How does Browning Reflect this Fear in his Poem, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’
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Many men in Victorian Britain were concerned with some women’s desire for independence; they feared that they could loose their dominion and supremacy over them, which was a valued and respected custom. The men cherished their pre-eminence over their spouses; the thought of being deprived of it aggravated them and they believed that they needed to protect it in order to maintain their valued traditions.
The Victorian’s once civilized and courteous lifestyle, where women obeyed every man’s wish, had been overwhelmed by the ever-growing popularity of scandalous stories displayed enticingly in the media. As a consequence of society taking a greater interest and curiosity in previously taboo topics such as sex, violence, promiscuity and madness – topics newspapers thrive off – the media had its biggest development during the Victorian period.
Access to read about these ‘dissolute’ and ‘immoral’ matters therefore increased, subsequently, more of society became influenced by the disobedient minority. Gradually, it became more normal to act violent or to sleep around – it was still seen as immoral but more people took to it While society’s loss of morals increased, the women’s ability to gain independence became easier. During the mid 1800’s women seized advantage of the public’s depletion of morals and began taking the liberty to go out socialising without their partners.
Devoid of the vigilant eye of their spouse, the women could easily flirt with other men, and over time, this may have resulted in them having an affair. Robert Browning refers to women socialising without their partners in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, line twenty-seven states “Nor could tonight’s gay feast restrain” to which Porphyria seems to have attended on her own because the poem suggests that Porphyria came from the feast and through a storm to join him, “When glided in Porphyria; straight she shut the old out and the storm”.
As a rising number of stories regarding prostitutes, unwed mothers and adultery became topics of interest, society became increasingly worried that its purity was deteriorating. The behaviour of Porphyria in the poem echoes the perception of infidelity and adultery portrayed in the outrageous articles in the media. The poem proposes that Porphyria and the Lover may be of a different social class; it is suggested that Porphyria had arrived at the Lover’s cottage from a social gathering, “gay feast”.
It was very common at the time for higher class individuals to attend these, in an endeavour to better their self-worth. Because of their differences of social status, their relationship between Porphyria and her Lover is socially forbidden, however she continues. Her disobedience stresses the reality that she is content to break the rules, again showing the careless side of society’s thoughts on moral behaviour; which evidently meant very little to Porphyria. In addition, purity issues are underlined when she tempts the lover to gain his affection.
Her actions could be portrayed as being quite sexual in the Victorian period, “she put my arm about her waist, and made her smooth white shoulder bare. ” Her actions prove that she may not be quite as innocent as she is perceived. The proposal that she may possibly not be so chaste contrasts with the language that is used to describe her beauty and character, such as; “when glided in Porphyria”, “smooth white shoulder”, “perfectly pure”, which all are very praising references.
After reading the poem and seeing this contrast, the reader may question whether this could be a reflection of similar circumstances that are taking place in their lives and society. They may look deeper into the issue and realise that society isn’t quite what it seemed; on the outside individuals may try to behave as what was considered morally acceptable but in reality they could be committing adultery or thieving etc. they may have covered it up by pretending to be “perfectly pure”.
In the Victorian period, roles of women were considered inferior to men’s; this started from an early age, for example: girls were not expected to attend school, whereas boys were, this was hoped to guarantee that the boys would grow up to be intelligent, commendable, and if successful, wealthy gentlemen. The girls were supposed to stay at home with their mother or nanny and learn to knit, cook and clean. They were always supposed to respect the men. All of these skills were seen as vital if they wanted to be perceived as laudable ladies; their duty was to provide the men’s needs.
The method in which Browning reflects the way women were ‘meant’ to behave towards men is first displayed when Porphyria enters the cottage, “When glided in Porphyria: straight she shut the cold out and the storm”, as soon as she is inside, she kneels and lights the fire while he sits silently just watching, “And kneeled and made the cheerless grate blaze up, and all the cottage warm;”. ‘Kneeling’ is a genuflection; it could be seen as a gesture of religious respect or to show excessive respect when addressing an individual that is more superior to oneself.
I think that using this kind of language emphasises the theme of self-importance on the part of the Lover. Furthermore, the Lover declares later on in the poem that “Porphyria worshipped me”. ‘Worshipping’ is generally associated with God, therefore it gives the reader the impression that he is comparing himself to God, he later emphasises this notion by stating that, “God has not yet said a word”. This statement also highlights the idea of grandiose self-worth; believing that the horrendous transgression he has perpetrated is not wrong, it is almost like he is suggesting that he is the judge of what is right and wrong.
