Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Porphyria’s Lover

Complete Text
The rain set early in tonight,
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 endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight'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 worshiped 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!

"Porphyria's Lover," which first appeared in 1836, is one of the earliest and most shocking of Browning's dramatic monologues. The speaker lives in a cottage in the countryside. His lover, a blooming young woman named Porphyria, comes in out of a storm and proceeds to make a fire and bring cheer to the cottage. She embraces the speaker, offering him her bare shoulder. He tells us that he does not speak to her. Instead, he says, she begins to tell him how she has momentarily overcome societal strictures to be with him. He realizes that she "worship[s]" him at this instant. Realizing that she will eventually give in to society's pressures, and wanting to preserve the moment, he wraps her hair around her neck and strangles her. He then toys with her corpse, opening the eyes and propping the body up against his side. He sits with her body this way the entire night, the speaker remarking that God has not yet moved to punish him.

"Porphyria's Lover," while natural in its language, does not display the colloquialisms or dialectical markers of some of Browning's later poems. Moreover, while the cadence of the poem mimics natural speech, it actually takes the form of highly patterned verse, rhyming ABABB. The intensity and asymmetry of the pattern suggests the madness concealed within the speaker's reasoned self-presentation.
This poem is a dramatic monologue--a fictional speech presented as the musings of a speaker who is separate from the poet. Like most of Browning's other dramatic monologues, this one captures a moment after a main event or action. Porphyria already lies dead when the speaker begins. Just as the nameless speaker seeks to stop time by killing her, so too does this kind of poem seek to freeze the consciousness of an instant.

"Porphyria's Lover" opens with a scene taken straight from the Romantic poetry of the earlier nineteenth century. While a storm rages outdoors, giving a demonstration of nature at its most sublime, the speaker sits in a cozy cottage. This is the picture of rural simplicity--a cottage by a lake, a rosy-cheeked girl, a roaring fire. However, once Porphyria begins to take off her wet clothing, the poem leaps into the modern world. She bares her shoulder to her lover and begins to caress him; this is a level of overt sexuality that has not been seen in poetry since the Renaissance. We then learn that Porphyria is defying her family and friends to be with the speaker; the scene is now not just sexual, but transgressively so. Illicit sex out of wedlock presented a major concern for Victorian society; the famous Victorian "prudery" constituted only a backlash to what was in fact a popular obsession with the theme: the newspapers of the day reveled in stories about prostitutes and unwed mothers. Here, however, in "Porphyria's Lover," sex appears as something natural, acceptable, almost wholesome: Porphyria's girlishness and affection take prominence over any hints of immorality.
For the Victorians, modernity meant numbness: urban life, with its constant over-stimulation and newspapers full of scandalous and horrifying stories, immunized people to shock. Many believed that the onslaught of amorality and the constant assault on the senses could be counteracted only with an even greater shock. This is the principle Browning adheres to in "Porphyria's Lover." In light of contemporary scandals, the sexual transgression might seem insignificant; so Browning breaks through his reader's probable complacency by having Porphyria's lover murder her; and thus he provokes some moral or emotional reaction in his presumably numb audience. This is not to say that Browning is trying to shock us into condemning either Porphyria or the speaker for their sexuality; rather, he seeks to remind us of the disturbed condition of the modern psyche. In fact, "Porphyria's Lover" was first published, along with another poem, under the title Madhouse Cells, suggesting that the conditions of the new "modern" world served to blur the line between "ordinary life"--for example, the domestic setting of this poem--and insanity--illustrated here by the speaker's action.
This poem, like much of Browning's work, conflates sex, violence, and aesthetics. Like many Victorian writers, Browning was trying to explore the boundaries of sensuality in his work. How is it that society considers the beauty of the female body to be immoral while never questioning the morality of language's sensuality--a sensuality often most manifest in poetry? Why does society see both sex and violence as transgressive? What is the relationship between the two? Which is "worse"? These are some of the questions that Browning's poetry posits. And he typically does not offer any answers to them: Browning is no moralist, although he is no libertine either. As a fairly liberal man, he is confused by his society's simultaneous embrace of both moral righteousness and a desire for sensation; "Porphyria's Lover" explores this contradiction.

