Poetry Friday: Porphyria’s Lover

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This is a poem I use at school for various things, from teaching pathetic fallacy to a comparison with Much Ado About Nothing’s view of women. The gothic tragedy of it has always appealed to me, from the sullen spiteful wind tearing down the elm trees just because it can, to the final, haunting image of the couple sitting together at the end.

I always find students’ responses very interesting to it as well – it’s not really my intention to talk much about my day job here, but I think it’s fascinating how in whichever class I’ve used it with there’s always a majority who are shocked and appalled, and just one or two, no more, who think that it’s the most romantic thing they’ve ever read. Is that a failure of feminism, or simply a teenage girl’s interpretation of romantic passion? I think I probably would have thought similarly when I was younger – although I probably would have taken the view that to be the lover left alive was the most tragic outcome. Now, I see it very differently, but I still love the imagery that this poem has and the way that the speaker gradually disassociates himself from both his actions and Porphyria by referring to her as somehow less than human. It’s dark, creepy and fantastical, and it’s one that stays with you, which is what I love about poetry.

 

 

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 listen’d with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
    She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel’d 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 soil’d gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
    And, last, she sat down by my side
    And call’d 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 look’d up at her eyes
    Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipp’d 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
    Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untighten’d next the tress
    About her neck; her cheek once more
Blush’d bright beneath my burning kiss:
    I propp’d 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 scorn’d at once is fled,
    And I, its love, am gain’d instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guess’d not how
    Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
    And all night long we have not stirr’d,
    And yet God has not said a word!

Robert Browning

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