‘Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore‘ by Charlotte Smith is a Shakespearean sonnet that follows the rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg.
While rarely mentioned now, at the time of her death Charlotte Smith served as the inspiration for many poets that followed, such as Wordworth, Coleridge, and Jane Austen.
Summary of Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore
“Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore” by Charlotte Smith describes a brooding storm, the darkness it casts, and the lighted paths of life one might choose to follow.
The speaker begins this piece by describing a storm that has come in “above the lifted shore.” The storm is dense, dark, and “mute.” It has a muffling impact on the surrounding lands and people. There are only a few sounds that are able to get through and the loudest comes from the storm itself. The “repercussive roar” of thunder breaks the silence, as does the sound of “foot” falls on “rocks remote” and the yelling of sailors at sea. Additionally, the sound of men working the clocktower in town perseveres. These sounds are heard under the worst of circumstances. Although all should be consumed, still life goes on.
In the second half of the sonnet the speaker states that there are two lighted paths in the darkness that are visible. The first is created by the white surf of the beach. It runs parallel to the water and is a safe guide for one to follow. The second, is more dangerous. It is the path created by the lights of ships on the water. If one was to follow these lights, they would surely drown. By contrasting these two situations the speaker is able to depict how in darkness one still has the ability to succeed. But, there is also a chance of failure or death. All is not lost, but the situation is no less dangerous.
Analysis of 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 reliev’d; or one deep voice alone
Singing the hour, and bidding “strike the bell.”
The title of this piece was chosen, as was common during this time, from the first line of the poem. The first line, in-tandem with the title, vibrantly describe the weather over a “clifted shore.” The sky above the water, and land, is covered in vapors of clouds. These are dense, and appear “brooding.” It is likely that they are dark, and perhaps intimidating in their mass. This assumption is supported by the second line in which it become clear that it is “Night.” The darkness of the nighttime hours is setting over the ocean. It makes the whole world feel, “dark and mute.” It is as if the clouds have dampened the landscape and pushed back it’s colors and light.
The speaker continues on to state that there are some areas that are not quite so quiet. These places are filled with the “repercussive roar” of thunder. The “billows,” or masses of clouds, are “drowsy” in their noise. It does not take any effort to produce the sound, but that does not make it any less impressive.
Other areas also exist where sound can be heard, or movement observed. These include anywhere that the “rugged” fall of foot steps echoes out from “rocks remote.” Those who are still outside at this time seem to cast their sound louder and farther than they would at any other time of day. The circumstances of the night are enhancing the natural sounds of this world.
Finally, the speaker adds two more sounds, “the anchored bark,” of a sailor at sea. This sound is very distant, but the narrator is able to make out the command, “The watch [is] reliev’d.” Men are going about their lives as normal; oblivious, or perhaps tuned to, the changes in the weather and forbidding “vapours” that are “brood[ing]” overhead.
The last sound is that of “one deep voice” that sings out “the hour.” These sounds come from the clock tower in town. The operators of the structure can be heard speaking to one another, and above all, the bell can be heard ringing. This once more signals that while the weather is remarkably intense, people are carrying on as they always do.
All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Mark’d 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.
In the second half of the sonnet the speaker goes back to describing what the clouds have done to the landscape. The whole environment the narrator is observing has been cast in “black shadow,” but the darkness is not all encompassing. There are points of life in the world that stand out against the heavy dark clouds.
The speaker lists two examples of this persevering light. She mentions the “light surf” of the water, where it touches “the level sand.” It creates a “lucid line” that runs, penetratingly, through the darkness. This is a straight, and consistent path. The one which can, and should be followed.
In contrast, the speaker describes the light of the ships far off in the distance. Although this light is dim, it is not irrelevant. The faint lights shine like “fairy fires.” They are given an air of magic, and power, that is able to break through the night. These lights, while beautiful, are not to be trusted. If one was to follow a ship-light from shore, they would end up in the sea. They are compared to the “fairy fires, that oft on land / Mislead the pilgrim,” following one would be a mistake. They are “dubious” in their providence and destination.
The speaker is hoping to portray the different paths that one might take in life, and the ways in which darkness might be penetrated, even when the clouds are “Huge” and brooding. This second choice of path, that of the “ship-lights,” is only followed by those with “wavering reason.” No one in their right mind would choose to go this way and traverse the path of “life’s long darkling way.” There are better destinations to strive for, and ways to get there.
About Charlotte Smith
Charlotte Smith was born in London, England in May of 1749, to a fairly prosperous family. Her father spent Charlotte’s early life gambling away their fortune and Smith was made to marry a rich, slave trader by the name of Benjamin Smith. Years into their marriage, Benjamin was imprisoned for debt, and in an attempt to flee prosecution, moved to France. She was forced to follow, along with her nine children.
In an effort to separate herself from him, she left her husband, moved back to England, and supported her children through writing. In total she wrote over sixty volumes which included novels, poetry, and stories for children. Her writing is notable for the way that it reflected the losses she faced in life, and the general troubles of her time. Although she was able to support her children, she struggled with poverty all throughout her life. She died in 1806 while attempting to gain money owed to her.
Her legal and financial struggles became the inspiration for the lengthy Chancery suit in Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House.