This is a beautiful, dark poem about how the things that seem attractive in life can sometimes lead us astray. Smith cleverly uses the metaphor of seeing ship lights at sea to demonstrate how something can sometimes make brief sense to us, yet still turn out to be wrong in the long term. This poem is tailored towards GCSE and A Level students on CIE / Cambridge, WJEC / Eduqas, OCR, CCEA and AQA exam boards — but it’s useful for anyone trying to get to grips with the poem at any level.
Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at our full CIE poetry courses and English Literature help here:
Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening (1798–1800)
Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night on the ocean settles dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
Of drowsy billows on the rugged foot
Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
Of seamen in the anchored bark that tell
The watch relieved; or one deep voice alone
Singing the hour, and bidding “Strike the bell!”
All is black shadow but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Misled the pilgrim — such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends in life’s long darkling way.
Vapours — a substance that floats in the air — often something that has transitioned from liquid or solid into a gas, such as steam from water
Brood — think deeply, hang heavily
Clifted — covered in cliffs
Mute — unable to speak
Repercussive — rebounding or reverberating, echoing — also an adjective used to describe after-effect of something
Drowsy — sleepy
Billow — a floating, outward movement as when a sheet is caught by the wind
Rugged — rough
Remote — far away
Seamen — sailors or people that work at sea
Bark — boat
The watch — the person who keeps watch, a nightwatchman
Lucid — clear, made of light
Surf — the foam that breaks onto the shore from the sea
Fairy fires — will- o — wisps, glowing lights that appear over dark bogs/swamps that travellers used to think were guiding lights, but which often led people astray (thought to be caused by leaking gas on bogs / moors / swamps)
Misled — lead astray
Pilgrim — someone who makes a spiritual journey
Dubious — doubtful, suspicious, untrue
Wavering — wobbly, moving up and down
Reason — logic and the mind’s ability to make sense of the world
Darkling — growing dark or covered in darkness
STORY / SUMMARY
The story is set in a port (a place where ships come in from the sea to dock and harbour) on a dark evening. The speaker is sitting with a view of the port, looking out to sea. She can see a vapour ( sea mist) on top of the shore, surrounded by cliffs. It is getting dark and night is falling, it also becomes quiet. The only sound is the ‘roar’ of seawater crashing against rocks in the distance. And even further away, she can just about hear the seamen out at sea who are speaking loudly with the watchman, who is relieved of his duty as it is the end of the day and the striking of the bell which signals the end of the day, when the work on the ship is over.
There is one line that disrupts the blackness of the sea and beach: the white line from the foam of the waves. There are also ship lights shining in the distance at sea, the speaker observes that these are similar to the fairy fires on land that lead wandering travellers astray across dark marshes at night. The last two lines use a simile to explore the idea that these small fires — fairy fires and ship lights in the darkness — are similar to the way in which humans use logic and ‘reason’ to justify their actions — they may be acting in a way that makes sense to them, but their own capacity to fully understand the wider perspectives of life is flawed, and so this can lead to flaws in judgement too. She’s talking about how people can get obsessed with ideas that make them lose their way in life — the fire is a metaphor for an idea or belief that people might latch on to, but that doesn’t help them in the long run and only makes sense in the short term.
SPEAKER / VOICE
The poet uses a third person omniscient narrator who creates a gothic atmosphere through their dark descriptions of the port. The narrator is arguably ghost-like in the sense that she is reporting what is occurring but is not involved in anything. She is passive and does not have a physical presence or role in the situation. The literal description of staring out at a port during the evening turns at the end of the poem into a more philosophical and metaphorical thought, where she observes that the ship lights seem appealing but if a person were to travel towards them through the darkness, they would drown at sea. Furthermore, Smith presents the speaker as looking in on the scene from an outside perspective, which we could say is something she felt she had herself been doing for her whole life, looking at those who have accomplished great achievements in their lives whilst she was impoverished and imprisoned (see context for more info).
Personification — “Brood” — the vapours that hover above the shore are given a dark, deep character — brooding has connotations of deep, heavy thinking, sometimes if one is in a reflective state of mind or if someone is angry or dissatisfied. The speaker herself is also in this pensive and contemplative mode, so we could say that this personification is a projection of her own state of mind and character.
”fairy fires, that oft on land /Misled the pilgrim” — the fires are personified through the verb ‘misled’, which implies that they deliberately intend to lead wanderers astray. This personifies them as having a mischievous character, seeming useful and friendly but turning out to be detrimental to the ‘pilgrim’ who travels through darkness. As these fires are compared to the glowing lights of ships on the dark sea, and both are used as a metaphor for ‘reason’, the conclusion of the poem is that ‘reason’ — the mind’s ability to make sense of the world — is equally tricky and misleading in nature and should not be fully trusted. We shouldn’t only rely on our own minds to interpret and understand the world.
