Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Porphyria's Lover" by Robert Browning (1836, 1842)

I've been writing poetry again.  I was encouraged to do so by my husband (with who I know I am blessed, and bless him).  This comes on the heels of a spate of poetry reading over the last few months, after a dearth of poetry for many years. I had decided I hated poetry.  What on earth was I thinking though?  Poetry is wonderful.  I'm so literarily fickle.

 Reading Browning is like trying to see the bottom of a very clear, beautiful pool of water after someone - probably you, but let's blame Browning - has thrown a stone into it right in front of you.  You see beautiful ripples, but you can't see the bottom again until it clears up.  Not all Browning works that way.  Some seem pretty straightforward - "OH, to be in England / Now that April’s there" seems to be exactly what it is, beautiful and famous paean to England from a man who no longer calls her his home.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps not.  With Browning, you never know.

All Browning  poems must be read at least twice.  Sometimes more than that.    And slowly. With minimal interruption.  The first time never, ever makes sense.  Sometimes you have to Google stuff.  I'm not sure how people read poetry in the Victorian times without Google.  They were either smarter (probably) or skimmed over the stuff they didn't understand (probably; I do this too).  

These factors of uninterrupted-ness make Browning difficult for modern life.  I also doubt he would have fit in well with society today.

Some Browning I do not like. "Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli" for example; I still have no idea what this was even about.  Or "Nationality in Drinks" (bleah).    A few of them, I struggled with and finally gave up. "Pictor Ignotus" comes to mind.   "Sordello" which was the first in my book, I just plain skipped right off the bat.

But quite a few, at least so far (I have hundreds of poems to go, I think, in this monster edition).    "Porphyria's Lover" for example. I loved this, because it is some CRAZY SHIT.  Why didn't we read THIS in college instead of "My Last Duchess"?  I love the mind that came up with this horror story masquerading as a poem.  Here it is at the Poetry Foundation.  And here is Tom O'Bedlam reading it on YouTube.  I don't know who Tom O'Bedlam even is, but he has hundreds of poems he reads aloud in this rich English accent on YouTube, and I love each and every one of them.

Maybe there is some real story of Porphyria; I did some research on some of the other persons in Browning's dramatic monologues (google:  "who was the duchess in my last duchess" or "who is  Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis" - a cute poem, incidentally, if anything Browning writes can be called cute) buy not about Porphyria.  I let the poem fester and ferment in my brain, because I liked the story I made up about it better than anything scholars could have come up with.  If I'm wrong, so be it.  But I like my interpretation.

So Porphyria is an aristocratic lady with a much richer, older husband.  She's in a passionless marriage.  Maybe she married him for his money; but I think it's far more likely that he married her for her money, a Consuelo Vanderbilt kind of character if you will.  And she has this long time lover, but she hasn't fully given her heart to him, because of her pride (he says as much) - he's poorer than her (he lives in a cottage, after all).  And then in a sudden flash of love and intuition, he realizes that she does love him after all, and to preserve that moment he - SPOILER ALERT, TRIGGER ALERT, and BAT SHIT CRAZY ALERT - strangles her to death with HER OWN GOD DAMNED HAIR.  Is this even possible?  Who the hell knows.  But it's deliciously gothic, and I ate it up with a spoon.  They then sit, with her dead head on his shoulder, all night long, "and yet God has not said a word."  What does that EVEN MEAN?  There is that rock in the clear pool again.

The great Browning poems least so far (I haven't yet read them all) have a neat twist like this the strangulation above.   He liked his gothic horror, "Oh to be in England" aside.

"My Last Duchess" (which I read and enjoyed in college) and "The Laboratory" both have this same feel; the latter is not quite as creepy as "Porphyria's Lover" but still crazy creepy. It's all a guy preparing poison to kill his wife or former lover and her current lover.


  1. When do we get to see some of your originals? :)

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