Saturday, 18 August 2012

Analysis of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ a poem by Robert Browning

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is a dramatic monologue by Browning where he speaks of the hypocrisy of the society and religion through the relationship of two lovers. The decay of morality and the ebb of man’s interest in religion along with the inflexibility of set social norms that destroys human relationships is brought to the front.

Prophetic fallacy is evoked with the storm that rages outside the lover’s cottage as he waits for his mistress. It is rather interesting that it is the lover waiting for the lady to come to him and not the lady waiting in her home. This can to some extent indicate the foundation of the relationship where the lady has more social status than the man. She may be the richer party of the two.
“I listened with heart fit to break”, the lines covey a sense of disturbance. It is not fond anticipation but a sort of despairing worry. This conflict is resolved immediately almost with the arrival of Porphyria who sails in at once. She does no pause or seem nervous which in a way makes one believe she is used to such meetings. They might have been lovers for some time. Porphyria is a sort of comfort blanket that shuts out the cold. Even though she does so, we later find that there is a storm being waged within her breast even as she makes the cottage more cheerful and warm by lighting a fire in the neglected grate.

Thus, the societal image of a woman as nurturing, warm, comforting and home making is juxtaposed with the image of a mistress, the illicit and sinful woman that society condemns. Porphyria now undresses and takes off her wet garments, shedding with them, parts of the ‘mask’ that society dictates. She lets her golden hair down symbolically letting down her guard.
The lady is Victorian society’s perfect model for female beauty with blue eyes, rosy lips and yellow hair. She can almost be Dickens’ angelic ‘Lucy’ from “A Tale of Two Cities”. After she has discarded the superfluities of her dress she comes to her lover. Her actions themselves show that she feels safe, her behavior would be in no way out of place in her dressing room. And yet, this seemingly natural set of actions must be looked upon as sinful for she is undressing before a strange man.

“And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. when no voice replied,…” 

Here, one has a certain sense of foreboding. There is something wrong with Porphyria’s lover for he seems to disturbed in his mind. This sets the reader thinking as to what the reason can be, but we are not immediately answered. Browning introduces the erotic (an aspect shunned in Victorian society) by graphically describing how Porphyria bares her shoulder to rest her lover’s head. She murmurs how she loves him which is curious, it is almost a reassurance. In the Victorian society a woman was not allowed to boldly confess her love and even though Porphyria braves the storm of society, the storm of physical elements outside; yet to man’s eyes – to her lover’s eyes – she is weak!

“Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vanier ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.”      

Porphyria is weak in her lover’s eyes because she can’t give up her social status for him, if we look at it from a Marxist feminist point of view. Had she been Laurence’s Lady Chatterley and her lover ‘the gardener’; she would have to give up her social standing to make herself appear strong to him. He wants her to come to him without pride (quite like Spenser’s statement in Epithalamion; of how is bride looks humble and meek) even though the truth is that by confessing her love and coming to him she has swallowed her pride.

Religion frowns upon dasuch conduct, society abhors it on the surface. And yet what happens so far in the poem is something quite common even the society of that day.
“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.”

There are several contradictions here that make one wonder about the fact that we are only seeing the whole picture through one person’s eyes and that too the man’s. While Porphyria leaves the feast to meet him yet she is more interested in the vanities of the world; though she weathers the storm for him, yet it is ‘he’ who loves in vain for ‘he’ despairs of possessing her. Porphyria is of no consequence, it is ‘I’ in this case the lover himself, which matters.

“Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.”

The lover’s self worth is inflated by the love he sees in her eyes. Society has conditioned us into estimating our worth on what others set for us. He is proud – mark that – because he can excite an emotion of love in her. There is some latent inferiority complex hidden there. “She worships him” just as a woman must worship the ground her husband trods on. And he is surprised she does so but though this discovery excites him, he is more concerned of what he should do. It is not enough that she loves him; a man must do something, he must either create or destroy as while woman may be content with love; possession and that to sole possession, belongs to the male.

Time is of consequence here. Now she is his but he wants her to be his eternally. She should be a part of ‘him’. She can have no self of her own. And so, he hits on the perfect solution which explains why the world has been thrown asunder by countless wars. The Rapunzel fairytale is shattered and so is Dickens’ concept of the golden thread. He strangles his mistress by winding her hair around her throat.

Porphyria felt no pain and died a happy death in the eyes of man. She could not feel pain because ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ decided she would not. Whether she did or didn’t is out of the question. She got what she wanted, her prays of being with him forever were answered in the way ‘he’ thought was right. There is no ‘we’ in the poem. There is only ‘I’. When God created man, woman was an afterthought. Despite all that happened between them there was no God to cry “Hold!”


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