The Storm Within and the Storm Without: Porphyria’s Lover
THE STORM WITHIN AND THE STORM WITH OUT
Porphyria’s Lover – Literary Analysis
The finest woks of Browning endeavor to explain the mechanics of human psychology. The motions of love, hate, passion, instinct, violence, desire, poverty, violence, and sex and sensuousness are raised from the dead in his poetry with a striking virility and some are even introduced with a remarkable brilliance.
Thanks to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, so many people living in such close quarters, poverty, violence, and sex became part of everyday life. The absence of family and community ties meant newfound personal independence; it also meant the loss of a social safety net. The mid-nineteenth century also saw the rapid growth of newspapers, which functioned not as the current-events journals of today but as scandal sheets, filled with stories of violence and carnality. Hurrying pedestrians, bustling shops, and brand-new goods filled the streets, and individuals had to take in millions of separate perceptions a minute. The resulting over stimulation led, according to many theorists, to a sort of numbness. Notably many writers now felt that in order to provoke an emotional reaction they had to compete with the turmoils and excitements of everyday life had to shock their audience in ever more novel and sensational ways. Thus violence also became a sort of aesthetic choice for many creative people.
Browning can be charged of also employing violence as a tool for evoking aesthetic brilliance but this is only at the superficial level. Because when it comes to the use of violence in his poems we find them as close to reality as reality itself. His poems show us the human passions in flesh and blood and he was not going to be one who denied the presence of violence as a potent human passion or one who presented it as something out of proportion just to create sensation. His incorporation of violence with other human passions was real just and fully understandable. Many of Browning‘s more disturbing poems, including “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” reflect this notion.
In his poem “Porphyria’s Lover” we find Browning at his best. The poem is a love poem… but has a lot more to offer than just the bright sunny side of love. For Browning love was a passion, which had its destructive side as well. But this did not in anyway lessen or tarnish its reputation as being the purest emotion. In fact the destruction that mostly love brought on the characters of Browning’s poems was mostly due to other reasons like violence, may be.
Porphyria’s Lover also demonstrates several of Robert Browning‘s defining characteristics as a poet. It contains his criticism towards the beliefs and practices of self-restraint and his traditional use of dramatic monologue to expose a single character’s personality, which in turn often provides an additional depth to his works in coordination with his use of unpoetic language. Also taking into account the author’s own personal experiences with his wife, the poem can also be perceived as a representation of the development of their relationship. Browning‘s criticism of the idea of self-restraint is evident throughout the poem “Porphyria’s Lover” as it was shown in the internal debates both characters underwent as they decided whether or not they should consummate the love between them.
In Robert Browning‘s dramatic monologue, “Porphyria’s Lover,” the love-stricken frustrations of a nameless speaker end in a passionate, annihilating response to society’s scrutiny towards human sensuality. Cleverly juxtaposing Porphyria’s innocent femininity and her sexual transgression, Browning succeeds in displaying society’s contradictory embrace of morality next to its rejection of sensual pleasure. In an ironically tranquil domestic setting, warm comfort and affection come to reveal burning emotional perversions within confining social structures. The speaker‘s violent display of passion ends not with external condemnation, but with the matter-of-fact sense of a duty fulfilled. Porphyria’s lover sits next to his murdered love without any regretful aftermath or consequence; from the narrator’s viewpoint, a perception wholly distorted by the forced internalization of his feelings for Porphyria, not even the ultimate hand of God can rob him the serenity of a moment free from judgment.
