Saturday, January 17, 2009

Porphyria's Lover

by Robert Browning (1812–1889)

THE rain set early in to-night,

The sullen wind was soon awake,

It tore the elm-tops down for spite,

And did its worst to vex the lake:

I listen'd with heart fit to break.

When glided in Porphyria; straight

She shut the cold out and the storm,

And kneel'd and made the cheerless grate

Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;

Which done, she rose, and from her form

Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,

And laid her soil'd gloves by, untied

Her hat and let the damp hair fall,

And, last, she sat down by my side

And call'd 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 endeavour,

To set its struggling passion free

From pride, and vainer ties dissever,

And give herself to me for ever.

But passion sometimes would prevail,

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.

Be sure I look'd up at her eyes

Happy and proud; at last I knew

Porphyria worshipp'd me; surprise

Made my heart swell, and still it grew

While I debated what to do.

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,

Perfectly pure and good: I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her. No pain felt she;

I am quite sure she felt no pain.

As a shut bud that holds a bee,

I warily oped her lids: again

Laugh'd the blue eyes without a stain.

And I untighten'd next the tress

About her neck; her cheek once more

Blush'd bright beneath my burning kiss:

I propp'd her head up as before,

Only, this time my shoulder bore

Her head, which droops upon it still:

The smiling rosy little head,

So glad it has its utmost will,

That all it scorn'd at once is fled,

And I, its love, am gain'd instead!

Porphyria's love: she guess'd not how

Her darling one wish would be heard.

And thus we sit together now,

And all night long we have not stirr'd,

And yet God has not said a word!

I thought this poem was fascinating. What is Browning trying to say?

Parts of the poem read like a pamphlet on How to Deal with Victorian Hussies. It's interesting to note that porphyria is an enzymatic disease whose symptoms may have contributed to the rise of vampire legends; something, it seems, Browning knew. He seduces the reader, then makes him follow the inevitable blame, denial, and eventual defeat of the succubus. But in all his heroic posturing, he gradually leads us to the final question of the poem: which is the more demonic?

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