"Among the Rocks" begins with a flash of simple pleasure. On a bright "autumn morning" on a rocky coast, the poem's speaker hails the "good gigantic smile of the brown old earth."
Linger for a moment over the adjectives in the first line. The earth's smile, to this speaker, feels purely "good"—not glorious or magnificent or splendid, just good. But that simple goodness is in its way overwhelming, "gigantic." The earth's happiness is straightforward, plain, and fabulously big; its great smile sweeps the speaker up.
Listen, too, to the order of the adjectives in "brown old earth." "Old brown earth" would be the more standard way to phrase this in English (where, in a phenomenon known as the Royal Order of Adjectives, adjectives almost always fall into the same sequence, with adjectives describing age preceding adjectives describing color). By putting "brown" before "old," old Browning paints a picture of an earth that is primarily old: its brownness is secondary to its fundamental ancientness. This is far from the first time the earth has sat and smiled.
The smiling earth, the speaker observes, is thoroughly enjoying itself. Personified, he becomes something like an old sailor relaxing on the shore: he "sets his bones / To bask i' the sun" and "thrusts out knees and feet" into the soft "ripple" of the breakers against the shore. The water is enjoying itself, too; its sounds strike the speaker as "mirth," joyful laughter. The imagery here conjures a bright, warm, clear day—and a living world. The knobbly bones of lean, weather-beaten Old Man Earth are also the brown rocks of the cliffside.
Something about the world on this autumn morning, then, makes the speaker feel accompanied. She takes pleasure in the earth's pleasure; its smile becomes her own. Even the rhythm of the lines here suggests energetic delight. While the poem is mostly written in iambic pentameter—that is, lines of five iambs, metrical feet with a da-DUM rhythm—this first line uses some rambling, earthy variations:
Oh, good | gigan- | tic smile | of the brown | old earth
The extra unstressed syllable in “of the brown” gives the line a pebbly, irregular texture, and the three energetic stresses of "brown old earth" feel as grand as that "gigantic smile." (It's also possible to read the last foot here as a classic iamb, "old earth," da-DUM—but a one-two-three punch of "brown old earth" feels in keeping with the elation in these first words.)
Alert readers might notice that we're calling the speaker "she" in this guide, though she doesn't give any clue to her identity in this poem. That's because "Among the Rocks" is one segment of a longer sequence of nine poems called "James Lee's Wife." In this long dramatic monologue, the titular wife—who never gets a name of her own—tracks the slow, sad decline of her marriage to a man whom she loves more than he loves her.
"Among the Rocks" isn’t her first visit to the seacoast. Other poems follow her as she wanders "Along the Beach" and "On the Cliff," fretting about the inconstancy of love. In this, the seventh and shortest poem of the series, she'll face her pain, drawing courage, conviction, and hope from the smiling, ancient earth.