An Analysis of Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning

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.



An Analysis of “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley for AQA English Literature GCSE

Ah, my favourite love poem of all… A lot to do with watching Twin Peaks as a 17 year old, I think, and less to do with poetry as such. Still, thanks to David Lynch, I became a big fan of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He is in fact the writer of my favourite poem, Ozymandias, and his poetry is dense but divine. Forget Byron with his wishy-washy damaged ego in When We Two Parted. Forget the delightful Mrs Barrett Browning’s lovely sonnets. Forget Shakespeare with his wordplay and his rule-breaking and his clever twists. The simplicity of this poem is what makes it just so very beautiful, if you ask me. Was ever a kiss asked for in a more wonderful way?

The poem itself picks up on a pastoral tradition, from Christopher Marlowe’s A Passionate Shepherd To His Love 

Those uninhibited country people! From Shakespeare through to Shelley, nature seemed like the perfect setting for a view of love that was somehow purer and more perfect than that of the city. Rustic country living is always a contrast with the artificiality and corruption of city life, and one that even the Greeks picked up on over two thousand years ago. Small wonder so many pastoral poems have a deeply sexy feel about them – the birds do it, the bees do it… even educated fleas do it. Ella Fitzgerald was singing about “falling in love” there, but, well, that’s not quite what happens, is it?

As you can see from Marlowe’s poem, where the shepherd invites a young girl to “live with” him and be his “love”, but he also starts with some images that Shelley is going to play with some 250 years later.

