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Porphyria's Lover -- Robert Browning

A Halloween guest poem sent in by David Wright
(Poem #1109) Porphyria's Lover
 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 l 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!
-- Robert Browning
    This early dramatic monologue by Robert Browning is just such a ghastly
delight!  It has few of the subtleties of the later monologues, and the
macabre melodrama of it really runs the risk of becoming comic at one or two
points, but even some of this is intentional, I think.  (The pathetic little
clarifying aside "Only, this time my shoulder bore Her head", for instance -
the matter-of-factness of that detail and the narrator’s attention to it
just thrusts his madness fully home.)

    Of course the main treat, or trick, for readers new to this poem is that
shocking change of direction, such a violent swerve in the middle of the
poem.  Compare to the line in ‘My Last Duchess’ - "This grew; I gave
commands; Then all smiles stopped together." So much more left to the
imagination in that, and a much more chilling poem.

    Still, I love this earlier poem, with its sensationalistic gothic
effect, its enthusiasm for the perverse.  And Browning’s great skill, even
here, with the narrative voice - the natural flow of thought and direction
of attention over the line-breaks, that enjoyable Browning tension between
the rigorous structure and the conversational voice.  The prevalent pathetic
fallacy in which the narrator's feelings completely color everything he
views.  The narrator's methodical progress in telling the story, his
defensiveness about disputable points ('No pain felt she, I am quite sure
she felt no pain.') his desperate attempt to justify, to explain the
rightness of what he has done, even going so far as to impute thoughts to
the lolling head of his corpse-lover, I suppose the ultimate fulfillment for
a control-freak.

    But then the crack in the narrator's facade - that last line, which just
looms out of the chasm, and goes echoing around the empty heavens of this
irredeemable sinner’s lost world - the worst horror of all: that the
narrator may indeed have a conscience somewhere that appreciates his act.
Strong echoes of Othello, and you know the narrator will hurl himself from
some precipice or overdose on some opiate, or worse - wind up a raver in
Bedlam.  Shiver!

David Wright
Seattle Public Library

51 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

foshea said...

Thank you for this and for the analysis. I have a recording of James
Mason reading this poem. If you remember Mason - the calm, imperturbable
voice (Boys from Brazil, and also one of the Bond films, I think) you
may appreciate the sinister way he can read it. He also reads My Last
Duchess on the same recording. Shiver down the spine stuff.

Funny that if this was a Poe poem, people would say it was no more than
what would be expected. But what is it in Browning that we forgive him?
Perhaps that he rescued and married the seriously hypocondriacal
Elizabeth Barrett?

Frank O'Shea

Lise Legault said...

Poe wrote in a single voice, so it's easier for people to identify him
with his poems.

Browning wrote in so many that this kind of confusion is more difficult.
Still, I imagine that somewhere, someone has done so.

Nick Hornback said...

This isn't an original poem. At least I don't think
so. It's a song by the band Ater Draconis.

Mike Lord said...

I seem to remember from my college days that there was some controversy in "Pippa's Song" with the last lines about "God in His heaven," and all being right with the world. It just sounds so saccharine that perhaps the final line here is an expurgation of that sin. That not only is all not "right with the world" but just maybe there is no One there to protest. Browning is without match the master of the soul-less psychopath as evidenced here and in "My Last Duchess." I would love to hear these poems read aloud; if anyone knows where a fine recording may be found please let me know.

JDiPersio03 said...

This isn't an original poem. At least I don't think
so. It's a song by the band Ater Draconis.

what song is that?

CHRISTOP HUGHES said...

Do you know where I can get a copy of My Last Duchess and Other Poems read by James Mason on CD.

Chris Hughes

Ankita Patel said...

the plot of the poem is very much ghastly.

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