By Robert Browning
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. 5
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 10
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, 15
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, 20
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. 25
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. 30
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. 35
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, 40
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. 45
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 50
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! 55
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! 60
Robert Browning fascinates me. The stories that he tells – and tells so brilliantly! – are generally dark and agonizing, but struck through with elements of the preposterous and sharp sight of humanity. What other poet could dare to make the opening word of a poem simply the emotional guttural “Grrrr“?
Browning himself declares that ” . . . we’re made so that we love /First when we see them painted, things we have passed /Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see; /And so they are better, painted—better to us, /Which is the same thing. Art was given for that” (“Fra Lippi Lippi”). One means that art has to impart this sight is the exaggerating human foibles, and Browning pretty much perfected this form.
How can a story be so clear in the details, and yet so fuzzy in the interpretation? Readings of this poem – such very delightfully Victorian poem! – generally vary from oral-retentive insanity to simple sexual frustration, and everything in between.
But the thing that I find the most striking in this poem is the very reasonableness and sympathy that I find in the narrator. The killer. The Lover.
(“This poem was originally published just as “Porphyria,” and the later change slightly shifts the focus very interesting direction.)
Leaving aside the morals of the whole muderous aspect of the poem, it seems to be an examination of Porphyria, and her love.
If loving is a surrendering of self, then Porphyria is not very good at it. She cannot even wait for her lover to come to her, but must first see to all the practical things, like cleaning the fire. She apparently wants to love. She has made a rendezvous in a secret place, in what for any Byronic heroine would result in ripped bodices and heaving bossoms. But she is too much in control for that to ever happen. Loving is receiving. It is embracing. Giving up of self.
Russel Kirk, in an analysis of Eliot’s The Waste Land, describes the modern distrust of such an act. “Give? That mean surrender – yielding to something outside of oneself. If sexual union is to fertile, there must occur surrender of self in some degree, momentary self-effacement in another. Lust, too true, may produce progeny; but those are the bats with baby faces. Larger even than procreation, giving or surrender means the subordination of self (as of the arrogant private rationality) to an Authority long derided and neglected. Can modern man surrender himself long enough to surrender unconditionally to the thunder from on high?” (Kirk, Eliot and His Age: The Moral Imagination).
This problem of ‘modern’ that Kirk and Eliot articulate can be seen in the Victorian Browning’s narratives. Here is a character so incapable of surrender, even to passing sensuality, that she can barely commune with her lover. She is the one who orchestrates all the interaction, to the extent of organizing the cuddling. So unnatural!
And then, for one moment, she loves. For one instant she lets herself be seen by her lover. Her desire to love, to surrender is seen; and she is not her own but is “perfectly pure and good” (37).
So the one who loves her helps her to make that single moment of self-giving last forever. Which really is the best way of living. And dying.
The poem ends in stillness and a quiet sympathy between the lovers, which appears to be blessed.