Sonnet 60

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked elipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

This sonnet attempts to explain the nature of time as it passes, and as it acts on human life. In the first quatrain, the speaker says that the minutes replace one another like waves on the "pebbled shore," each taking the place of that which came before it in a regular sequence. In the second quatrain, he tells the story of a human life in time by comparing it to the sun: at birth ("Nativity"), it rises over the ocean ("the main of light"), then crawls upward toward noon (the "crown" of "maturity"), then is suddenly undone by "crooked eclipses", which fight against and confound the sun's glory. In the third quatrain, time is depicted as a ravaging monster, which halts youthful flourish, digs wrinkles in the brow of beauty, gobbles up nature's beauties, and mows down with his scythe everything that stands. In the couplet, the speaker opposes his verse to the ravages of time: he says that his verse will stand in times to come, and will continue to praise the "worth" of the beloved despite the "cruel hand" of time.

This poem is organized very neatly into the quatrain/quatrain/quatrain/couplet structure that defines the Shakespearean sonnet. Each quatrain presents a relatively self-contained metaphorical description of time's passage in human life, while the couplet offers a twist on the poem's earlier themes. In the first quatrain, the metaphor is that of the tide; just as waves cycle forward and replace one another on the beach, so do minutes struggle forward in "sequent toil." In the second quatrain, the focus shifts from the passage of time to the passage of human life, using the metaphor of the sun during the span of a day: first it crawls forward out of the sea (an image linking this quatrain to the previous one), then is crowned with maturity in the sky, then, suddenly, it is darkened by the "crooked eclipses" of age, as time retracts his original gift. In the third quatrain, the metaphor becomes one of time as a personified force, a ravaging monster, who digs trenches in beauty, devours nature, and mows down all that stands with his scythe.
Clearly, these images develop from one another: the first describes the way time passes, the second describes the way a human life passes, and the third describes the way time is responsible for the ravages in human life. Each quatrain is a single four-line sentence, developing a single argument through metaphor: time passes relentlessly; human life is cripplingly short before it quickly succumbs to age and decay, and time is the ravager responsible for the downfall of men's lives. This is one of the great themes of the sonnets. In the couplet, the speaker then stunningly declares that he has found a way to confound time: his verse, despite time's "cruel hand," will live on, and continue to praise the worth of the beloved. This is the often-invoked corollary to the great theme of time's passage: the speaker, disappointed that the young man will not defy time by having children, writes poem after poem about the mighty power of the "bloody tyrant" time, then declares that his poems will remain immortal, and will enable the young man's beauty to live forever. Sonnets 18, 19, 55, 63, and 65 all follow this formula, and echoes of it appear in countless many other sonnets.

"Tintern Abbey"

The full title of this poem is "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798." It opens with the speaker's declaration that five years have passed since he last visited this location, encountered its tranquil, rustic scenery, and heard the murmuring waters of the river. He recites the objects he sees again, and describes their effect upon him: the "steep and lofty cliffs" impress upon him "thoughts of more deep seclusion"; he leans against the dark sycamore tree and looks at the cottage-grounds and the orchard trees, whose fruit is still unripe. He sees the "wreaths of smoke" rising up from cottage chimneys between the trees, and imagines that they might rise from "vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods," or from the cave of a hermit in the deep forest.
The speaker then describes how his memory of these "beauteous forms" has worked upon him in his absence from them: when he was alone, or in crowded towns and cities, they provided him with "sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart." The memory of the woods and cottages offered "tranquil restoration" to his mind, and even affected him when he was not aware of the memory, influencing his deeds of kindness and love. He further credits the memory of the scene with offering him access to that mental and spiritual state in which the burden of the world is lightened, in which he becomes a "living soul" with a view into "the life of things." The speaker then says that his belief that the memory of the woods has affected him so strongly may be "vain"--but if it is, he has still turned to the memory often in times of "fretful stir."
Even in the present moment, the memory of his past experiences in these surroundings floats over his present view of them, and he feels bittersweet joy in reviving them. He thinks happily, too, that his present experience will provide many happy memories for future years. The speaker acknowledges that he is different now from how he was in those long-ago times, when, as a boy, he "bounded o'er the mountains" and through the streams. In those days, he says, nature made up his whole world: waterfalls, mountains, and woods gave shape to his passions, his appetites, and his love. That time is now past, he says, but he does not mourn it, for though he cannot resume his old relationship with nature, he has been amply compensated by a new set of more mature gifts; for instance, he can now "look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity." And he can now sense the presence of something far more subtle, powerful, and fundamental in the light of the setting suns, the ocean, the air itself, and even in the mind of man; this energy seems to him "a motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking thoughts.... / And rolls through all things." For that reason, he says, he still loves nature, still loves mountains and pastures and woods, for they anchor his purest thoughts and guard the heart and soul of his "moral being."
The speaker says that even if he did not feel this way or understand these things, he would still be in good spirits on this day, for he is in the company of his "dear, dear (d) Sister," who is also his "dear, dear Friend," and in whose voice and manner he observes his former self, and beholds "what I was once." He offers a prayer to nature that he might continue to do so for a little while, knowing, as he says, that "Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her," but leads rather "from joy to joy." Nature's power over the mind that seeks her out is such that it renders that mind impervious to "evil tongues," "rash judgments," and "the sneers of selfish men," instilling instead a "cheerful faith" that the world is full of blessings. The speaker then encourages the moon to shine upon his sister, and the wind to blow against her, and he says to her that in later years, when she is sad or fearful, the memory of this experience will help to heal her. And if he himself is dead, she can remember the love with which he worshipped nature. In that case, too, she will remember what the woods meant to the speaker, the way in which, after so many years of absence, they became more dear to him--both for themselves and for the fact that she is in them.

