Porphyria’s Lover #
BY ROBERT BROWNING
This is a shocking and scary poem. The first thing to realise that the poet is not the speaker in this monologue. The second is that Browning is not a paternalist misogynist, rather just the opposite. He is an advocate and champion for emerging women’s rights in the Victorian era. His purpose is to disturb, advocating changing mind sets. His poems are critical exposes of traditional patriarchal societies where marriage means that a woman becomes her husband’s property. He is damning a society that condones men dominating and controlling women.
The fact that in Australia, a woman gets killed by her lover every single week, simply does not get enough airplay. Women like Aiia Masarwe, Eurydice Dixon, Tracey Connolly, Jill Meagher, Lynette Daley, Vicki Cleary, Anita Cobby have become brutal victims of horrendous sex crimes.
Recent research has found jealousy was the most “powerful factor” for violence against women. Men derive almost all their self-respect and self-importance actually from the exclusive sexual possession of a woman while themselves being very unfaithful. Feminist icon and intellectual provocateur Germaine Greer thinks what actually drives it is misogyny; an actual dislike of women and not understanding them.
According to Anna Moore and Coco Khan, another disturbing symptom is the increased choking during sex games gone wrong. Strangulation (Autoerotic asphyxia – when someone restricts oxygen to their own brain for the purposes of arousal – isn’t new: there have been documented cases since the early 17th century. – fatal and non-fatal – “squeezing”, “neck compression” or, as some call, it “breath-play” – is becoming normalised. On average, one woman in the UK is strangled to death by her partner every two weeks, according to Women’s Aid. It is a frequent feature of non-fatal domestic assault, as well as rape and robbery where women are the victims.
Fiona Mackenzie reports,
“I’ve had so many women get in touch to say they have been horrified on Tinder dates by partners who have choked them during sex. If you’re dating, it’s expected of you and if you don’t go along with it, you’re boring.”
This is how Amber, now 27, felt when she was first choked during sex in 2012 in Dublin.
“I had met a friend of a friend on a night out and we went back to his. He was being rougher with me than I was used to, but I didn’t think anything of it. He grazed his hand on my neck – again, I didn’t think anything of it – then he started to squeeze.”
The choking wasn’t firm enough to cause Amber much discomfort. “I wanted to be attractive to him. So I just thought: ‘OK, this is what gets him off, I’ll let him.’ ” She had just come out of a long-term relationship. “So I figured: this must be how people have sex now.”
Porphyria’s Lover #
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 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 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 looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped 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!
In this dramatic monologue, “Porphyria’s Lover,” Browning experiments with a similar form of male narrative authority, but presents it differently. In this poem, a male’s objectification of a female is taken to an extreme, and the result is fatal to the woman. This poem precedes My Last Duchess by some six years, foreshadowing that horrific poem.
The opening creates a chilly atmosphere of rain, sullen wind spitefully tearing down tree tops and vexing the lake with destructive waves. The personification of the weather captures the melancholic, cantankerous and brooding mood of the speaker by using the device of pathetic fallacy.
The appearance of Porphyria energises the scene. It is not clear what effect the inversion of “When glided in Porphyria” as to Porphyria glided in except to emphasise the graceful glide. “Straight” or immediately her commanding actions taking charge, signal control and change. Attending efficiently to all the chores of closing doors and windows, kneeling to light the fire, warming the room and then getting rid of her damp clothes, seems to irritate the speaker, perhaps because at last she approaches him, stooping spreading her yellow hair all over him. When he fails to respond, she makes the gesture of putting his arm about her waist, expressing her love for him.
Perhaps his foul mood stems from his expectation that she hadn’t come earlier and fear that he is not worthy of her. She is socially superior to him.
It becomes obvious that Porphyria is married to some prouder, vainer lord – a tie, he feels, she is too weak to dissever. He appears to resent this. Her arrivals and declaration of love for him, is only partly consoling. His love for her is in vain. He wants more, but she is not willing or strong enough to give up her privileges. Everything she has done this night demonstrates that she loves him too, “made my heart swell”, but causing internal conflict – “While I debated what to do”.
Browning uses a number of words and actions to illustrate the delicate shifts in power. When Porphyria arrives, he appears to be lying down in a cold draft filled cottage. She performs all the necessary chores, before at “last” catering for him.
The fact that she towers over him and put his arm around her, and his head on her bare shoulder symbolises her power over him, creating a sense of subservience, inadequacy and insecurity.
To counteract that power balance, he feels he needs to demonstrate his superior power by possessing her completely. If he can’t have her, no one will.
Pronouns indicate the power struggle. Initially “she” dominates, competing with the possessive “my”. The first nominative and active “I” appears, he is looking up at her and then “I” knew she loved me, but I debated what to do”.
“Finally, I found a thing to do.” Women create; Men destroy. Now the power differential changes as he propped her head up on his shoulder, looking down dominantly on her. In the last stanza she becomes “its” will and “its” love, before finally becoming “we” sit, and “we” have not stirred”.
Once he has made up his mind to strangle her with her own yellow hair, he justifies it by claiming she felt no pain and her “utmost will” and her darling one wish would be heard”. He had solved all her problems and she is at perfect peace sitting together with him the rest of the night. The fact that ”yet God has not said a word!” with its exclamation point suggests an abandoned universe that no longer punishes bad behaviour, giving us total impunity.
Is he an earlier existentialist? I don’t know. Possible but not probable.