It’s the turn of Mr Browning this week, with a poem that is quite a bit different than that of his wife, Elizabeth. Porphyria’s Lover is no I think of Thee! And talk about love gone wrong. Even Byron’s bitter misery of When We Two Parted has nothing on this twisted love story.
If you ever thought that Psycho was slightly demented, keeping the corpse of his mother around the place, Porphyria’s Lover is not much different. It’s a very interesting poem, not least because of the questions it poses about the context and how audiences would have reacted to it.
Most simply, the poem is a narrative that recounts the night a young girl comes to light up a man’s life, he strangles her and sits with her corpse the whole night. It’s one of his darker monologues, but Robert Browning is the master of the macabre monologue. Whether it’s psychopathic husbands, women who want to poison their lover or men sitting with their dead girlfriend’s corpses waiting for God’s judgement, there’s something for every Gothic taste.
The poem was first published in 1836, making Browning a maximum of 24 years old. It was some nine years before he would meet Elizabeth. Browning is often heralded as a Victorian poet, with Victorian sensibilities, but the “Victorian Morality” was yet to come to life. In reality, Browning sits between the Romantic and the Victorian at this point, and the poem has elements of both.
So what does Romantic mean? This is Romantic with a capital R. Not poems about love. Well, maybe, but that’s not what the word means when we use it to write about poetry. There have been big movements in poetry. The Pastoral painted a picture of a rural life, an idyll free from the constraints of civilisation. The Metaphysical poets tackled God and Angels, and all those big questions about life, religion and love. The Romantics picked up the Pastoral baton and wrote about nature, feelings, those overwhelming feelings that burst forth from you and cause a poem to be written. And the Victorians put paid to all of that with moral ditties about the dangers of women, sex and anything remotely immoral. So this poem, in 1836, falls neatly between the two. Perhaps it is the spontaneous outburst of emotion – and there are certainly lots of Romantic features in the images, which we’ll explore later, but you can also read it as a poem that is overshadowed by Victorian sensibilities and the dangers of lust. If you felt like it. Plus, it has a great and epic question about God. Where is he in all of this?
Let’s explore it a little further.
First, we notice the form of the poem. It’s a dramatic monologue. That’s a marriage of drama and poetry for a start. It reads like a man on stage narrating events, albeit a man on a stage narrating events while his dead girlfriend sits next to him looking at us all. The drama part reminds us that this person is a character, a persona, rather than Robert Browning himself. This isn’t autobiographical (well, let’s hope) and in that way it breaks with the form of many of the other poems in the anthology. In that it is not based on personal events, it is different. It allows Browning to adopt a persona in order to explore the darker sides of love. Much of the poem’s success rests on how he creates this persona, which we’ll explore more thoroughly in exploring the language.
And for that we also pick up on another theme: the Gothic. The Gothic had hit its heights around the 1790s and runs vaguely in parallel with the Romantic. These are runaway thoughts gone mad. Horror, death, insanity, immorality, the unnatural… the Gothic explores all of these. Keats, one of Browning’s Romantic predecessors, wrote a few, including Lamia, The Eve of St Agnes and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Coleridge’s creepy Rime of the Ancient Mariner picks up on weird supernatural elements within a story, just as Browning’s poem does. The point is that Browning was in good company with texts about all that is weird and dark and creepy.
The poem is also a narrative – the persona narrates a story. In that way, it is also different than many of the other anthology poems.
What we don’t have is an audience. There’s no sense of anyone on the ‘other side’ of the poem. It is not addressed to a specific reader and we feel very much that we are eavesdropping on a man, we are his captive audience. Whether or not he is even conscious of us is a question we cannot answer. This is a man speaking without any real sense of anyone listening. That in itself is also different than many of the other poems in the selection. It is worthy of comparison to explore how other poets create an individual voice, albeit their own, and Browning creates something that is much more constructed and much less ‘him’.
When we come to analyse the structure, we find it to be sixty lines of mainly narrative past-tense story-telling that comes to the present tense in the last three lines. That shift to the present tense, with “thus we sit” is particularly powerful at giving the poem both a timelessness (it’s happening now whenever that might be) and yet also a sense of immediacy. It is happening right now and there is not usually the same sense of reflection when we write in the present tense. Indeed, the last line contains the idea of reflection, when he says, “And yet God has not said a word” though it is an event (or non-event). The last line allows us to reflect on the significance of this: the character has done something deeply immoral and yet he has received no judgement, no punishment, no divine retribution. It is a fabulous line because it just makes us really think about how and when evil-doers are punished. We’ll talk more about this line later, but it’s a hell of an ending point. It really provides a springboard into some quite complex theological argument. Is there a God? If there is a God, how can he allow this to happen? He is supposed to see everything, and yet he seems to have missed this. Or, if he has seen it, can he do nothing about it? He, in that case, cannot be the all-powerful deity we believe him to be. Those are some massive theological questions it finishes with. What a way to end.