Porphyria’s Lover is his first dramatic monologue in which we are witness to the union of two lovers. This union, as the poem reaches its end, culminates in to a unique eternal nirvana. Browning‘s presentation of an unreliable narrator is necessarily so, for in the ironically ordinary setting of Victorian simplicity, the speaker‘s insanity is justified and accounted for. With traditional notions of nature’s wrath and God’s omnipotence framing the start and finish of the scene, Browning employs the narration’s natural poetic flow in order to heighten the blow of the unexpectedly unorthodox turn of events. The speaker‘s great passion comes to parallel that of God, nature, and ultimately, social expectations, thus embodying the force of the “sullen wind” (Line 2) itself. Moreover the very beginning of the poem shows a setting where the nature is presented in wrath and fury- violence marks its presence from the very onset. This is in fact a sign of forces other than ‘love’ at work. As the young goddess is shown gliding across to meet her lover, the forces of nature rage around. They represent the various odds going against the two lovers. The use of nature as an opposing force by the master poet is a splendid technique. The reason being only nature in its enormity would have been potent enough to match the magnanimous stature of love. And Browning did want to convey this message across that despite its pure magnanimity love was overshadowed and forced to change its direction because of other forces. And the consequences of such changes though ending up in the final victory of love did cast rather painful shadows.
The first line of the poem,
The rain set early in tonight,
is indicative of the fact that there was something that was not right. Something that was unusual. Something that was just not befitting the sacredness of the meeting of the two lovers. The very word ‘early’ provides that desired effect and the reader at once realizes the inevitability of fate. The word also signifies that there was a certain degree of expectation and hope; that the rain would set in late at some other expected time. The feeling of hope that things might have worked the way love wanted them to!
In the next line the use of ‘sullen’ is actually the word that cements the fact that there are opposing forces working against love. Moreover the sheer potency that the force of wind represents shows the odds that the passion of love is up against. Even though the reader has no idea what the poem is going to bring but the mention of the force of wind is enough to make us realize that there is s tension from the very outset. The whole feeling is further substantiated by the word ‘vex’ in the third line. More over water symbolizes femininity and the line,
and did its worst to vex the lake
shows that Porphyria was made to face the worst possible odds. Just like the wind tore across the elm tops and tried its utmost to disturb the waters… so did the forces of fate tried their best to stop her from meeting her lover.
Browning grants certain credibility to the narrowness of the speaker‘s viewpoint in that it displays the most extreme result of lifelong subservience to the world’s own confining expectations. Introducing nature’s unpredictability at the onset of the poem, Browning suggests the detrimental effect of an outside force and foreshadows the speaker‘s equally spiteful gesture: “It tore the elm-tops down for spite, / And did its worst to vex the lake: / I listened with heart fit to break” (3-5). Here the speaker muses about his apparent powerlessness to weather’s force, the symbolic obstacle of the outside world that keeps Porphyria away.
The next line is the point where very cleverly the poet manages to change the focus of attention of the reader to the lover without losing any of the effect that the imagery and settings has created so far…
I listened with heart fit to break.
This line is indicative of another thing and that is that the lover was waiting desperately and has reached a certain degree of impatience when his beloved enters the sordid cottage.
The room where the lover is waiting also signifies a certain level of pathos that is underlying throughout the poem. The next few lines are simply drenched in love and tenderness that the lover has for Porphyria in these pathos-ridden surroundings. First the use of the word ‘straight’ shows the level of devotion the two lovers have. It shows how keenly and decisively the poet was waiting for her that he noticed every single detail- as how she came in straight to him and how dearly Porphyria wanted to meet him.
The next line is simply fantastic in its construction as it shows the love between the two in its totality.
She shut the cold out and the storm,
The poet does not use the word of door anywhere though it is understood that she must have shut the door when she came in. But does this imply that before she came the doors were open. I would not agree to that; but rather it signifies the fact that the sheer presence of Porphyria had barged out the cold, dreariness and the ‘storm’ – the storm here carries dual meaning of one that was raging outside and the other one that was the barrage of questions twisting and swirling in the mind of the lover. Thus her arrival had brought to peace the storm outside and the storm inside; or to put it in more appropriate terms the lover no longer cared for the storm outside as the storm inside him had been pacified by her person. Further as the poem proceeds we realize more of the purity in the love of the two characters. Porphyria kneels down and all the grim shadows of uncertainty and confusion fade away… her sheer presence had provided the lover with all the warmth he needed to bring him back to life. The line is suggestive of a motherly feeling especially as well; the word ‘warm’ marks the motherly essence in the love. The motherly feeling here is presented in the broader sense of the word, as one of selfless love. Further more the use of this word also amplifies the fact that her motherly tenderness for her lover had endowed upon the dreary cottage a home like aura.