That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
They’re just going to sit around and appreciate nature. He’ll make her clothes, a bed of rose petals. And then he finishes with
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
You can see which tradition Shelley’s picking up on.
In between Marlowe and Shelley, there’s a good degree of frustration from some poets who are also trying out the same lines. Let’s look at nature. Isn’t nature lovely? Why don’t you and me get busy? It’s only natural…
Robert Herrick wrote a similar kind of poem in the Seventeenth Century, To The Virgins, Make Much Of Time whose basic premise is that all those lovely pretty flowers in nature fade, just as your beauty and your life will, and once you’re past your prime, well, nobody will want you. Nice. Get busy whilst you’re still pretty. One day you’ll be old and ugly and nobody will want you. I exaggerate a little, of course, but that’s the essence of his view.
John Donne tries it in The Flea as well. He takes the idea that people used to think your blood mixed with the other person’s when you had sex and he uses the idea that a flea whose bitten both his love and himself, well, both of their bloods are mingled in that so they might as well get busy.
Another one to try it is Andrew Marvell in To His Coy MistressNot putting out is okay. It’s great if we’re immortal. But we’re not immortal. You’ll soon be ugly, and then you’ll be dead, and your virginity won’t mean much to the worms in your grave. So let’s get busy while we’re still young and beautiful.
Seductive, these poets. Not particularly smooth, but full marks for trying. Shelley’s a bit more subtle than Herrick, Donne or Marvell, which is why I like it. Cheesy, perhaps, but all he wants is a kiss. None of this ‘tick, tick, tick, love… your beauty isn’t going to last forever’ stuff. But he still picks up on the divineness of nature and all that is natural. He focuses on the partnerships and kissings in nature.
Let’s start with the form. He has an eight-line stanza, just as Byron does in When We Two Parted. It’s not particularly meaningful or important. It’s just a vehicle for his content. The rhyme scheme is neat, if not exactly perfect, with “river” and “ever” forming an imperfect echo. Some of the rhymes are feminine (where the word has two or syllables and the last is unstressed, like RIVer and EVer, Ocean and eMOtion, SINgle) In fact, in the first stanza, only diVINE and THINE are masculine rhymes, finishing with a stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme gets progressively more masculine with EARTH – SEA – WORTH – ME towards the end. It seems a little softer and a little more playful to me, becoming more determined towards the end.
In terms of syllables and metre, those lines which become more masculine in rhyme also become more even, syllabically. The final four lines are very even, although the last line is only five syllables to finish. The other three have seven syllables. The all finish on a stressed syllable, they fall in to iambic metre “AND the SUNlight CLASPS the EARTH / AND the MOONbeams KISS the SEA / WHAT is ALL this SWEET work WORTH/”
But I’m still undecided about where the stresses should go in the final line.
IF thou KISS not ME?
if THOU kiss not ME?
if thou KISS  not ME?
if THOU KISS not ME?
I think I like the third version with the stress on ‘kiss’ and ‘me’. It goes best with line 8 which finishes the first verse: why not I with THINE? That said, it seems to work best with the stress on ‘thou’ and ‘me’. Either way, the monosyllables in the final line also give it a more fervent pace, alongside the increasing masculine rhyme, the regularity of the seven-seven-seven syllables and iambic rhythm. It becomes driven and more determined by the end of the poem.
Like other poems in the anthology, this poem is a one-sided monologue where the reader is put into the place of the lover. As such we are voyeurs, taking the silent place in a relationship. As to whom the poem is addressed, we can only speculate. It sounds like a new lover, a lover yet to be convinced, a lover yet to be kissed. This is the poem of a frustrated poet, someone pulling out big arguments as Donne and Marvell did to convince the object of their affections to submit. Thus, there is a freshness to this love just as we find in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem. It’s also very natural in its choice of images, just as Barrett Browning is. Where she had trees, this poem has “mountains”, “rivers”.
It starts with a fact: “the fountains mingle with the river” which then builds up through subsequent lines. I love that word “mingle”, though it is similar to the choices John Donne makes lexically (and who, coincidentally, wrote a poem with a line about “Love’s Philosophy”) as the word “mingle” suggests unity, a coming together and a oneness. Fountains become rivers become oceans and everything is one. It’s a word picked up in line three with “mix”.
There seems to be something going on with the sounds of the words as well. Blame it on my Canadian English teacher at University, who only had to say “Oceans” and send me into joy. These are such soft words with the fricatives of “fountain”, the voiceless fricative of “h” and their sibilant sisters in “oCean” and “emoTion”. Those “f”, “w”, “h” and “sh” sounds give it a very breathy, soft feel which I just love. This gets really evident in the final lines of the poem as well, “And the sunlight clasps the earth/And the moonbeams kiss the sea” – all those soft s sounds. Ahhhh! Add that to the alliteration of “high heaven” and you’ve got more breathiness and more softness.
The first four lines of the poem set out the facts: the fountains (springs) run into the rivers which run into the oceans: everything is connected and everything is one. There’s a real sense of eternity here as well, the water, the winds, flow and movement. I read hundreds of times a year that something “flows” when writing about poetry in exams, and I hate that. It’s so generalised and meaningless. Here, though, it’s different. There really IS a sense of flow, because the content – the fountains, rivers and oceans, the wind – they are currents. There’s a sense of natural movement and motion. The lines run into each other, enjambed from line 1 into line 2, line 3 into line 4 with nothing but spaces or commas. Only that beautiful wedding of a semi-colon brings the two parts of stanza one together at line 4. I love the semi-colon. It’s a balance, not so much a separation but a junction. It brings two separate sentences together. That’s just lovely – the poem is brought together, balanced and equal just as he sees in nature, just as he wants with them. There’s a second semi-colon in line 5 linking “nothing in the world is single; all things by a law divine in one spirit meet and mingle.” so that the first seven lines all run into each other. Nothing stops them until they get to the question. The rhetorical question after all of this very logical, natural and beautiful argument indicates a kind of dialogue. It brings the reader into the poem once again and has a surprisingly personal quality. That’s why I like it. It’s not Shelley speaking: it is whomever I wish it to be. I think that’s why it’s become such a popular love poem. It could be from anyone to anyone. It’s not a shepherd (or Christopher Marlowe writing as if he were one) it’s not John Donne. It’s not Andrew Marvell and his Coy Mistress. That rhetorical question puts us right into the heart of the poem.
In the second stanza, it gets more authoritative still, urging us to “see” the mountains and heaven, the waves, chiding us for “disdaining” our fellow flowers, leading us through two more examples via two semi-colons, a colon and a full-stop. The punctuation drives the verse like a conductor of an orchestra, linking everything in stanza two just as it was (practically) in stanza one. The colon is the crescendo, the build-up. A colon marks out the springboard into an explanation, into the point: what IS all this for if you won’t kiss me?
It is as if, at this point, everything in the whole universe from the sun and the moon, the rivers and the oceans, the mountains and the sky, are conspiring together to build up to this one magnificent moment. How could anyone say no to such an argument for such a kiss?
The second rhetorical question suggests that all of this is utterly pointless without the kiss. It reminds me of the moment in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby kisses Daisy:
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
It’s like the kiss is some form of magic. That’s what Shelley seems to be suggesting the kiss will be.
At the end, we are left with a simple poem. It is not complex and crafted like that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is not a mathematically complex sonnet with layers of meaning and dense imagery. This is what I like about it. The simplicity of it is almost more natural, more perfect. It builds up with the rhythm, the rhyme, the metre, the punctuation into a final question.
And what IS life and the universe all about if she doesn’t kiss him?
Good one, Shelley. You got me thinking that the kiss was some kind of divine, heavenly, mystical, wonderful coming together, as natural as oceans and rivers and sunlight and moonbeams. Not just a man impatient for his lover to give him a bit of tongue. He elevates it into something quite magnificent, like F Scott Fitzgerald does, like Shakespeare does with Romeo and Juliet. How could we doubt the sincerity of his argument?
In terms of the anthology, this sits well with Elizabeth Barrett Browning (although you’ll notice that I didn’t need two posts to write about this one and most of this one has just been raptures about the sheer, heavenly loveliness of how he takes a potential kiss and turns it into something that is as marvellous as a mountain) and there’s certainly lots you can say about how both use pace, images, form and language to give us a glimpse of their feelings.
Here’s a bit of Faith Hill with This Kiss, just in case you weren’t feeling the wonder of Shelley’s argument.
If you’d like to discuss the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology in more detail, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.