The beginning is very much given to scene description, which we will explore in more detail when we discuss language and imagery, and from Line 6 onwards, we have the story and some commentary from the persona about his state of mind at each point. We have no idea when the poem starts in this way that it will go on to reveal such horrors. It’s a very “Romantic” scene: Wordsworth’s natural scenes with cottages and all this pathetic fallacy is very much in keeping with the Romantic poets.
The other thing to notice about the structure is that it has indentations every so often. The pattern of these is very regular. Line 1 is to the left, Line 2 is indented, Line 3 is to the left, Line 4 and 5 are indented, and thus it repeats every five lines. It forms quintains of a sort, not unlike Coleridge’s creepy gothic masterpiece, Rime of the Ancient Mariner and like Shelley’s Ode To A Skylark. With its ABABB rhyme scheme, it’s an English quintain, just not set out in blocks.
They don’t make verses though. You can’t put line breaks every five lines: it doesn’t make sense. What does happen is that lines 2, 4 and 5 rhyme, with “awake, lake, break”, and lines 1 and 3 rhyme, with “to-night, spite”. This creates a very measured rhyme scheme. It’s ordered, symmetrical, unchaotic. We’re talking a time when poetry rhymed – it just did – people didn’t write unrhyming poems – but even so, it implies to me a sense of calculation, reflection and calm that is at odds with the violent action within. That’s the same with the words. I think this is Browning’s first way of creating a creepy persona: he seems to be very balanced and even despite all of the things that he has done. The syllabic meter is also very regular: the vast majority of lines are 8 syllables, iambic tetrameter, often used in ballads, nursery rhymes and hymns among other things. Where the meter doesn’t fit this pattern, there is nothing unusual or particularly noteworthy about the lines where it changes. Couple the meter and the rhyme and you’ve got something that seems, on the surface, very, very ordinary. Nothing to see here, just a guy and his regular, metered, balanced scansion and rhyme. Move Along. Your question to reflect upon: why has Browning chosen such a form? Because it allows you to focus only on the content? The form is a vehicle for the content, a showcase that is of no particular relevance? Or it’s significant because it’s just so very, very normal? Personally, I’m going with the fact it’s a vehicle for the content, but it certainly adds to the fact that, superficially, there is something very regular and restrained about the poem, which makes the content even more creepy and unexpected. We’re expecting Wordsworth and innocence with the opening, with the cottage, something pastoral and natural, and what we get is… a story of a guy who has killed his girlfriend by strangling her with her own hair.
When we start to get into the language, we’ve got a very atmospheric opening. Here, Browning is using pathetic fallacy to bring the scene to life and give us a sense of foreboding that something is going to happen. Pathetic fallacy is the personification of nature, and we see that very clearly in line two, with the “sullen wind” coming to life. The rain in itself is ominous, but the word “sullen” is very evocative, creating a gloomy, moody wind and a morose and dismal scene. Line three gives us a little more about the wind, how it “tore” the tree-tops “down for spite” which makes it sound malicious and petty. This is a cruel and petulant wind who causes damage for no good reason at all, just because it is frustrated and it can. That continues in line four, with a continuation, as it tries to “vex” the lake, extending this idea of a petty, destructive and cruel creature determined to irritate and annoy those around it for no better reason than it can. “Vex” works on another level as well, just meaning “to stir up” or “toss about” so it works on a literal level with the water of the lake just as it does on a metaphorical level.
In line 5, the main character is introduced and the poem becomes personal with a first-person narrative. We have no idea who this person is. Is it the poet? Is it Porphyria? Is it Porphyria’s Lover. We can only rule out some of these options as the poem develops and we realise it’s a dramatic monologue rather than autobiographical. As for whether it is Porphyria or their lover, we can only guess for now – though our questions are quickly answered in the next line.
The persona in line 5 is moved by the weather, by the wind. Like the Romantics in Wordsworth’s Michael and in The Ruined Cottage, we find a character deeply influenced by his surroundings. The winds have stirred up a passion within him, he has a heart “fit to break”. This, with the weather, creates a gloomy, emotional mood. The wind has stirred up strange passions in his soul.
At this point, Porphyria “glided in”. The verb used to describe her movement suggests that she is light and airy, yet unperturbed by the winds and the rain. She sounds ephemeral and almost ghostly, barely human. Most humans don’t glide. It reminds me a little of the sonnets, where the objects of the poets’ affections often moved in such a way, to evoke angelic movement. Except for Shakespeare’s. She “treads” on the ground. But there’s something that marks her already as something of a goddess, an angel, something not of this earth, just from this verb.
