A Sea-side Walk

Table of contents

1. A Sea-side Walka

We walked beside the sea
After a day which perished silently
Of its own glory—like the princess weird
Who, combating the Genius, scorched and seared,
Uttered with burning breath, “Ho! victory!”
And sank adown6 an heap of ashes pale.
So runs the Arab tale. 7
The sky above us showed
A universal and unmoving cloud
On which the cliffs permitted us to see
Only the outline of their majesty,
As master-minds when gazed at by the crowd!
And, shining with a gloom, the water grey
Swang 14 in its moon-taught way.
Nor moon, nor stars were out.
They did not dare to tread so soon about,
Though trembling, in the footsteps of the sun,
The light was neither night’s nor day’s, but one
Which, life-like, had a beauty in its doubt.
And Silence’s impassioned breathings round
Seemed wandering into sound.
O solemn-beating heart
Of nature! I have knowledge that thou art
Bound unto man’s by cords he cannot sever—
And, what time they are slackened by him ever,
So to attest his own supernal 26part,
Still runneth thy vibration fast and strong
The slackened cord along.
For though we never spoke
Of the grey water and the shaded rock,
Dark wave and stone unconsciously were fused
Into the plaintive speaking that we used
Of absent friends and memories unforsook;
And, had we seen each other’s face, we had
Seen haply,35 each was sad.

2. Note on the text

First published in The Athenaeum (2 July 1836), and collected in The Seraphim, and Other Poems, this poem’s quietly beautiful evocation of a sea-side sunset contrasts with the sublime imagery conspicuous in “A Sea-Side Meditation” published in EBB’s Prometheus Bound, . . . with Other Poems (1833). The fusion of thought and nature in the liminal twilight setting of “A Sea-Side Walk” looks back to Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, and forward to the interpenetration of sound, image, sea, and words in American poet Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1936). The work it most directly echoes, however, is Letitia Landon’s “Night at Sea” (1839), with its similar setting and its repeated invocation of “absent friends.” Mermin judges this descriptive-meditative lyric “the best nature poem Elizabeth Barrett ever wrote” (1989, 67). For discussion of the poem in the context of the Romantic opposition between the sublime and the beautiful, see the “Introduction” to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Selected Critical Edition (Broadview Press). For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 2, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson, Volume Editors Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

When republished in The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838), this poem was entitled “The Sea-Side Walk.” A signed fair copy manuscript is dated 17 August 1835, when EBB was living in Sidmouth. The epigraph, “If these doe so, can I have feeling lesse?-- Brittania’s Pastorals,” taken from a work by William Browne (1591-1643), was deleted in the 1850 Printer’s Copy.

adown down (archaic).

Arab tale alludes to an incident in “The Story of the Envious Man” in the Arabian Nights. The Sultan’s daughter, named “Queen of Beauty,” uses her secret knowledge and magical powers to reduce a wicked genius to a “heap of ashes” and to turn a prince who has been transformed into a monkey back into a man. She cries “Victory!” but because she fails to eat a pomegranate seed, she too is consumed by flames. Mourned by her nation, she is buried in a splendid tomb.

Swang swung (archaic).

supernal heavenly or divine.

haply perhaps.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 28-Feb-2009
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