evening was kind of unreal and dreamlike, is it heaven on earth or a fairy world where time stands still, but whatever it is, it's weird and it's time to get a sense of reality." i.e. the world of men, not the world of elves and sexy girlfriends.
posted by aimedwander at 10:08 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

> I think the previous paragraph parses the line as "And the need [...] for me," i.e. the world of men's need for the narrator.

Oh! That didn't even occur to me. If so, that's wrong! But it certainly is an interesting poem and there's a lot to say about it; the comments here are thoughtful and a pleasure to read.
posted by languagehat at 10:50 AM on September 12

Thanks all. Good chewing here.
Since my poor layman's construction may be imprecise in the language of poetry, let me concentrate it w/o the nuances of bright sun etc:

"The need of a world of me for me" must mean either:
-- I must return to the affairs of the world for my own benefit
-- The world (i.e. people, employers, partners) are depending on me so I gotta go (my vote); or
-- deliberate ambiguity between these two.
posted by LonnieK at 11:12 AM on September 12

Seems clear there's more than one way to read it, but I'm inclined to parse it as "the need of the world" for "me." Not the lover sallying forth with a spring in his step, but the world pulling at him, tugging him away from her arms. There is an empty space in the world which he must fill, as there is a path in the sky the sun must travel, and the dawn reveals to both man and star the path they needs must take.

Makes the sun itself "him" in the preceding line -- "straight was the path of gold for him" the sun, peeping over the mountain, sees its own day's journey laid out before it by its own radiance, the sea come to beckon it away.
posted by Diablevert at 11:13 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

I'm interpreting the 'straight was the path of gold for him' as a poetic-grammar way to say 'straight was the path of gold TOWARDS [the sun]'. That is, the 'him' in the third line is the sun and the 'me' in the fourth line is the male narrator returning to his 'world of men' - perhaps a ship, the most self-contained male world possible. The ship anchored off the cape, the narrator taking a boat ashore to see his sweetheart, and then a dawn return to the ship and an all-male crew who would go to sea for a long time, participating in either trade or warfare, quite male-coded areas of life at the time.
posted by DSime at 1:25 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

I read it as the obverse of his journey to night; the day, with its call to life and purpose, paves the way for his return to the real (rather than dreamy and fantastic) world.

In the first stanza of "Meeting at Night," the world is almost fantastic: dark colors, the half-moon shimmering on the waves, the journey at its close. The second stanza is more concrete and specific about the where and how of the last miles, and the journey ends in lovers meeting. But come the morning...the morning is as magical, in its way, as was the night, and its pull is as strong. The sea! The sunrise, the path as clear as morning sunlight pouring over the mountains--and the call to away, to rejoin the wider world.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:50 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

There is something quite strange about Night and Morning:
Meeting at Night
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed in the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Parting at Morning

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim –
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
It's like there's a missing stanza.

"Meeting at Night" has two stanzas, set off with Roman Numerals no less, while "Parting at Morning" has but one -- and not only that, "Parting at Morning" does not actually give us the promised parting of the title, but instead shows us the prospect before him after he's already left her and the farmhouse, has crossed the three fields and probably the beach, and could well even already be in his boat again, although it's not completely clear whether "Round the cape of a sudden came the sea" refers to heading out into the open sea as he passes one of the capes which define the cove, or could be a way of describing the tide coming in, but I think it must be the former.

Everything about the poem prior to the last stanza suggests a very formal, classically balanced structure: the title "Night and Morning"; the two six line stanzas of "Meeting at Night" set off by Roman Numerals; and the perfect parallelism of the titles of the two parts, "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning" -- and then the final four lines abandon all that and dump us on the ground. The End.

The imagery of "Meeting at Night" is all but explicitly sexual:
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed in the slushy sand.
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
and it may be that a stanza describing a fond, reluctant parting after a night of illicit sex was simply too much for the Victorians, and Browning was forced to, or felt he had to, truncate it.

In short, I think the last line is confusing and ambiguous because we don't have the full context of the poem as it was originally composed, but that it does express the need of the narrator for the world of men.
posted by jamjam at 10:58 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

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