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Porphyria's Lover - Poetry Friday

Good day, and welcome to a very early Poetry Friday post. It's early on account of my in-progress travels to South Carolina for my cousin's kid's wedding.

Today's selection is a fairly macabre poem by Robert Browning. I once posted his creepy poem, The Last Duchess, here. This poem is even darker and twistier than "The Last Duchess," in my opinion.

Porphyria's Lover
by Robert Browning

The rain set early in to-night,
  The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
  And did its worst to vex the lake:
  I listen'd with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
  She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel'd 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 soil'd gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
  And, last, she sat down by my side
  And call'd 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 endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
  From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
  And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
  Nor could to-night'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 look'd up at her eyes
  Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipp'd 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
  Laugh'd the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untighten'd next the tress
  About her neck; her cheek once more
Blush'd bright beneath my burning kiss:
  I propp'd 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 scorn'd at once is fled,
  And I, its love, am gain'd instead!
Porphyria's love: she guess'd not how
  Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
  And all night long we have not stirr'd,
  And yet God has not said a word!

First and foremost, one must wonder what Robert Browning's real-life lady love, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, thought about this poem, in which an obsessed male lover kills his beloved in order to keep his love always with him. After all, the Brownings thwarted Elizabeth's father's wishes and eloped in order to be together. This was one of Robert Browning's earliest dramatic monologues, dating from 1836.

Second, a word about form. This poem follows a slightly off-kilter rhyme scheme: ABABB. It's not actually a completely wacked-out form, but it is less regular than the rhymed couplets Browning used in "My Last Duchess" or the more usual ABAB form.

Third, let's talk about the poem itself. The poem is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is not Browning, but is some other guy he invented. The poem opens on a typical pastoral scene: inside a rustic cottage during a storm. But the poem quickly moves into a darker, twistier Victorian scene, when the lovely Porphyria comes in, fixes the fire, and confesses her love (while admitting that she's facing social pressures over the speaker due to concerns about class, etc.). In this poem, as in others by Browning, love and sex and violence merge together, in an attempt to shock readers out of their Victorian complaisance. What he seems to ask, in all but words, is which is worse: Victorian prudishness or people who choose to live outside the societal norms? Porphyria's sneaking away to meet her clandestine lover is depicted glowingly, as something natrual and lovely and good. The insane lover is driven to act as he did in order to preserve the moment, knowing that Victorian society would intervene to crush the relationship. It doesn't excuse the maddened monologuist, but it does at least in part explain his choices.

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( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 11th, 2008 06:03 am (UTC)
Hmm. I'd take being an outcast over being dead. Poor Phyria.

I'm in with "Sleep in the Mojave Desert" by Sylvia Plath. (I drove through the Mojave on Tuesday, and still feel a little thirsty.)
Jul. 11th, 2008 11:51 am (UTC)
I'm a dolt. I'm hosting next week. The roundup is at Lisa Chellman's blog. Thank heavens Tricia sorted me out.
Jul. 11th, 2008 10:53 am (UTC)
With examples like this, is it any wonder I find a lot of love poetry icky! (Very scholarly word, that!)

Anyway, I'm in with Ogden Nash this week - a first for me...

Michele (Scholar's Blog)
Jul. 11th, 2008 11:51 am (UTC)
"Icky" is quite appropriate. Although I'm not certain this qualifies as a love poem, exactly. It's more like an icky poem that happened to mention love than otherwise.
Jul. 11th, 2008 11:36 am (UTC)
I came by earlier to leave a post, and when I saw I was first (yeah, like that will ever happen!), I knew something was amiss. The round up today is at Lisa Chellman's blog. You, my dear princess, are up for next week. Since you're away today, maybe this is better?

Hope it's a good day.
Jul. 11th, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)
Thank heavens. I shall edit my post thusly.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 14th, 2008 01:13 pm (UTC)
Not familiar with that one, but it sounds eerie anyhow. I'm picturing that guy who lived for years and years in a house with his dead wife (she was essentially mummified).
Jul. 11th, 2008 02:11 pm (UTC)
This is creepy but excellent! Browning certainly knows how to capture a rapt audience.
Jul. 14th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
So true.
Jul. 11th, 2008 03:07 pm (UTC)
I laughed when I saw this post - this is actually one of my favorite poems, so I guess that makes me pretty morbid. I first read it in high school, and was so taken with it, that I based the only play I've ever written on it. (horribly written and should never see the light of day again, but it was my first attempt at writing something larger than an essay)
Beyond the morbidity, the poem reminds me of taking a picture at the very moment when everyone is grouped together, smiling at the camera. The narator has this moment in time when he feels the love of this woman. He takes it, and keeps it. Of course, a photograph would have been better than strangling her, but then it wouldn't have been nearly as powerful a poem.
Jul. 14th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
Plus, photography didn't exist when he wrote the poem. Hence the strangulation?
Jul. 14th, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)
Hmmm... Well, a painting's worth a thousand words?

Actually, I found a photo of Browning, but I don't know if he would have had access to a camera when he was writing this one.
Jul. 16th, 2008 02:15 am (UTC)
He wrote it in 1836, I think. That photo is from much later in the 1800s.
Jul. 11th, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC)
Good heavens, that's dark! I totally didn't see where that was going, until... wow. Also, I only knew of porphyria the disease; I never knew it was a name as well!
Jul. 14th, 2008 01:17 pm (UTC)
I actually double-checked about porphyria the disease, since I know it can make people crazy & irrational (they think it's what King George III had). It has something to do with blueness in the blood and other body fluids, too. I suppose poor Porphyria turned a bit blue after being choked with her braid? (Also, now I wonder if porphyria the disease is linked with the word "blue blood", since it ran through some aristocratic families.)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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