Alliteration — “repercussive roar”, “rocks remote”, “lucid line”, “fairy fires” — a range of visual and auditory images use alliteration to draw attention to themselves and create a strong picture of the port in the reader’s mind. In particular, the fricative alliteration (‘l’ and ‘f’) throughout the second stanza create a sense of slipperiness and fluidity, showing how quickly reason can ‘waver’ or our perception of reality can shift.
Extended Metaphor — In the second stanza “Ship lights…darkling way”Just as a literal source of dim light leads to faulty navigation and doubt in one’s journey, a “wavering reason,” or unreliable thought processes can cast doubt in the long, uncertain journey of life.
‘Wavering reason’, changing your mind or going back and forth over a topic, is also echoed in the movement of the ocean waves — the last two lines change the tone of the poem to be less about nature and landscape, and more about philosophy and humanity
STRUCTURE / FORM
Sonnet — the poem is a Romantic Sonnet in form, a type of shakespearean sonnet that has 14 lines in length and written in an ABAB rhyme scheme, with the final two lines harmonising in a rhyming couplet that provides a conclusion to the thoughts and observations of the rest of the poem.
Rhyme Scheme — ABABCDCDEFEFGG > ends in a couplet, which summarises the ideas of the rest of the poem > Just as a literal source of dim light leads to faulty navigation and doubt in one’s journey, a “wavering reason,” or unreliable thought processes can cast doubt in the long, uncertain journey of life.
Monosyllabic lexis– “one deep voice”, “strike the bell”, “dark and mute”, “marked by the light surf” — these single syllable words create a simplistic impression of the scene, using straightforward and basic descriptions to depict the landscape and humans within it
Volta — the second stanza begins ‘All is black shadow but the lucid line‘, switching from images of darkness to the pockets of light within the scene — the line of the surf of the sea waves creates a white strip along the shore of the beach, and then further out in the sea the poet observes the lights on the ships, showing humans at work in a time that is contradictory to the routine of nature — they create their own lights to see by when the world has turned dark. This focal shift also creates a shift in perspective — instead of the power of nature, the second stanza now focuses on the frailty and fallibility of humans
Passive observation of life is sometimes more important than active participation — the speaker is not doing anything in the scene, merely watching and thinking about what she can see. Her thoughts become personal and introspective, capturing the physical ‘dark’ness of the scene and turning into psychological darkness towards the end. The poem seems to have a rather pessimistic attitude, in a sense saying that logic and reason that humans use to figure out their world and make important decisions is wrong. Yet, writing as a woman in the 18th century, a time when men were thought of as having the gifts of logic and reason whereas women were more emotional, we could alternatively interpret this to be a criticism of the patriarchal or masculine world in which Smith found herself — a world which she sees as highly flawed because it is based on false principles and ephemeral truths.
Man is weaker than nature — true to the Romantic nature of the poem, it explores the sense that men are far weaker than nature — our technologies such as ships and lights are far less powerful than the vast blackness of the sand and the sea, as well as the waves which ‘roar’ as they crash against the cliffs. There is a sense that humans should always stay humble and never forget that no matter how advanced we become, nature will always be far more vast and powerful than we could ever fully comprehend. Many writers at this time, Smith included, view nature as an expression of God’s work on earth, and so from their perspective to respect and be humbled by nature is also a way of respecting and being humbled by the higher power that created it, whose powers they view as far stronger than our own. There is also a sense of brutality and indifference of nature, and by extension the God that created it: Smith feels that nature does not care whether individual humans live or die — the metaphor of the ‘fairy fires’ references an old folk tale about will-o-wisps, gases that light up on marshes at night and seem to be comforting flames but actually lure wanderers to their doom, off the clear and stable paths into the bogs, where they become stuck or drown.
Fate — the poem has a very deterministic attitude to it, as it suggests that free will is a fake human construction that never truly works. In Smith’s opinion, if we accept our fate and allow ourselves to be governed by a higher power, or to just accept the chaos of the world that we are placed into, then we are at least working more in harmony with nature, rather than against it. Smith has quite a misanthropic perspective (she distrusts humans and their cognitive abilities), and so she feels that our ability to use reason is ‘wavering’ — it’s inconsistent and not always true, and therefore we should not rely upon our own mental powers to decide how to be and what to do in life, instead leaving this to fate.