And what does this mysterious woman do? She literallly lights up his life. She shuts “the cold out”, changes his humour. Though she is only warming the room as she lights the fire, we get the sense that she is doing it to the narrator too. Come on baby, light my fire. The fire in our hearts is something of a cheesy cliché these days, but this is what she does. She doesn’t speak, just shuts the storm out and lights the fire. Once again, the lack of speech makes her seem spectral in some ways, not of this earth. This silence is an image that is picked up at the end of the poem.
What follows in lines ten to thirteen is a kind of Victorian striptease. Okay, it’s not very exciting, but she takes her cloak off and her shawl, takes her gloves off and her hat, and lets her hair down. It’s very prophetic, this hair. It becomes the instrument of her death. But she is casting off all of the outside world and becoming herself. When we use the phrase “let your hair down”, we mean to free yourself, to be liberated, to be free from social convention and to be yourself. You’ve all seen the sexy secretary in movies and music videos who unpins her bun and shakes out her locks. This is the same idea. She shakes off society and social convention – to wear your hair up – and she becomes at once relaxed and “herself” again.
This puts the narrator into a kind of trance. She speaks to him, but he does not reply. We get the feeling that it is Porphyria herself who is very much in charge of what is happening and what she is doing. She put his arm about his waist, she presents this bare shoulder to him, encouraging him to put his head on her shoulder. It’s all very flirtatious. And remember, times have very much changed. What we might think of casually provocative would have been incredibly provocative in this age. We’re approaching the age of Queen Victoria where people put skirts on chair legs in case people found a chair leg to be arousing. I’m reminded of the geisha girls of Japan who had only to show the nape of their neck, or a turn of the wrist, to send men into palpitations.
Then she tells the narrator that she loves him. However, she is unable to give in to her passions and we get a sense that her conscience is telling her not to get involved with the narrator. Honestly, it’s a bit hard to know whether she intended only a physical relationship or if she meant marriage or something more moral, but either way, she is “too weak” to set her “struggling passion free”, no matter how much she wanted to. The reasons she gives are “pride” – maybe she is of a higher social class than the man, maybe he is an outcast or a misfit. Either way, she is too proud to give in to her love for him. It also has another little complex bit, “vainer ties dissever”. “Dissever” is simple – it means to sever, to cut, so she can’t cut whatever these “vainer ties” might be and give in to her desire. “Vain” can relate to pride in appearance, which picks up on the “pride” which stops her getting involved, but it also means “trivial” or “pointless”. This, I suspect, is the narrator’s view and his words. It’s his interpretation that what stops her going further is that she is prevented by pride, by social conventions which he finds to be “trivial” or “vain”. There’s no indication that she herself said this to him. It’s just his opinion that she won’t give herself to him because she is too worried about how it will look.
This said, over the next few lines, he comes to realise that Porphyria “worshipped” him, and that it is his choice as to what to do. Should he go further and claim her? From being passive, doing nothing, not even speaking, he is now faced with a conundrum. She has come through “wind and rain” to see him, when he looks at her, he sees that she is “happy and proud”
And although the rhythm and scansion stay the same, there are a series of caesura and enjambment that mess with the natural rhythm:
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell,
Those two semi-colons make the lines fall a little wobbly in terms of how you read them. Not only that, but the scansion is a little different
Be SURE i/ LOOKED up/ AT her EYES/
HAPpy/ and PROUD/; at LAST/ i KNEW/
PorPHYri/a WOR/shipped ME;/ surPRISE
Made MY heart SWELL,
I’m not happy with this scansion, but there is one thing that is true: HAPpy and PROUD changes the rhythm a little. We’ve also got a nine-syllable line with “Porphyria worshipped me; surprise” and just that tiny moment, the rhythm is a little different. Just a tiny little bit. It’s like his heart beat adds a beat and just for one tiny second, there’s a change.
At this moment, when she belongs to him, he “found a thing to do”. The way this sounds doesn’t even make it seem as if he wasn’t even in charge of his thoughts. It sounds very strange. He found a thing to do, and that thing was murder her. Normally, you’d think the choice would be “kiss the girl” or “don’t kiss the girl”, not wrap “all her hair” around “he little throat”.