A sample response to Question 3 on AQA English Language Paper 1 Higher Tier

Following on from last week’s post about Question 3 on Paper 1H, I’m going to share with you my own response for one of the papers.

I always start with a really good read, highlighting everything I think I might use. Then I read again and narrow down. This is a response to reading question, so the more carefully I read, the better my answer should be – in theory!

I’m going with the November 2014 paper and I’ve included a printed version of the source text which has my initial quote selection, so you can see how I start with a very wide selection of quotes, underlining everything that might be relevant, then I narrow down to the specifics I want to use. Believe it or not, I’m going to have about 25 – 30 brief quotes I want to use, some 6-8 per paragraph, and I’m aiming to write 3 – 4 paragraphs in about 10 minutes. 12 minutes tops.

The question, as always is:

Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as…

And in this case the precision is “as she cycles home.”

To get top band marks, I’m looking at doing three things:

  1. Having appropriate quotations that support my ideas
  2. Explaining and interpreting the thoughts and feelings
  3. Engaging in detail

I’m also bearing in mind the Chief Examiners’ Report which reminds me that I am not being assessed on writing about linguistic choices or language features.

With those things in mind, I started my first read-through.

GCSE sample annotation.jpg

Then I planned out my answer briefly:

  1. Invincibility: “had to”, “the wind threatened,” “I was impressive”, “I’d beaten everyone”, “I felt unassailable”
  2. Contrast with her feelings of pleasure about school dinner-time and “no-one knowing” about her free school dinners and the liveliness of the lunch-hall.
  3. She feels above playing and her friends, she’s “a grammar school girl”

I can start to pick out key feelings: pride, shame, invincibility. These will form my introductory sentence and a conclusion too.

Finally, I’m ready to write. I’m typing this and my typing is less fast than my writing, so I’m going to give myself 15 minutes to type it.

From the moment Jane sets off from school, the ride home becomes “a race” as she “beats” a number of competitors, “though they didn’t know it.”. From the “Northgate Boys” to the “Northgate girls” and the “vespa” scooter, she “overtook them easily”. It’s like this is her moment of proof, where she can be better than anyone else, thinking that she is being “watched admiringly” by the “people on the pavement”. This is her victory ride, where she can triumph, and she seems to hugely enjoy it, the speed and exhilaration of seeing the world as it “flew by” and seeing off competitor after competitor. When she says that she felt “unassailable”, we really see that she feels invincible, like nothing can beat her. She is unstoppable. It seems to give her a huge rush, swelling her ego and making her think that she “was impressive”, that she stands out from the crowds. This is her moment of glory and when she says that she was “sure” she was being watched, it seems to reveal her desire to be recognised, to be admired. 

This is in contrast to the loose daydream she has in the fourth paragraph about school dinners, where she seems glad that “no one knew” that she had free school dinners. Here, she is glad to fade into the background and happy that her poorer background in these “grand” and exotic settings isn’t something that is known. She says that “no one knew” once she was in the canteen that her name went into the “separate” book each morning, that she is once again anonymous, as she is on the bike ride. In contrast, on the bike ride, she is “admired” and recognised, what she seems to enjoy about the canteen is that she is anonymous. She seems to be ashamed of the fact she has free school dinners and that this is not known when she is in the canteen. Like the bike ride, the canteen is pleasurable: “I liked it”. 