He also augments this by saying, “That all is scorned at once is fled, and I, its love, am gained instead! ” implying that he believes that he is superior to God who creates life and life itself. All these are endeavours the Lover implements to make himself more worthy to admire, and be respected; therefore, discretely intending that Porphyria will not gain full independence from him. Powerful, dominant individuals commonly display mannerisms including superficial charm, authority, high influence, deviousness and are capable of being very controlling and manipulative.
These together are also the contrasting traits of a psychopath; the reader may question whether there is so much of a difference between a controlling person and a psychopath after reading this. The approach the lover takes when he provokes Porphyria into giving him attention is very manipulative; he is irresponsive and moody attempting to gain Porphyria’s attention, “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”. He is skilful when influencing people to undertake certain decisions; this mannerism is certainly one of a powerful entity.
The reality that women began to succeed in escaping the men’s control frightened the men and they consequently felt the need to become even more possessive than before. Browning explores this fear through a variety of techniques, especially through the language used. The Lover is portrayed as being overly possessive and he seems to adore the notion of owning someone, “that moment she was mine, mine, fair, perfectly pure and good”. The repetition of ‘mine’ stresses the fact that he would love to own and call her ‘mine’.
It also emphasises his fervour for being in control because repetition accentuates passion and strong sentiment for a subject. The alliteration ‘perfectly pure’ romanticises this phrase also adding to his passion for power. Browning enhances the lover’s possessiveness throughout the poem; the lover refers to Porphyria like an object, making him more superior than her once more. He de-personifies Porphyria by using odd colours to describe her physical appearance, “and all her hair in one long yellow string”. Describing her hair as ‘yellow string’ rather than ‘blonde’ is peculiar yet purposeful.
I think that the lover understands that in order to be powerful he must have objects to possess; consequently he utilizes Porphyria to achieve this desire. He highlights the objectification of Porphyria describing her shoulder as ‘white’, “made her small white shoulder bare”, which is commonly used to describe objects rather than people. People and human characteristics tend to be described as pale or sallow. He depicts her hair as ‘yellow’ three times in the poem but never blonde. I think this is very typical of him as he tries to regain his supremacy.
There is no rhythm to the poem; this accentuates the freedom the women are trying to gain. It is out of sync and it breaks the pattern of traditional poetry just as the women are trying to break free of traditions. The rhyming pattern is not conventional either; it follows an odd rhyming pattern. E. g. a,b,a,b,b,c,d,c,d,d. Each stanza flows logically into one another, making it more palpable that these are the Lover’s thoughts; flowing and natural. There are no obvious breaks between the verses which emphasises this idea of him speaking or thinking his thoughts.
Browning uses techniques such as caesura to create more of a pause and effect, “Porphyrias love, she guessed not how”. This causes the line to stand out; therefore it is more thought provoking and the reader will take it more into account. Enjambment is also used to make it seem less like a poem and more natural, like he is speaking it. “Made my heart swell, and still it grew while I debated what to do”. The syntax that is used builds up suspense, for example, “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;”. By leaving the “and strangled her”, to last the suspense is built up and it is more dramatic making the reader want to read on. Men in Victorian Britain feared that they wouldn’t be able to successfully save their respected traditions and protect their supremacy over women. Browning highlights this fear; the Lover continuously makes remarks about his power and how much Porphyria ‘loves’ him in order to reassure himself that he still has power over Porphyria. He declares “Porphyria worshipped me”.
This statement highlights his denial regarding the fact that Porphyria doesn’t belong to him. ‘Worshipping is generally associated with God, therefore it gives the reader the sense that he is comparing himself to God, he later emphasises this notion by stating, “God has not yet said a word”. Evidently he believes that the horrendous transgression he perpetrated is not wrong by suggesting that even God doesn’t disapprove. He also says, “That all it scorned at once is fled, and I, its love, am gained instead! ” This signifies his belief of himself being superior to life.
These phrases definitely underline his confidence of himself being highly authorative, even above other males. The Lover attempts to increase his self-importance and continues to reassure himself that he is still in control; this is an example of him trying to win back his power, it reflects the men’s fear of the women gaining independence. It is displayed in a variety of ways; most importantly through the method in which he reduces Porphyria’s self-worth in an effort to boost his own. He therefore hopes that this will diminish Porphyria’s chances of gaining autonomy.