February 2011

February’s Random Literary Thought

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!

Maybe because it’s February…

This month I want to write about a poem (though it is formally considered a dramatic monologue) that’s the antithesis of all the super romantic poems that are frantically being memorized in order to be recited at millions of Valentine’s Day dinners nationwide.

Anywho, as I was thinking of a paper I had to write for my Reading Prose class, I thought back to some of the material I read when I took Reading Poetry last spring quarter. One poem that has always stuck in the back of my head (because of its sheer creepiness) is “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning. It’s one of those types of poems that start out seemingly innocent and cute. I mean look, sweet little Porphyria walks into the quaint cottage that she shares with her lover for their secret trysts and lights a fire for them. She tries to bring a bit of homey ambiance to the cottage to counteract the storm that’s taking place outside, but then, the tone of the poem changes.

The narrator, Porphyria’s presumed lover, ignores her advances and as the poem progresses, he really hits on a “if I can’t have her, no one can” complex. A sentiment that is loosely alluded to in the lines: “…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.” Another reading suggest that “The persona [narrator] wishes to stop time at a single perfect moment and so [he] kills his lover and sits all night embracing her carefully arranged body” or that “he seems convinced that Porphyria want[s] to be murdered”1 In the end, not only does he murder her but he does so by strangling her with her own blonde hair! It’s such a poetic and tragic way to die, by way of her own beauty.

So actually, it seems I’ve made a mistake.

“Porphyria’s Lover” is really a very romantic poem. Just not in the conventional sense. The poem utilizes gothic undertones (this poem was originally published with another monologue under the title Madhouse Cells, which indicated the speaker’s abnormal state of mind) to explicitly illustrate the twisted love affair. In fact, the word “prophyria’ itself is the name of a disease; symptoms ironically include delusions, madness and then, eventually, death. Some scholars have suggested that the lover Porphyria then represents “a disease and that the persona’s killing of her is a sign of his recovery” 1 Either way, the poem is written in such a way that conveys the delusion the narrator suffered from; especially in the way he viewed his relationship with Porphyria.

So, though I’m pretty sure the bulk of those recited Valentine Day’s poems are going to belong to Sir William Shakespeare (because no girl can resist a heroic rhyming couplet), would it be disturbing to say that “Porphyria’s Lover” is a poem that should be included in the list of poems to be memorized? Besides the fact that the narrator is insane, the poem does, after all, exemplify a man loving a woman till death and not even death being able to keep them apart. Right?

1 “Prophyria’s Lover”

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