The narrator of "Porphyria's Lover" is a man who has murdered his lover, Porphyria. He begins by describing the tumultuous weather of the night that has just passed. It has been rainy and windy, and the weather has put the speaker in a melancholy mood as he waits in his remote cabin for Porphyria to arrive.
Finally, she does, having left a society party and transcended her class expectations to visit him. Wet and cold, she tends to the fire and then leans against the narrator, professing quietly her love and assuring him she was not deterred by the storm.
He looks up into her face and realizes that she "worshipp'd" him in this moment, but that she would ultimately return to the embrace of social expectation. Taken by the purity of the moment, he does what comes naturally: he takes her hair and strangles her to death with it. He assures his listener that she died painlessly. After she dies, he unwinds her hair and lays her corpse out in a graceful pose with her eyes opened and her lifeless head on his shoulder.
As he speaks, they sit together in that position, and he is certain he has granted her greatest wish by allowing them to be together without any worries. He ends by remarking that God "has not yet said a word" against him.
"Porphyria's Lover," published in 1836, is one of Browning's first forays into the dramatic monologue form (though he wouldn't use that term for a while). The basic form of his dramatic monologues is a first person narrator who presents a highly subjective perspective on a story, with Browning's message coming out not through the text but through the ironic disconnect of what the speaker justifies and what is obvious to the audience.
In this poem, the irony is abundantly clear: the speaker has committed an atrocious act and yet justifies it as not only acceptable, but as noble. Throughout the poem, the imagery and ideas suggest an overarching conflict of order vs. chaos, with the most obvious manifestation being the way the speaker presents his beastly murder as an act of rationality and love.
The clearest example of the disconnect between order and chaos comes in the poetic form. The poetry follows an extremely regular meter of iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line), with a regular rhyme scheme. In other words, Browning, always a precise and meticulous poet, has made certain not to reflect madness or chaos in the rhyme scheme, but instead to mirror the speaker's belief that what he does is rational.
Indeed, the order that the speaker brings to such a chaotic act is explained with rather romantic rationale. Porphyria, it is implied, is a rich lady of high social standing, while the speaker, out in his remote cabin, is not. She has chosen on this night to leave the social order of the world and retreat into the chaos of the storm to quell her tumultuous feelings for this narrator. Thus there is some indication of the theme of class, though it is far less pervasive in the poem than are the large questions of human nature. When the speaker realizes that Porphyria ultimately will choose to return to the order of society, while simultaneously believing that she wishes to be with him – she "worshipp'd" him, after all – he chooses to immortalize this moment by removing her ability to leave.
In this line of thought lies the key to understanding much of Browning's poetry: his sense of subjective truth. Unlike most poets, whose messages, even when obtuse, are fully formed, Browning believes humans to be full of contradictions and malleable personalities that shift constantly, sometimes moment to moment. Even if we assume the speaker understands the situation correctly when he identifies Porphyria as purely devoted to him at the moment of the murder, we are also to believe that she will soon retreat to a different contradictory personality, one that prizes social acceptance. So what the speaker undertakes is in some ways a fallacious yet heroic goal: to save Porphyria from the tumultuous contradictions of human nature, to preserve her in a moment of pure happiness and contentment with existing in chaos.
It is also interesting how Browning uses so much stock, melodramatic imagery to set his poem up. While the storm certainly suits his ideas as a symbol of chaos (as opposed to the order of society), it is akin to the 'dark and stormy night' setups of traditional stories. However, once Porphyria enters, the poem moves to a more explicitly sexual place – notice the imagery as she undresses and dries herself – that suddenly equates those natural forces with the human forces of sexuality. The speaker, who had "listen'd with heart fit to break" to the storm, seems to recognize in both of these parallel forces the existence of the uncontrollable. Considering the Victorian period in which Browning wrote, this sense of sexual freedom could be expected to prompt a judgment from his audience on Porphyria as an unwed sexual woman, a judgment that is quickly reversed when she becomes the victim of an even darker human impulse than sexuality (though one most certainly tied in with it). It is worth mentioning that the speaker does not take any sexual license with her dead body, but instead tries to maintain a sense of the purity he had glimpsed in her, creating a tableaux with her head on his shoulder that evokes childish affection rather than adult depravity. As with all things, Browning complicates rather than simplifies.