Browning is a master of senses. At his best he is like a painter who uses simple actions, simple images, and everyday feelings to represent vaulting passions and towering emotions. In the next lines that follow, we find the poet using simple images of Porphyria to display her sensuous facet or to be more exact her feminine element.
Which done, she rose, and from her form
These lines present a beautiful scene of a young maiden getting up. Now the impression one gets from these lines are those of a young girl standing up with her slender physique, her chiseled limbs, and her proud manner in which she carries herself. All the actions that follow are multifarious in their implications. For one they show a young girl going through motions that are indeed a compliment to her physique
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
A young girl taking off her cloak and shawl would be going through the motions that would amplify her beauty in a very sensuous manner. Moreover they also show that the girl is absolutely at ease with her beloved meaning there by that she felt completely at home. Furthermore the way in which she takes off her gloves and then her hat… all show that she meant to spend some time and was not in a rush and that she felt comfortable with her lover. And then finally after done with all that she sat by his side. Thus Browning’s genius is evident here, as he has used simple actions to highlight two different facets that fully substantiate the feeling of love between the two characters- one of sensuousness and the other of trust and purity.
Love is a strange emotion. In fact it is one of the most puzzling emotions ever. And yet it is the simplest. Considered in its entirety it is an insatiable desire for satiation, an ever increasing thirst for more and yet it gives you that little joy that is suffice enough to keep you going for a life time, it fills you with that unique pleasure which though lasts for a moment but leaves you with an ecstasy, so full and complete.
And, last, she sat down by my side
These lines are followed by remarkable lines that exude the aura of such passionate and tremendous love. From the moment she sat by his side we find a strange tinge of sensuousness amalgamate itself with the tone of love so dominating in the whole poem. Porphyria sat beside her lover just like a child snuggles beside his mother. She could feel the same calm and repose that a child feels at the side of his mother. But from here starts the strange union of sense with feelings, of adoration with desires… as she reaches out to her lover and finds him not responding to her, she at once realizes that he was going through the motions of that emotion which a child encounters when after getting noticed by his mother he wants to be pampered.
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
Paradoxically, the warmth of Porphyria’s love appears to the narrator to be so temporary that it incites his own predominant passion. Innocently seeking to comfort her afflicted lover, Porphyria forces him to embrace her and makes “her smooth white shoulder bare” (17). Abruptly, Browning‘s scene of chilling weather interrupted by warm companionship becomes a picture of overt sexual expression amidst the cottage’s roaring fire. The initial presentation of traditional domesticity, a comforting shelter from a raging storm, turns quickly now to unstoppable, passionate pace. These lines that follow are of one of the most critical nature as they are hinging on the two extremes of love and physicality. A little turn towards either could make a complete mess of the scene, a total collapse of the expression, and a break in the rhythm. But this juncture shows us Browning in his full splendor. This is the point that distinguishes him. Like a seasoned doctor he carries out the dissection of the emotions, bringing forth the two elements of love and physicality in complete balance and striking fusion.
Porphyria’s action of putting her arms around his waist is indicative of the trust she had on him. But then the very next line is masterfully interwoven in this aura and presents a picture of conditioned yet subtle lure. She bares her shoulder before her lover. Now the use of a bare shoulder is one of the most intelligent symbols to represent sensuousness as a bare shoulder has a very unique shape. It is ‘smooth’ and ‘white’, and moreover it has a ‘curving shape with soft flesh’ around it. Now such a physical image is enticing because it incorporates in itself strong feminine quality as the ‘curves and soft smooth flesh’ speak of the untold story about the girl…!
