Munch, The Storm, 1893
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 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 opened 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!
About the poem –
“Porphyria’s Lover” is one of the earliest of Robert Browning‘s dramatic monologues. The speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover” murders his girlfriend by strangling her with her hair, and then sits and admires the corpse for the rest of the night. The poem is from the point of view of a psychotic killer, which puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of reading the thoughts – or, if you’re reading the poem out loud, of giving voice to the thoughts – of a madman. This is just one reason that Browning’s monologues have received so much critical attention in recent decades.
Unfortunately for Robert Browning, though, most of his poetry was ignored during his life – his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was much more successful commercially. Ever heard of the sonnet “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…“? That’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing about her love for her husband, Robert. During the Victorian period (i.e., during the reign of Queen Victoria in Great Britain, or 1837-1901), readers preferred poems like Barrett Browning’s – poems about love and beauty – rather than poems like Robert Browning’s, which probe the psychological depths of criminals and murderers. (Source: Shmoop)
In the Victorian Era, the standard hairstyle for middle and upper-class women was an up-do because hair was considered a symbol of women’s sexuality, and that being so, hair was only worn loose in private, which was considered proper.
About Robert Browning –
Browning was ultimately an optimist who believed that human love was the surest evidence of divine love and that knowledge of God could only be arrived at by intuition. Most of the poetry for which Browning is known today, however, is populated by villains whose inner lives are laid bare by Browning’s astute psychological insights; they are often people in whom love is missing. His villains are complex and interesting because they are victims of their uncontrolled desires, rather than embodiments of abstract vices.(Encyclopedia of British Writers, 1800 to the Present, Second Edition.)
Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, England. His mother was an accomplished pianist and a devout evangelical Christian. His father, who worked as a bank clerk, was also an artist, scholar, antiquarian, and collector of books and pictures. His rare book collection of more than 6,000 volumes included works in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish. Much of Browning’s education came from his well-read father. It is believed that he was already proficient at reading and writing by the age of five. A bright and anxious student, Browning learned Latin, Greek, and French by the time he was fourteen. From fourteen to sixteen he was educated at home, attended to by various tutors in music, drawing, dancing, and horsemanship. At the age of twelve he wrote a volume of Byronic verse entitledIncondita, which his parents attempted, unsuccessfully, to have published. In 1825, a cousin gave Browning a collection of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry; Browning was so taken with the book that he asked for the rest of Shelley’s works for his thirteenth birthday, and declared himself a vegetarian and an atheist in emulation of the poet. Despite this early passion, he apparently wrote no poems between the ages of thirteen and twenty. In 1828, Browning enrolled at the University of London, but he soon left, anxious to read and learn at his own pace. The random nature of his education later surfaced in his writing, leading to criticism of his poems’ obscurities. (Source: Poets.org)