The canteen and the ride home seem to be the highlights of her day: she gets home and has a great pleasure in having homework to do as it “impressed” her. Her former life, “the shed” seems to be a world that she has cast off now, and she is incredulous that she spent such a long time playing there, in the “dark, musty space” with Margaret Whitman and Margaret Hayward, which also seems rather embarrassing for her, something that she is ashamed of. She is intensely proud of being “a grammar school girl” and how grown up it is with homework. It’s no longer in keeping with playing in dusty sheds with her childhood friends: she seems to think that she is above all of these childish things now. Ironically the pleasures she now gets are from the thrill of the bike ride home and the exotic world of “school doughnuts”, “jam sponge with coconut” which are “unlike anything Gran ever made”. She mentions when she talks about the sixth form and prefects that they seemed “grand and remote” to her, and it seems to be this grandeur that is appealing to her too. The bike ride, however, shows that she still appreciates the simple things in life, she feels for the first moment in her day perhaps that she is worth watching and she wants to stand out from the crowd. 

With these three paragraphs, I’ve covered the whole text, although I wanted to spend a little longer on the final two paragraphs. That’s always something that happens. People focus too much on the beginning and run out of time and steam by the final paragraphs. It’s just something to bear in mind. Looking back at the markscheme, I hope I have managed to achieve those three aspects, with appropriate supportive quotation, detailed engagement with the passage, explaining and interpreting her thoughts and feelings.

If you are struggling with any aspect of AQA Paper 1, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.



10 tips to tackle Q3 of AQA GCSE English Language Higher Tier

Q3 presents extraordinary difficulties for some students who have a paucity of emotional vocabulary to describe the ‘thoughts and feelings’ in a provided source text. For that reason, I’m focusing today on how to answer this question in order to get full marks.

Follow these ten tips to get full marks and you will see your writing improve no end. Although the source text changes each year, the question remains the same.

Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as…

Because the question and the markscheme are always the same, you have a very good opportunity to really get behind the question in order to hit top marks. Source Three is a recount text that often focuses on an event or occasion.

So where do you start?

  1. Explore the markscheme. When you really know what you are being asked and you really know what the examiner is looking for, you have a great opportunity to do exactly that. I won’t tell you about the row I once had with my night school photography teacher when he couldn’t explain how he was going to assess us. “How will I ever know what to do?” I shouted. Though I shouldn’t have lost my temper, it is the markscheme which governs what you get marked on. Everything outside the markscheme is as beautiful and yet as useless as writing a Physics equation as your response. We simply can’t mark it.

    So what are you being marked on?

    Two things mainly. Your quotation. Your understanding of the way the writer thinks and feels about the events.

    You’re also being assessed on your ability to explain your understanding, and your ability to write in detail about the writer’s thoughts and feelings.

    Now you know what the examiner is looking for, you know what to do. Root your answer solidly in the text and write about the thoughts and feelings.

    Some people still write about great stuff that’s not in the markscheme. As it says in the Examiners’ Report:

    Candidates should understand, that for this question, comments on the writer’s linguistic choices and references to the thoughts and feelings of the reader are not relevant , nor are they rewarded.
    Every year, people write about similes and metaphors, powerful verbs, adjectives… but you need to imagine that as being as pointless as drawing a picture. It’s nice, but we can’t mark it. Not only that, it takes you away from the main focus and wastes valuable time.

  2. Focus on the text. Read it with two pencils. One colour is for “might include” and covers everything you think about in your first reading. The second is a colour to go over the top for “must include” that you will pick out on your second reading. The process by which an A* student narrows down quotes is a kind of filtering process. They do it instinctively, sifting through and narrowing down. We want to make that process explicit and clear. Underline absolutely everything that is about thoughts and absolutely everything that suggests a feeling. Don’t skimp. Number the paragraphs and make sure you don’t do what most do – only focusing on the first couple of paragraphs. Make sure you are as thorough with the final paragraph as you are with the first. If it’s a thought or feeling, underline it.
  3. Now that you have identified all your quotes (you should find that you have between twenty and forty big pieces of text) you can check that you are covering all the paragraphs. Don’t start in a thorough manner and miss out the last paragraph. Often you will find that the event described falls into a BDA kind of thing. Before – During – After. Ask yourself: what do they think/feel before? What do they think/feel during? What do they think/feel after? Add a B, D or an A beside each quote. You will have a lot of stuff to divide up – but at this point, better too much than too little. Start to mark out which quotes will go in each section. You’re aiming for three or four paragraphs, but sometimes, the BDA doesn’t fall evenly. If you have more B, add a second Before paragraph. Likewise for During or After.
  4. This is where you can now start writing. You want to start with a brief paraphrase and a focus on “the writer feels…” or “the writer thinks…” then you’ve got a couple of methods to explore. My first method is a triple whammy of quotes in a row. Taking the November 2014 Higher Tier source 3, and the question: “Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as she cycles home” I would start by picking out the idea of competition in paragraph 1 that is picked up in paragraph 6. I want to be sure to get those quotes from across the whole essay.

     “One of the major ideas the writer explores as she rides home is her feeling of being in a race, that she “had to overtake” the Northgate boys, “it was a race, though they didn’t know it.” By the end, she’s elated: “I’d beaten everyone.”

    This way, I am showing I can pick out and manipulate quotes from across the whole passage. One of the things many candidates do is focus too much on the opening paragraphs and run out of steam by the final few. This way, I’m showing I can handle the whole passage and track through, helping me get that appropriate quotation mark.

  5. I also want to show that I really understand the writer’s feelings and thoughts. The best way to do this is to put them into my own words and explain what that means. For instance, I’m going to pick up on “I felt unassailable”.

    “When the writer says ‘I felt unassailable’, she’s telling us that she felt utterly invincible, like nothing can stop her. There is nothing that can stand in her way. It’s a feeling of absolute power and triumph as she rides her bike home, particularly as she passes the Vespa, although she does admit that it had ‘slowed down’, she still feels triumphant.”

    You can see that I am once again using the triangular three-point method, putting her feelings in three different ways to show I really understand them.

  6. I can also explain what I can make sense out of when I read something. For instance, when the writer says, “I didn’t play in sheds any more now that I went to Northgate.” I can infer that she feels too grown up, perhaps, to ‘play’, that she has moved on from her childhood games. Ironically, she still enjoys the childhood freedoms of riding her bike home, but she feels she is too mature for these things any more. “I was a grammar school girl”, she says. What I’m trying to do here is explain what this detail suggests to me about her thoughts and feelings. Again, I’m trying to show I understand the text.
  7. I’m also going to focus in on the poetic. Often, when a writer chooses their most elaborate words, their most delightful vocabulary, I feel that this is the point at which they are really enjoying themselves. For instance, in the passage for this paper, I notice she is also very poetic about the weather, personifying it. It is as if she feels the weather is another of her opponents, that even the powerful wind which “threatened to lift” her beret off her head, or the “icy rain” are unable to stand in her way. They don’t count. They don’t spoil her enjoyment of her ride home.
  8. To prepare for this question means I need a super-size vocabulary to explain emotions. For this, I’m going to start by preparing with a word list, using a thesaurus. I’m just going to list as many emotions as I can, knowing I can also modify them with very, completely or a little et cetera to show that I understand the degree to which she feels something. For instance, I could write “she feels happy” on her way home. But it’s more than that. It’s more than “very happy.” I want to change my word and put “exhilarated” or “elated”. This is where I’m going to use a thesaurus to start with, but only to refresh my memory on words I already know; I absolutely do not want to put in a clever-sounding word that doesn’t mean what I think it means; I’m not going to write “she feels ebullient” or “she feels zingy” because, well, I’m not using those words properly and they sound bad. I’m not going to say “she feels delighted”, though I might say “she’s in high spirits” because that’s the kind of thing I might say in real life. I want to absolutely stick to emotional vocabulary that I know the meaning of. And, if I get stuck, I can say the opposite. “She’s not weighed down by anything.”
  9. When I’m writing, I’m going to do my best to ensure I have four or five mini-quotes in each paragraph, and that I have four paragraphs in that time. Three’s my minimum on either. I’m really going to focus on writing in depth and writing to explain the feelings the writer has, trying to tackle the “why” she thinks or feels this in my explanation.
  10. At the end, I’m going to check that I have probably about 15 mini-quotes through the essay and that I have not neglected any section or paragraph if I need to write about them. I’m going to look for the subtleties. Then I’m going to tick off every quote on the source passage and make sure I’ve included it, especially the ones from the end of the passage.

These tips should certainly help you write a really fabulous answer and get the marks that you need. There’s no reason at all not to aim for 8 out of 8, especially if you have tracked through your answer thoroughly.