Illicit sex out of wedlock presented a major concern for Victorian society; the famous Victorian “prudery” constituted only a backlash to what was in fact a popular obsession with the theme: the newspapers of the day reveled in stories about prostitutes and unwed mothers. Here, however, in “Porphyria’s Lover,” sex appears as something natural, acceptable, almost wholesome: Porphyria’s girlishness and affection take prominence over any hints of immorality.
The odyssey continues in this land of strong passion of love and we find the lines heightening in the physical imagery showing love in its full splendor. Porphyria made her lover lay his cheek on her bare shoulders and let her hair fall loosely around … This whole image speaks volumes about the balance in the motions of love that the two lovers had. To add the final touches to this fine picture of perfect love Porphyria softly re-confesses her love for the young man. Here brilliantly the poet explains the feelings of the young lady as she expressed her love for her lover … by using the word ‘murmuring’, Browning is hinting to the eventual femininity that underlines her heightened feelings. She is after all a girl whose vaulting passions are tamed down by her femininity. The poet speaks out the lovers mind here as well, saying that he perceived this softness in confession to be the cooing down of her feminine self in the face of opposition from ‘pride, and vainer ties’, instead of giving herself to him in the powerful flow of her emotions. But this at no point suggests that the lover had any grievance or doubt on her love for him. Thus these lines points out the basic feminine psyche, that a girl is basically weak when it comes to facing the world but this in no way suggests that her passions are not strong enough. And moreover they also hint at the Victorian society’s respect for hollow ideals like ‘pride’.
Browning‘s poem cannot be seen merely as a character analysis of a nameless speaker; its events frame not only the speaker‘s apparent insanity but the primary source of his distorted emotions. The narrator’s own “struggling passion” (23) impedes his ability to think and act in a way that society views appropriate; yet, paradoxically, it is society’s limited notion of what is appropriate that kindles the ultimately fatal fire of his passionate endeavor. The next few lines are splendid example of Browning’s genius as the lover answers his own views about the femininity of her beloved, prevailing over her passion with the realization that her passion had prevailed at least that night as she came gliding through the rain and thunder with in and without to her lover. The whole notion of his beloved coming to him despite the unfavorable odds makes him feel proud of her and the way Browning conveys this notion also reminds the reader of the typical male psyche!
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me….
The lover feels a strange sense of relief as if he has regained a sense of surety that he stills possess his possession… so much typical of the male psyche.
Now we enter the point of debate where the love of the lover is rattled by the conflict that starts to grow in his heart. This line of Browning is so violent as it is filled with all the conflict, anguish, fear, disturbance, which one can imagine
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good:
The line is filled with a strange amalgam of relief, achievement, anguish, and fear. The first two words ‘that moment’ have been very dexterously placed and they fulcrumize the two extremes of anguish and relief… as if something that is there and one feels so relaxed and then the very next moment the heart is gripped by the fear that will it be there the next moment.
So fighting it out in the middle the lover finally resolves to eternalize that moment when she is there with him. Further more importantly, “When glided in Porphyria” (60), the narrator’s weakened heart has already been broken many times if not once, both by social restrictions on his love affair, and the subsequent limitations on Porphyria’s love for him. Therefore, the speaker‘s distance from the world outside becomes also an inability to respond to Porphyria upon her entrance; he sits in the cottage wanting only her love, without need of explanation, so that when he is spoken to, “no voice replied” (15). Soon, Porphyria’s gift of comforting warmth within the storm exacerbates his obsession to the point of insanity-driven violence. This is a very revealing stage. The violent love shines out in its total brilliance. He takes a string of her hair and winds it around his beloved’s neck three times… the line is so blatantly clear; he is going to kill her… he is going to kill the one thing he would be willing to die for!
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.
