#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for January is one from the Poetry by Heart collection itself: Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning.
Lady Lillith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (source)
The frame features these words from Goethe translated by Shelley:
“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”
I’ve always wondered about the connections between the Shelley translation, the Rossetti painting, and the Browning poem.
I first encountered Porphyria’s Lover at school and it completely gripped me. The setup, with the stormy wind tearing at the landscape and the heartbroken narrator sitting alone in his cold cottage, strikes a suitably gothic tone. The tumult is stilled by the entrance of Porphyria; Browning is the master of the well-placed pause and he uses one to punctuate her arrival. The erotic charge as she “made her smooth white shoulder bare, And all her yellow hair displaced” is still as electric now as it was when I read it as a teenager. But what this poem showed me more than anything was the power of using an unreliable narrator.
Up to this point in my reading history, the voice in which novels and poems spoke to me was authoritative, omniscient,and trustworthy. But here, as Porphyria murmurs affection, was a narrator spitting venom in his internal monologue. The sands beneath the reader begin to shift; all is not as it seems.
The shock of the poem’s twist still chills me to the core. The horror of what he does, using the yellow hair she sexily displaced to wind three times around her neck, then the slamming, half-rhymed syllables: “And strangled her.” The dead stop takes my breath away.
Browning ends the poem in a cold present tense as the narrator’s madness is laid bare, and he sits unpunished and unrepentant. The certainties of literature meant for children were all gone; this felt terrifyingly adult and grown up. It opened my eyes to the idea that writers could play tricks on you with the voice they chose to write in, and led me to My Last Duchess, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and beyond.
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 listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled 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 soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
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 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 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.
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
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped 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 scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
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!
See a Poetry by Heart recitation of Porphyria’s Lover here.