So we then are forced to ask ourselves why he makes this choice. And remember that one of the original titles for the poem was Madhouse Cells. This man is insane. Or, at least he has been taken there because people think he is. The idea might have been that Browning wanted to give a voice to the people who live in the asylum. Even so, we may still speculate that it is at this very moment that he finds her the most beautiful and in killing her, he stops time and preserves the moment. There are whole realms of psychological analysis you can put into his reasons: is he trying to stop her from sinning? Is he himself trying to preserve her at this moment before she “spoils” in kissing him? There are even lines of thought that suggest that she is ill (Porphyria is a blood disease and in calling her ‘Porphyria’ is he saying that he knew it was his time to euthanise her?!) Here’s the thing though. This is not a psychology essay, and this is not a real person (although it is loosely based on a real story) so analysing why he did it is just going to take up time. Why he did it is ambiguous. We just don’t know. I love the fact that we are left to puzzle over it though.
And, if you ask me… a lot of it is to do with “preserving” her before she sins. Those Victorians were well on their way to bizarre consequences of repressed desire. The bit that makes me think this is actually a professor I had… she had this uncanny ability to show you the repressed desire in a lot of Shakespeare, in Victorian poetry. If there was something saucy to be had out of reading a poem, she found it. If truth be told, she ruined a lot of things for me and I can never, ever read Tennyson without feeling a bit yuck. But in fact, Tennyson is a great comparison here. The Lady of Shalott. There she is, sitting in her virginal tower, unable to experience life at all except by proxy (she can only see it via a mirror) and what happens when she sees famous lover Sir Lancelot? Or, more precisely, when she sees Lancelot’s “helmet” and “plume”? (Cough) she goes and throws herself in a river. And what happens here? A woman on the verge of sexual awakening is killed before she can fulfill her desires. By the way, The Lady of Shalott was published three years before Porphyria’s Lover, so it’s entirely feasible they may be preoccupied by the same idea. The blooming of a flower is also a very Victorian symbol for a girl coming to sexual maturity. Sorry, I know. It’s a bit much. Between Elizabeth Barrett Browning wanting her lover to “shake his boughs” and this, you’re probably thinking that English teachers have all got sex on the brain. Not so. It’s the Victorians, I promise you.
So, you can imagine how the simile “a shut bud that holds a bee” works. Birds and the bees anyone? I just can’t read those lines and shake the thought that it’s a rather graphic image that conjures up… well… lady bits. Sorry. Otherwise, what even is the need for this simile? It’s not to do with the previous line – since that’s about her feeling no pain. And he says “as a shut bud that holds a bee, I warily oped her lids”. Well, is he describing how delicately he opened her eyes, like you would delicately open a bud that has a bee trapped inside? That simile makes no sense to me. It’s this very weird and sexually evocative simile that makes me thinks he killed her before she could “blossom” – perhaps to preserve her innocence. Though, with all the shoulder-baring and the murmuring, I’m not entirely sure she’s all that innocent, but hey. She certainly seems ripe for the plucking, so to speak.
That’s my two-penneth about why he kills her.
It makes sense especially when he looks into her (dead) eyes and sees that they are “without a stain”. That works on a literal level – there’s no sign of her having been killed (what CSI would no doubt call petechial haemorrhaging) but on a metaphorical level, she’s still pure.
Only when she’s dead does he kiss her, and his kiss is “burning”. It’s almost like he does it to save her from him. He is now the active character and the roles are reversed. He puts her head on his shoulder, and then it moves into the present tense: here he is, still sitting with her dead head on his shoulder.
But we still are left with other puzzles. Why was this her “darling one wish” to be heard? Surely she didn’t wish to be killed (or maybe, if she was ill already perhaps… maybe) so it’s his interpretation that she was “asking for it” and wanted to be killed? I’m left wondering why her head “once scorned” this scenario – why would she scorn him? Does this go with the fact she felt too good for him, that she was “proud” and bound by “vainer ties”. Has he killed her for this? Who knows.
What we are left with then is a weirdo who killed a woman who loved him, and who is sitting with her waiting for a judgement from God, who hasn’t said anything.
What I love most about this poem is the puzzles it presents: why he killed her, why she was too “proud” to give in to her urges. I love the way it takes some very Romantic pastoral images – the storm, the cottage, the innocent girl, and it gives them a creepy Victorian lesson in morals. I love the way it leaves you wondering if this is some kind of Victorian lesson about why you should never go off with strange men and give into your urges, or whether it’s Robert Browning giving us a bit of Gothic shock-horror. I love the measured voice and the calm of the poem, its neatness and order, and the way that under those very still waters lies a predator. And mostly I love the fact that there is a whole lot to say about the poem. You’ve got to give the Brownings credit: they certainly don’t make it easy for you to puzzle out what’s going on. Love it!
Ultimately, if you ask me, I think it’s something very similar to this song from Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. Innocent young girl on the brink of womanhood preserved at that moment in time before she “spoils.” All very repressed and Victorian.
I hope you enjoy this lovely puzzle of a poem. It’s so very open to interpretation for the whys and wherefores that it will no doubt frighten a lot of students (and teachers) but it makes for great responses.