Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning

So, yesterday's poetry post gave you a two-for-the-price-of-one sort of deal, with "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe and "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" by Sir Walter Raleigh. Rather than seizing on the idea of poetic conversation, I decided to go back to the poems and look at what they're talking about: passionate love, and whether or not it can be trusted. And that notion of theme put me in mind of a dark, dark tale in the form of a poetic monologue penned by Robert Browning.

Porphyria's Lover
by Robert Browning

The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!


Analysis: The poem is 60 lines long, and is written as a single, long stanza although it is, in fact, 12 5-line stanzas if one judges by the rhyme scheme: ABABB CDCDD (etc.) The poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and it is a first-person narrative sharing a horrific story, indeed.

The speaker, who is madly in love with Porphyria, tells the tale of a rainy night, when his lady love came to his cottage, kindled his fire (actual and otherwise), then told him she loved him. Realizing that he does not actually deserve her (due to financial inequities - she comes from money, you see, and he lives in a cottage, and therefore does not), and perhaps concerned that the world will intervene, the speaker throttles Porphyria with her own hair, then sits there, embracing her, for quite some time later.

This poem was written just before the start of Queen Victoria's rule, as societal standards were shifting towards repressiveness (and particularly towards repression with respect to female sexuality) but not in the heydey of Victorian principles, which didn't occur until much later in the century. Porphyria is the disease which is believed to have caused the madness of King George III and of Vincent Van Gogh — symptoms include hallucination, paranoia, depression and more — and yet, Browning would have known none of that when he crafted his poem about a man in love with with a woman named Porphyria, which manages to equate love and madness.

As with Browning's later poem, "My Last Duchess", about which I put up a pretty great post once, if I do say so myself, one might question where Browning's thoughts lay on the matter of sexual repression in general, and fear of feminine sexuality in particular. I don't know the answer, but it's pretty clear that this poem, like "My Last Duchess", is intensely psychological. Where "My Last Duchess" depicts the Duke's efforts to control his wife and what can be viewed as her sexual conduct (or, if the Duke is to be believed — and it seems as if he is not — her sexual misconduct), even if only smiles and blushes are mentioned, "Porphyria's Lover" tackles similar themes of feeling threatened by a woman and trying to control her. The speaker in this poem is threatened by her position in society, perhaps, or maybe he's just operating out of a place of personal insecurity; his strangulation of his beloved to ensure her "eternal love" is decidedly controlling (in a crazy-ass way, but still).

I should note that some folks hold the theory that Porphyria is not actually dead, but has merely participated in erotic asphyxiation; that particular interpretation makes the poem kinky instead of creepy, but my money's on creepy, particularly in light of the later poem, "My Last Duchess", which definitely involved craziness and murder.

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