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Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore by Charlotte


Emma Baldwin September 3,


‘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

Lines 1-8
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

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.

Related poetry: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland.. by Charlotte Smith

Lines 9-14

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

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.

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