Life is a spiritual journey — The concrete noun ‘pilgrim’ has connotations of religiosity as pilgrims travel on spiritual journeys. By implying that humans are pilgrims, Smith suggests that we are all on a spiritual journey through life, and that the purpose of our lives is to arrive at a spiritual destination (in her opinion, heaven). Therefore, these smaller ‘fires’ that are short-lived insights which lead us astray are to be avoided, because they distract us from achieving our higher spiritual purpose.
- Charlotte Smith was born on 4th May 1749, she died on the 28th of October 1806. This poem was written between 1798 and 1800.
- Smith led a very tragic life — she was born into a wealthy family and received a good education, but her mother died while she was young and her father was bad with money. She was forced to marry Benjamin Smith, a merchant’s son who was unfaithful to her and wasteful with money, unable to support her and their children properly. Smith described herself as a ‘legal prostitute’ because she had been essentially sold to her husband to fuel her father’s spending habits. Her husband spent time in debtors prison, and she moved in with him there — writing her first notable poems in that environment, she published them in a collection called ‘Elegiac sonnets’, which was popular and made enough money to get them out of prison. She eventually left her husband and turned to writing as a way to make money.
- Romantic literature started in the late 1700s as a response to the strict Puritanical religious society that oppressed people’s strong feelings and prevented them from enjoying life — Romantics believed that feeling intense awe and respect for the beauty of nature was a way to enjoy God’s work on earth — they write about the powerful and sublime aspects of nature, but also its destructiveness and potential danger.
- Romantic sonnet — Smith’s poem is a Romantic sonnet, which deals with typically Romantic themes such as the power of nature and the sublime, the awe that we feel when faced with the beauty of nature’s raw strength and brutality. Sonnets are usually love poems, but Smith refashioned and somewhat re-popularised the form by writing ‘Elegiac Sonnets’, which are about other strong emotions and conditions such as tragedy and death.
- Gothic — the Gothic genre came after Smith, but she was a writer that heavily influenced its development and inspired the genre to be created. Gothic literature consists of explorations of the supernatural and the struggle of good vs evil, interest in ghosts, darkness, spirituality, ruins, decay, and thematic tensions, all of which can be seen in Smith’s own works.
- Darkness — spiritual and physical
- The Sublime
- Logic Vs Emotion
- Spirituality / Religion
- Human nature
POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS
How does the poem present the poet’s feelings about nature?
Discuss Smith’s exploration of spirituality throughout the poem.
In what ways does Smith use darkness as a metaphor in the poem?
Explore the ways in which Smith vividly conveys the image of the port.
How does Smith movingly capture a moment in time in ‘Written Near A Port’?
EXAMPLE ESSAY PLANS
How does the poem present the poet’s’ feelings about nature?
The poet presents her Romantic feelings about nature, which shows it to be beautiful yet dangerous, by exploring, the power of the sea, the danger of the darkness and the trickery of the fairy fires. This is all accomplished by her exploring the beauty in Nature as God created it, highlighting her Romantic beliefs.
P1- Power of the sea- very strong, crashing into rocks (there is a roar which has connotations of a lion, strong and powerful) “repercussive roar/ of the drowsy billows”
P2- Isolation of the ship)- Nature can be a dangerous place when you’re on your own. The pitch black area adds fear, black has connotations of the unknown. The world can be a dark place, as the poet knows — having been to jail and a prostitute. “Still more distant tone” or “All is black shadow”
P3- The trickery of the fairy fires- explores how humans can be deceived by light, thinking that there is god where the light is. The appreciation for the light is shown, yet also that one must be careful and not be too greedy of the light or you could be harmed, e.g. following the lights at sea and then drowning. “such the dubious ray”. The rhyming couplet in the last two lines furthermore shows the danger of the fairy fires by highlighting it in a single couplet. The rhyme also connects the two images together through sound.
How does Smith movingly capture a moment in time in ‘Written Near A Port’?
Smith depicts a vivid impression of the speaker sitting, passively observing a seascape in her Romantic sonnet ‘Lines Written Near a Port on a Dark evening’. She establishes a sense of the dark, brooding atmosphere of the port through the depiction of setting, as well as a sense of the fragility of human life through the characterisation of the sailors. Overall, through the volta in the second stanza the poem becomes more philosophical in tone, meaning that it not only captures a moment in time but also applies to life and humanity in general.
P1 > setting
Title of the poem sets the image and moment in time, detailed visual imagery sets the scene and demonstrates the setting
P2 > characterisation
Depiction of humans working on ships contrasts to the poet’s state as a passive observer in the scene
P3 > sense of spirituality
Philosophical ending makes the moment apply outside of time — captures more a feeling or realisation that she had at the time
Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at our full CIE poetry courses and English Literature help here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses