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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Murder and Madness: Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning!

A tale of madness and murder! A tale with so many possiblities as to interpretation, it will obsess you!

Yes!  Another blog post inspired by two people: Poet Robert Browning who is dead many years and Margarita Georgieva who is very much alive!
Therefore I will be grateful to Mr. Browning and enthusiastically thank Margarita once again!

One important note: porphyria is a disease but it was not identified as such when the poem was written.

My rant:
Robert Browning wrote one particular poem that I find haunting! It is not only a work of dark beauty, it is also a puzzlement, you turn it one way in your search to unlock its awful secrets and just when you think you’ve solved it, you discover another explanation for its meaning, all of them valid.

Some background:
Porphyria’s Lover is a poem that was first published as "Porphyria" in the January 1836 issue of Monthly Repository.

A possible inspiration for the poem is John Wilson's "Extracts from Gosschen's Diary", which is based on a lurid account of a murder published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1818. Browning's friend and fellow poet Bryan Procter acknowledged basing his 1820 "Marcian Colonna" on it, but added a new detail; after the murder, the killer sits up all night with his victim.

You will see that in this poem as well!
Excited? Well, here we go:

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!

Porphyra’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!

I don’t know about you but I find the poem dark and deeply disturbing.

The themes I see are madness and murder, the death by strangulation of a beautiful young girl by her deranged lover.

The gist:
There is a storm raging and Porphyria comes into the room where there isn’t even a fire.
Her lover has been sitting there, what in the cold? And if so why?
She sits down next to him and speaks to him although he doesn’t answer her, I see her as then trying to play up to him a bit by putting his arm about her waist.
She bares her shoulder; she then snuggles up to him so that his cheek is on her hair.
He knows she is his and just at that moment he strangles her, carefully assuring the reader that she felt no pain and that she smiled.

R for rationalization, I say!

He goes on to tell us she never cried out! Hard to I think when one is being strangled.
He further tells us she felt no pain but then qualifies it. "I am quite sure she felt no pain."
I imagine him possibly also thinking: “At least I hope she had no pain...”
He’s killed her, she’s dead so what does he do?
He opens her blue eyes and is pleased ‘they don’t look ‘strained.’ He then spreads her hair about her neck and gives her a ‘burning kiss’ (?!)

Charming!

He then goes on to tell us he props her head up and lets it rest on his shoulder.
And if this isn’t weird enough he lets us know that he sits with her corpse.
But it’s all okay apparently because ‘...God has not said a word!’

Please read:

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!

I mean I like to think of myself being as religious as the next person but what does Porphyria’s lover think, does he really believe God would have made his displeasure known by telling him?

It may be of some interest to know that in Browning’s My Last Duchess a woman is also killed by the man who loves her.

Pardon my glibness but I wonder what Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought of these works.

I do agree that there are many valid interpretations; I however feel that Browning was writing about a madman who rationalized the murder of his lover.

He does this powerfully having us witness all of it through the murderer’s eyes. I find that very moving indeed to see what Porphyria’s lover saw, from his own point of view.

I also then see a deliberate choice by Browning to call the poem, Porhyria's LOVER as it is her lover who extinguished her life, motivated by his own mad reasoning.

So in essence, Bronwning, I think, has us witness the murder of a beautiful young girl who might have only chosen to love the wrong man. A man who after killing her is still so drawn to her, so obsessed by her that he sits with her corpse by his side, unable or unwilling to let her go!
One wonders just when he does let her go.

I do not see an end to this poem either, but a terrible continuation because somehow in my writer’s imagination I see him sitting there still, in a cold, darkened room for there is no longer a fire—chilled but happy to be near his long-dead Porphyria.

But along with this I hear the sound of a battering ram. I hear too the wood splitting apart as the door is being broken down and the terrible secret of Porphyria’s Lover is about to be revealed!

(the end)! 

9 comments:

ENCOUNTERS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ENCOUNTERS said...

What is really interesting is the choice of angle - choosing to tell the story from the "evil" side. It sounds to me like an attempt to change to point of view, to see the other side of horror. We are horrified because we kind of put ourselves in the victim's shoes. But what of the murderer? It's a bit in line with what good old Alfred H. would do :)
Very entertaining analysis of the poem! Ohmy and the conclusion is terribly firghtening :))
P.S. and I deleted my previous comment because of the many many many spelling mistakes :))))

Carole Gill said...

Thank you! Delete away!
I am grateful for your kind comments!
Yes I did that I guess because he is Porphyria's Lover and though he killed her, I believe he loved her. But it was the love of a madman. And truly I did not see an 'end.' I wondered when he would finally tear himself away and then I decided he wouldn't, not by choice!
thanks so much, Margarita!
and thank you for the inspiration.

B E Schafer said...

It makes one wonder if Browning himself was a bit of a madman. It made me stop to think what man would be insane enough to sit with the corpse of his love. Is it true madness to hold on to that which we love? If I were to loose my wife, my one true love, my best friend; I do beleive that they would have to ram the door down to take her away from me. Now is that madness? Or is but true undying love? Maybe I myself am a bit of madman! Kudos to Mr. Browning for thinking like a madman.

Carole Gill said...

Thank you, Blake.
It made me wonder too.
We expect Poe to sound tortured because he was, but then the question is, was Browning also tortured?
If he wasn't, he certainly--as you rightly said was able to think like a madman which makes his writing all the more great.
thank you.

Gaynor said...

I love this poem, but I think you probably guessed I would Carole. I like your analysis and must say I've never found this poem easy to read.

Taken on the face value of the murder then yes it is very wicked, if you read it as a metaphor for sexual love within marriage it takes on a different meaning. However in that time sex and mariage had very different meanings for women. Death and love went hand in hand for any married women.

Woman gave their heart, hand and money to their husband and he was legally entitled to consider his wife his property. It was perfectly legal to beat your wife as long as the stick was no thicker than your wrist and rape in marriage was not recognised. That is even without the very real prospect of death in childbirth and this is what I've always read into this poem. Because in this time death was a common outcome. Husbands must have felt the had killed their wives as surely as if they'd strangled them. God must have seemed to be at odds with what the Church proclaimed as the expected duty of husband and wife. God voice would be needed to ease a husband's grief and guilt.

I think you picked a great poem and I loved you take on it. What I really like is you always make me think. I'm looking forward to your next post.

Carole Gill said...

Wow Gaynor, thank you so much.
I love your anaylsis. Yes, so in esscence it's the lover saying how he has total control over her and when he realizes he does he 'kills' her whether real or not.
that is fascinating.
actually, looking at it that way makes it even more chilling for me!
thank you so much Gaynor.

Ashish Youngy said...

Porphyria's Lover is one of the most disturbing, human psychic poetry. You have described the poem very well. Read Literary Analysis and Summary of Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning here.

Carole Gill said...

thank you so very much for that!
i'm just going to read that analysis now.
thank you!