Porphyria’s Lover

I'm going to sum up a poem today, because Robert Browning writes poetry that I can only classify as "Ohhh noooo, this is not the good acid."

"Porphyria's Lover" was a short 1842 poem that is great to teach if you want to horrify freshmen, or prove that the Victorians actually DID discuss sex. The full text can be found here. Porphyria is . . . well, you can read all the technical stuff here, but in shorthand, the Victorians used the term to indicate certain mental illness traits, such as the ones George III suffered. So this poem's got craziness and sex right in the title.

So the narrator is sitting inside his house in the countryside and the weather is rubbish, which matches his mood. So he sits there sulking for a while, until his girlfriend Porphyria comes over. There's a lot of debate if she's even a real person (although who would name their child Porphyria? Oh, no, wait, there are dozens of children named Chlamydia every year) or if she is a manifestation of his particular mental illness, or if she IS a real person, but the mental illness comes in with her and he correlates the two. Blah blah.

So his highly symbolic and possibly imaginary girlfriend comes over and she lights a fire and makes his cottage all warm and cozy. And once that's done, we get some really sexy imagery:

she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall

Y'all, this chick is not only probably "the help" (she had soiled gloves, which could be interpreted as belonging to a laborer/gardener/washerwoman, etc.) but she is also most definitely not a virgin. They are alone together in his house, which would have been strictly taboo for "honorable" women, she's taking off her "dripping" clothing (ew ew ew), and her hair is loose, which means that so is she.

Then, just in case we didn't get it:

And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
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,
Murmuring how she loved me—she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.

GOD, NARRATOR, YOUR NEUROSES ARE SO SEXUALLY AGGRESSIVE. So she comes in, makes a fire, slips into something more comfortable, and he's presumably just sitting there, not reacting. So she sits next to him, puts an arm around him, deploys her secret weapon sex-shoulder which she shoves his face on, covers him with her luscious locks, and is like, "Sex now?"

And he's kind of like, "I'm too depressed to, uh, rise to the occasion. But baby, I love that you worship me like this. You came all this way through a hurricane to make me feel better. And it worked, because now I feel POWERFUL. YOU ARE MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE".

So he grabs her long hair, like a ninja:

In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.

That's some gratitude for ya.

So he strangles her with her own hair (*cough* with her own sexuality *cough*), and then PLAYS WITH HER CORPSE LIKE A DOLL. He opens her eyes, props her head up on his shoulder, and kisses her feverish face:

The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!

Guys, "the smiling rosy little head" is glad it has had its will (aka, her death), because the things it scorned are gone (aka, her aggressive behavior). He's talking about his penis. He has an erection now, where he couldn't have one before, because she was too aggressive and it emasculated him. Seriously. That tends to be the most common reading of this line. It's by no means the only one, but . . . I mean, come on.

The poem ends with:

Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

He's basically saying, "Ha, sucker, you wanted to gain my love, and now you have–in a really messed up way. But you know what? GOD DOESN'T CARE. My conscience is clear." So he sits up all night with the death doll.

Some people read this as him "killing" porphyria, the mental illness. He refuses its seductive, consuming advances and cures himself by regaining power. Others read this as him killing his girlfriend through madness–through the porphyria. Others still read this not so much as real madness, but rather the obsession of male power. He's your average, "sane" guy who can't abide a woman being in control, so he goes overboard asserting his dominance, which is really just a manifestation of his insecurity.

Any and all of these readings work. I don't know that I subscribe to a favorite reading, myself. They are all wackadoo enough to please me.
We will definitely talk about more of Browning's poetry as time goes on. He has some doozies.

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