The overarching message of the poem is thus that humans are full of contradictions. We are drawn to both the things we love and the things we hate, and we are eminently capable of rationalizing either choice. Through such measured and considered language, we are invited to approve of the murder even as it disgusts us, and in the murder itself we are to forgive the woman for what we (at least if we were Victorian) might have otherwise judged her. Humans are creatures of transience and chaos, even as we belabor the attempt to convince ourselves that we are rational and that our choices are sound.
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Browning robert my last duchess and porphyrias lover
Mike Sobieraj English 203 Roger Gilbert The Lover and the Duke The creation of a plausible character within literature is one of the most difficult challenges to a writer, and development to a level at which the reader identifies with them can take a long time. However, through the masterful use of poetic devices and language Browning is able to create two living and breathing characters in sixty or less lines. When one examines these works one has to that they are quite the achievements for they not only display the persona’s of two distinct men but also when compared show large differences while dealing with essentially the same subject. A brief examination of the structural aspects of "Porphyria’s Lover" is needed before further analysis is done. One can break the poem up into twelve stanzas with an ababb stanzaic rhyme structure, though it is most often printed as a block poem. This would make it an alternately rhymed quatrain with a fifth line attached to create a couplet ending. The majority of the lines contain four iambic feet, though a few are nonasyllabic. Five of the twelve stanzas spill into the next stanza, thus detracting from their free-standing integrity. These stanzas are not syntactically self-containing and therefore the end-couplet value is undercut. If we examine the end of the eighth stanza we see that there is enjambment into the ninth stanza. In one long yellow string I wound, Three times her little throat around, And strangled her. (Browning, Porphyria’s Lover", Lines 39-41) This does detract from the couplet though it emphasizes the tone, making the understated nature even more sociopathic. This is one example of how this simple tool in itself masterfully accentuates the overall tone of understatement and the impression of lackadaisical unaffected speech. The majority of the words in this poem are monosyllabic which adds to the mood. However, what is more important is that the words that are polysyllabic are quiet and unassuming. They do not break the tense tranquility of the piece. Burrows points out that, Much of the force of the narrative lies in its almost naïve simplicity and in the corresponding quiet, matter-of-fact tone of voice, a tone which in effect is not shouting ‘Horrible murder! Read all about it!’ but murmuring, ‘I am going to tell you a nice little bedtime story.’ (Burrrows, page 53) Despite the fact that the metrical pattern is often strayed from, some lines contain 3 or 5 stresses, the poem is rhythmically appealing. According to Burrows, "[the poem] suggests the accents and modulations of speech and also remains quietly unemphatic." (page 56) A similar analysis of "My Last Duchess" is also needed before the two can be compared adequately. The frigid decorum of the Duke is established by the imperceptible, but unfailing, rhyming couplets. The inability for the reader to notice these during recital of the poem is due to the extreme prevalence of enjambment within the work. According to Burrows, "It is decidedly the ‘open’ couplet that he uses, and there are many ‘run-on’ lines since syntactical pauses rarely coincide with couple-endings or line endings." (page 116) The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter though the rhythm feels more irregular due to the deliberate disregard for the formal couplet pattern. This also creates the sense or beat of regular speech and helps to create the tone of the Duke’s voice. The Duke does not seem as formal in this poem (as his created persona suggests him to be normally). This laxness is done in a coldly calculating way creating a visible façade. Burrows realizes that, The quiet, casual conversation tone prevails throughout the except for one brief moment when the Duke reaches the understated climax of his last duchess’s history and his phrases harder into a lapidary laconism. (Burrows, page 120) This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. (Browning, "My Last Duchess", lines 45-6) There is a literary implement that this poem has not contained within "Porphyria’s Lover" to any knowledge. This is the use of historical allusion. Louis S. Friedland, through his research, has shown that the Duke is most likely based on Alfonso II, the fifth Duke of Ferrara. (DeVane, pages 108-9) He lived in Italy during the Renaissance, and the similarities are impressive. Alfonso II married a daughter, Lucrezia, of the Medici family. She was not well educated and was from what would have been considered by nobility an upstart family. She came with a sizeable dowry and they married in 1658. Three years later she was dead, and there was a strong suspicion of poisoning. The Duke then went to seek the hand of Barbara, the daughter of Ferdinand I of Spain, and the niece of the Count of Tyrol. The count was