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Featured Poem: Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore by Charlotte Smith

Written by Rachael Norris, 19th November 2019

This week's Featured Poem is Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore by Charlotte Smith, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader, Tom Young.

This is one of those where at the end of the first reading I want to go back to the top and start again straight away. The last line and a half throw a whole heap of meaning back on the rest of th, so I want to read it again with this in mind. I reread, this time thinking about the ‘dubious ray’ of reason, and ‘life’s long darkling way’.

I like the ‘repercussive roar’. I notice how much of the poem is about sound and not sight, and think about how much we crave the reassurance of the latter. I try to put myself in this place and remember the times I’ve experienced real darkness. I think of straining hard to make out landmarks and finding that no amount of effort really makes a difference. Is this what it’s like to follow ‘wavering reason’ over 'rocks remote'?

I don’t think you need a dictionary at hand (unknown words are prompts to slow down and think carefully) but sometimes it’s useful in deepening meanings. There are quite a few unfamiliar words here. I think I can work most of them out, but I look up ‘clifted’ (‘broken, fissured’), because I’m least sure about it, and ‘darkling’, because it seems important to make more out of the poem.

For ‘darkling’ I get ‘growing dark or characterized by darkness’, which is roughly what I would have guessed. But, on reflection, this offers two quite different ways of thinking about ‘life’s long… way’. Do we live our whole lives in the dark, or do we start in a light that gets darker all the time? And with that another door opens in the poem.


Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore

Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night o'er 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
Mislead the pilgrim; such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends, in life's long darkling way.

by Charlotte Smith


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