Friday, 30 March 2007

Freaky Browning

What perplexes me is how Elizabeth Barrett Browning read poems like 'Porphyria's Lover' and 'My Last Duchess' and thought, "What a lovely man that Robert Browning sounds, with his bizarre fantasies of wife-murdering. He sounds like the perfect husband." *shrug*

This essay has been the cause of so much angst. I can't even write 2000 words, or hand anything in on time, or turn up to anything. I am so useless. I shouldn't even be at university. I should be in a zoo. Waaaa.

Robert Browning, ‘Porphyria’s Lover:’ A Critical Appraisal

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is, in many ways, a surprising poem. Jack describes it as “a dramatised short story.”[1] Not only is it a narrative but the story is also told by its protagonist. It is, for this reason, rather like a soliloquy from a play: Browning called it a “dramatic lyric.” He published a pamphlet, Dramatic Lyrics, and wrote in the advertisement: “Such Poems as the following come properly enough, I suppose, under the head of ‘Dramatic Pieces;’ being, though for the most part Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.”[2] Browning later reclassified the poem as a “dramatic romance,” but really the genre title given to the poem is of little consequence. What is interesting is the emphasis Browning places in his advertisement on the difference between his narrators and himself, though obviously one can see, in the case of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ why Browning would be anxious not to be associated too closely with the protagonist of his poem.

Despite the character of Porphyria’s lover clearly not being Browning himself, one is led to wonder what connection there may be between the two. As Tracy writes, “Shakespeare often made fools speak deeper truths than his sane men” so maybe Browning was “using his protagonist to convey some of his own beliefs on life and love.”[3] Tracy also affirms, however, that Browning conveys “one positive moral principle: that it is better for a woman to be dead than to marry a man she does not love.”[4] There is certainly evidence in the poem that Porphyria is, in her lover’s eyes, too “weak” (line 22) to free her heart from pride and “vainer ties” (line 24), and marry him despite social restrictions, probably due to her being of a higher social status. However, another, encouraged suitor is not mentioned even implicitly. Furthermore, while it is generally accepted in our culture that marriage without love is a bad thing, the assertion that death is preferable is not necessarily a positive one.

Another aspect of this poem which makes it quite remarkable is how chilling it is. This is not only because of its subject matter, though poems about murder and madness rarely leave the reader feeling comfortable. Flowers believes that the calm tone with which the murderer speaks is largely responsible for the poem’s being so unsettling.[5] Slinn writes that this tone is achieved through the regularity of the verse, both the metre and the form, which demonstrates control over the narrative and the narrator’s emotions.[6] It could also demonstrate the lover’s control over Porphyria, which I will go on to discuss. Flowers writes that a similar control is displayed in the poem’s punctuation. In lines 1-5 and 26-30, for example, the colon expects the next line and the full stop signifies completion. The pattern is then broken when the reader is unprepared, just as the lover was psychologically unprepared for the sudden decision to murder Porphyria.[7] Interestingly, Jack’s interpretation of the lover’s state of mind appears to entirely oppose the one I have just discussed: “the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover,’” he writes, “is obviously (to put it mildly) over-excited.”[8] It is probable, I think, that this is the lover’s true state of mind, but that it is suppressed and disguised by an outer calmness. This calmness is frightening largely because of what it conceals.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is an unsettling narrative equally because of the issues of power and control that come into play. Initially, Porphyria is presented as very active. We see this most clearly in lines 10-20, with the accumulation of verbs, emphasised by each line’s beginning with “and.” By the end of the poem, however, Porphyria is, of course, entirely passive. It is not only this which pleases her lover, but also that he imagines she “worshipped” him (line 33). This domination-submission aspect of the poem makes its sexuality, which is apparent also in Porphyria’s pressing her bare shoulder against her lover’s cheek, disturbing. The lover’s possessiveness: “she was mine, mine” (line 36), likewise makes the reader uncomfortable. It is so extreme that Porphyria herself becomes a possession. She is, as Slinn writes, dehumanised, [9] and this is nowhere more apparent than when the lover speaks at length of her only in terms of her head, to which he refers as “it” (lines 52-55). Furthermore, the lover presents both the details of that evening’s events and the reduction of Porphyria to a mere set of attributes in precisely the same factual manner. For this reason, Slinn concludes that “it is the very objectivity of the narrative which is a startling illusion.”[10]

This blurring between objectivity and subjectivity leads to a blurring between fantasy and reality, or rather, it leads to delusion. The lover’s delusion is apparent: he believes the corpse’s eyes “laughed” (line 45) and describes her head as “so glad it has its utmost will” (line 53). His deluded state has led to discussion amongst critics concerning his sanity. Tracy writes, in an offhand manner, “The man, of course, is mad.”[11] Jack supports this view, as he claims that “Browning was particularly interested in insanity and every sort of mental imbalance.”[12] Phelps supports it likewise in his reporting that the poem was intended as a study in abnormal psychology and published with ‘Johannes Agricola’ under caption Madhouse Cells.[13] The lover’s madness seems, then, to be undisputed. Interestingly, though, Phelps adds that Browning believed, in his youth, that any man who murdered his love must be mad, but that he changed his mind later in life.[14] Browning’s initial opinion seems to be logical, as killing someone is the epitome of harming them, while love, by nature, seeks to serve and preserve. Phelps believes, however, that Porphyria’s murder was, at least in the eyes of her lover, a selfless deed, because he risks his own damnation in order to save her from the obstacles in carrying out her socially inappropriate love affair.[15] One must question, though, if the lover’s motive was really such an altruistic one: after all, he saved himself, as well as her, from the difficulties the relationship would cause and gained the control I discussed earlier.