in charge of arranging the marriage and used Nikolaus Madruz, a native of Innsbruck, as his courier. The mention of Claus from Innsbruck in the poem is most likely the Duke’s method of softening him up, of saying, "I know your people and respect their work." The similarities between the two poems are skin deep. Both the poems trace the history of a jaded man’s obsession with a woman that did not meet his expectations culminating in her murder. From this point the poems start diverging. In "Porphyria’s Lover" the Lover is not speaking to anyone specifically, and it is quite feasible that he is speaking to himself after he has committed the act, perhaps, for the purpose of self-justification. The Duke is speaking to the representative of the Count whose ward he is trying to marry. There are, of course, the obvious differences in the class situation of each of these men. The Lover is of lower social position than Porphyria, and because of this she is unwilling to marry him. The Duke is nobility and one gets the impression the Duchess might not have been. She is not grateful for his "gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name." The use of the word gift implies that she has just recently become aristocracy. These class differences are easily seen in the diction and the attitude that is characteristic of each of these men. The intent of the Lover, though brought to action in an insane way, is much more noble than that of the Duke. --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 forever. (Browning, "Porphyria’s Lover", lines 20-25) His murder of her is the only way that he can think of for them to be together. This is what Porphyria yearns for though she is to weak to break social taboo and marry him. The Duke does not kill the Duchess out of love, but because he is insecure. His ego cannot take a woman that is so visibly strong and democratic in nature. The murder is the Duke’s way of removing and affront to his perception of aristocracy, and also of eliminating his feelings of jealousy and insufficiency. The women in both of these poems are definitely secondary though Browning lets the Duchess become a freer entity than Porphyria. The Duchess manages to escape the Duke’s possessive "My" while Porphyria is never really able to escape the Lover’s, "she was mine, mine." The Lover’s murder results from the fact that he is unable to be with his female ideal due to her weakness while the Duke was oblivious to the fact that he already had this female ideal as his wife. The idealness of the Duchess is evident through the description of her personality. She is always smiling, gracious, and kind to all without distinguishing based on class. The symbols that Browning uses, such as "the white mule" and "the bough of cherries" brought to Porphyria by a worshipper, are traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary. Porphyria is not ideal though she does possess many admirable qualities. The Lover refers to her as "perfectly pure and good." Symbolically we see her positive nature through her blazing up the "cheerless grate" and making "all the cottage warm" which both, cottage and grate, represent the Lover. Her name, Porphyria, as Burrows mentions, comes from porphyry, a beautiful red stone with a lovely glow. (page 59) From this we see that her only flaw is her inability to give herself fully to the Lover due to class and pride. Thus Browning leaves the reader with a greater ambivalence toward her. Through the differences he instills in the characters of the Duchess and Porphyria Browning changes the readers conception of the Duke and the Lover. One is horrified by both of their acts, but is much more tolerant of the dejected and hurt Lover than of the snobbish and misogynistic Duke. "Porphyria’s Lover" and "My Last Duchess" are two of Browning’s impressive monologues that, through the use of poetic devices, develop unique male protagonists. Evident class differences and social issues arise from these works. "Porphyria’s Lover" contains the detail and development that would normally be found in a short story while the much denser "My Last Duchess" could be said to encompass an entire novel. Thus we can see that these brief works both show a unique mastery by Browning of creating the fictional psyche. The bizarre interrelationship between man and woman is fully captured within these works. There is pain, jealousy, rejection and happiness. The majority of the spectrum of emotions associated with love and marriage is contained by these pieces. From them we can learn the nature of love should allow people to conquer class distinction and that marriage should avoid sexist male tendencies. Inadequacy is a feeling that pervades both poems, and is evident through the voices of their protagonists. One can see its horrifying effect immediately. Men need to learn to deal with their possessive and aggressive natures in a way that creates a love that is beneficial to both partners not to just one. Browning, in these works, is painting the side the Romantics before him neglected to. Works Cited Browning, Robert, Robert Browning: Selected Poetry, (London: Penguin Books, 1989), pp. 17-8 and 25-6 Burrows, Leonard, Browning the Poet, (Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 1969), pp. 51-61 and 115-121 DeVane, William Clyde, A Browning Handbook, (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. 1955), pp. 108-9
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