The over mounting horror has been cleverly dealt with the next line in which the lover reveals his conviction of his belief that she felt no pain. First he says,
No pain felt she;
And then as if to substantiate his view he adds
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
This line perhaps encompasses the whole love of the lover…. his belief that what he desires would be the same thing desired by his beloved. Somehow the line acts as a balm to the stressful event maybe. Such is the intensity his conviction that may be the reader is even drawn to the belief that this is the right to thing to do. Or maybe this line in a way sanctifies the whole act. His strong faith in his conviction exudes a feeling of satisfaction and consummation as well on the part of the lover. But seen in another light the speaker‘s lust for precedence over other forces in Porphyria’s life evidently leads to her fatal end. His ecstasy at her new, momentary devotion leaves him at the gate of attaining his dream, but without any sense of trajectory: “Porphyria worshipped me; surprise / Made my heart swell, and still it grew / While I debated what to do” (33-35). On the instantaneous realization of Porphyria’s love, the speaker‘s requited passion and rational mind still stand separate to some extent. However, it is not long before his heated desire to keep her “Perfectly pure and good” (37) lead him to find “A thing to do” (38). The narrator’s being situated above social law, if but only once, proves to be so stunningly empowering that he loses rational ability to decipher anything but a self-centered whim. The complacency of Browning‘s speaker in carrying out his murderous deed ironically reflects the complacency of society towards the sexual, aesthetic, and sensual pleasures of life. Exhibiting no definite regret beyond the weariness of having taken what was the only available path, the speaker points to the painlessness of his lover’s necessary death: “No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain” (41-42). However, Browning‘s presenting the reader with an unreliable narrator serves only to intensify the psychological effects of his unrequited love, and says nothing for the supposed convictions and yearnings of Porphyria. While Porphyria finds her way to the speaker through the symbolically oppressive weather of the outside world, the speaker kills her upon realizing not only society’s restrictions on their relationship, and maybe also his belief of Porphyria’s own unwillingness to love him fully but for the present moment. Browning presents the justifiability of the murder only through the stricken eyes of the narrator; while the poet points to social confines as the cause of the speaker‘s insanity, he does not discount the narrator’s moral responsibility for the deed.
The next actions that follow this act also amplify these notions. He opened the lids of her eyes and saw them as laugh as freshly and sweetly as they were before. Such was the intensity of his love for her that he could not see any change that the violent blow of death had brought on her, but does this at nay stage justify the murder. Calmly he untied the firm hold of her tresses around her neck and passionately kissed her on her cheek. It is evident that the social barriers had made his love hinge on madness. For him that moment is forever when Porphyria was his own. But under all these charges of insanity, the intensity of his love is undeniable as he propped his darling’s head on his shoulder and as they sat in that calm… he realizes that may be this was what Porphyria wanted too… and so both had the love they wanted… such was the union that not even the heavens had not said a word.
Thus in freezing the moment and liberating the two of them from social structures, Browning distorts the deed to a point where it appears to be a divine event foreseen even by God. In toying with Porphyria’s dead body, the narrator relates not the coldness of sudden death, nor the warmth of sitting with his love, but the blazing, untouchable serenity of enacted passion: “her cheek once more / Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss” (49). In the moment of Porphyria’s death, the existence of her heated love for the speaker appears to him to be so infallible that God cannot even intervene: “All night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” (59-60). Browning presents the viewpoint of a speaker educated in the divine workings of an ultimate force, yet the long-stifled yearnings of an unjustly socialized man color the intensity of the situation. In Browning‘s dramatic monologue, God’s hand of judgment shifts away from the murderer himself and onto the culture that first inhibited the speaker‘s rational thought.
Browning‘s characterization of a nameless speaker in “Porphyria’s Lover” forms an unexpectedly conclusive response towards the sensual numbness of Victorian society. While the suggested insanity of the speaker would traditionally indicate the narrator’s unreliability in a moral sense, Browning constructs the isolated scene such that the lover’s emotional internalization is not only understandable, but divinely justified. The musings and actions of this unreliable narrator serve to illustrate the consequence of society’s confines in a shockingly violent release. Through naturally flowing language, this poetic account of burning emotion within a setting of tranquil domesticity presents the all-consuming power of human sensuality in its bleakest attempt to override social structures.