The lover’s madness is of crucial importance when one considers the poem from a moral perspective. It could be argued that his responsibility for his actions is diminished, or even eradicated, that he is not to blame and the murder should be viewed simply as an unfortunate circumstance. Gransden writes that “Browning’s readers were intended to feel that it was irrelevant to condemn these characters as mad or wicked, yet they could not feel quite sure about this.”[16] This adds to the sense of unease which the poem evokes. Gransden also views this moral aspect in a different light, as he claims that the lover’s actions are inevitable and therefore aesthetically ‘right.’”[17] Yet the lover, in spite of his madness, demonstrates an awareness of his wrongdoing in his persistent self-justification: “I am quite sure she felt no pain” (line 42). It is unclear, though, whether it is himself or the reader he is trying to convince. If it is reader, he could be said to believe himself entirely justified.

Much of the moral speculation that has arisen amongst critics in discussion of the poem stems from the final couplet: And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” It is clear that Browning intended these lines to be remembered and meditated upon by his readers, as not only are they placed in their emphatic final position, but they form a rhyming couplet. Phelps points out that the phrase “God has not said a word” is ambiguous. It could mean that Porphyria’s lover believes God approves because he has not shown disapproval; it could also mean that the lover is disappointed because God has not expressed approval; or it could mean that the lover believes God to be indifferent.[18] Tracy’s interpretation of the ambiguity is similar: “Was the speaker expecting and subconsciously wishing for punishment? Was he either waiting for God to express his approval or implying that God’s silence was tantamount to his approval? Does the point lie in the irony of his astonishment that the universe has not been disturbed by his sordid crime? Or is there a God at all?”[19] It seems to me that the most likely possibility is that the lover is justifying his actions by claiming that God approves, even though one would generally expect him to disapprove of murder.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is, however, not a didactic, or even a particularly moral, sort of poem. As Gransden writes, “God is brought into the poem as a voyeur, not as a critic.”[20] Tracy views this as a failing: “His focus is blurred and his implications contradictory. Ambiguities like these [last lines] indicate Browning’s failure in these poems to provide enough room for his reader to sit beside him on his judicial bench.”[21] I see no reason, however, why this could not have been intentional, as not all poems invite moral judgements on the part of the reader.

What is paramount in this poem is the story it tells. The narration is extremely skilful in that the reader is taken on a type of journey through events, with a memorable beginning and end. The first five lines read:

The rain set in early tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worse to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.

The fifth line clearly points out that pathetic fallacy is being employed here, and on a second reading, we see that Porphyria’s lover is feeling a violent anger akin to that of the wind and that, though he is disguising it, he too has the potential for destruction. We then have a strong sense of foreboding and know that something terrible is about to take place. For the final image, that of a man sitting up through the night with a corpse in his arms, Browning switches to the present tense, “thus we sit together now” (line 58), to make the reader’s experience more immediate. This image remains with the reader like an aftertaste. ‘Porphyria’s Lover,’ then, cannot fail to have a strong effect on the reader and evoke discomfort.

The poem is also remarkable for its versatility. It, to some extent, raises moral issues: questions such relating to love transgressing social boundaries, the justification of murder and whether the mad can be held responsible for their actions. It employs a tremendous range of techniques to create a chilling effect on the reader, with metre, form and punctuation contributing to the lover’s horridly calm tone of speaking, madness and murder featuring in the story, and issues of power and control featuring pervasively. It also employs a range of devices in telling the story of Porphyria’s lover and ensuring that the reader is suitably unsettled by it. Browning was only twenty-four years old when the poem was published, and it is striking that a poet so young could have such a range of skills.


Flowers, Betty S., Browning and the Modern Tradition (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976)
Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy (eds.) The Norton Anthology of Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Inc, 2005)
Jack, Ian, Browning’s Major Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973)
Phelps, William Lyon, Robert Browning (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1932)
Slinn, E. Warwick, Browning and the Fictions of Identity (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982)
Tracy, Clarence (ed.), Browning’s Mind and Art (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1968) Tucker, Herbert F., Browning’s Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1980

[1] Ian Jack, Browning’s Major Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 79
[2] Ibid, p. 77
[3] Clarence Tracy, ‘Browning Speaks Out,’ in Browning’s Mind and Art, ed. Clarence Tracy (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1968), p. 8-9
[4] Ibid., pp. 9
[5] Betty S. Flowers, Browning and the Modern Tradition (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976), p. 129
[6] E. Warwick Slinn, Browning and the Fictions of Identity, p. 12
[7] Flowers, Browning and the Modern Tradition, p. 129
[8] Jack, Browning’s Major Poetry, p. 94
[9] E. Warwick, Slinn, Browning and the Fictions of Identiy, p. 12
[10] Ibid.
[11]Tracy, ‘Browning Speaks Out,’ pp. 8
[12] Jack, Browning’s Major Poetry, p. 94
[13] William Lyon Phelps, Robert Browning (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1932), p. 103
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., p. 104
[16]K. W. Gransden, ‘The Uses of Personae,’ in Browning’s Mind and Art, ed. Clarence Tracy (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1968), p. 62
[17] Ibid.
[18] Phelps, Robert Browning, p. 106
[19] Tracy, ‘Browning Speaks Out,’ pp. 9
[20] K. W. Gransden, ‘The Uses of Personae,’ pp. 62
[21] Tracy, ‘Browning Speaks Out,’ pp. 9

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