"Tintern Abbey" is composed in blank verse, which is a name used to describe unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter. Its style is therefore very fluid and natural; it reads as easily as if it were a prose piece. However, the poetic structure is tightly constructed; Wordsworth's slight variations on the stresses of iambic rhythms is remarkable. Lines such as "Here, under this dark sycamore, and view" do not quite conform to the stress-patterns of the meter, but fit into it loosely, helping Wordsworth approximate the sounds of natural speech without grossly breaking his meter. Occasionally, divided lines are used to indicate a kind of paragraph break, when the poet changes subjects or shifts the focus of his discourse.

The subject of "Tintern Abbey" is memory--specifically, childhood memories of communion with natural beauty. Both generally and specifically, this subject is hugely important in Wordsworth's work, reappearing in poems as late as the "Intimations of Immortality" ode. "Tintern Abbey" is the young Wordsworth's first great statement of his principle (great) theme: that the memory of pure communion with nature in childhood works upon the mind even in adulthood, when access to that pure communion has been lost, and that the maturity of mind present in adulthood offers compensation for the loss of that communion--specifically, the ability to "look on nature" and hear "human music"; that is, to see nature with an eye toward its relationship to human life. In his youth, the poet says, he was thoughtless in his unity with the woods and the river; now, five years since his last viewing of the scene, he is no longer thoughtless, but acutely aware of everything the scene has to offer him. Additionally, the presence of his sister gives him a view of himself as he imagines himself to have been as a youth. Happily, he knows that this current experience will provide both of them with future memories, just as his past experience has provided him with the memories that flicker across his present sight as he travels in the woods.
"Tintern Abbey" is a monologue, imaginatively spoken by a single speaker to himself, referencing the specific objects of its imaginary scene, and occasionally addressing others--once the spirit of nature, occasionally the speaker's sister. The language of the poem is striking for its simplicity and forthrightness; the young poet is in no way concerned with ostentation. He is instead concerned with speaking from the heart in a plainspoken manner. The poem's imagery is largely confined to the natural world in which he moves, though there are some castings-out for metaphors ranging from the nautical (the memory is "the anchor" of the poet's "purest thought") to the architectural (the mind is a "mansion" of memory).
The poem also has a subtle strain of religious sentiment; though the actual form of the Abbey does not appear in the poem, the idea of the abbey--of a place consecrated to the spirit--suffuses the scene, as though the forest and the fields were themselves the speaker's abbey. This idea is reinforced by the speaker's description of the power he feels in the setting sun and in the mind of man, which consciously links the ideas of God, nature, and the human mind--as they will be linked in Wordsworth's poetry for the rest of his life, from "It is a beauteous evening, calm and free" to the great summation of the Immortality Ode.

Ode to a Nightingale

The speaker opens with a declaration of his own heartache. He feels numb, as though he had taken a drug only a moment ago. He is addressing a nightingale he hears singing somewhere in the forest and says that his "drowsy numbness" is not from envy of the nightingale's happiness, but rather from sharing it too completely; he is "too happy" that the nightingale sings the music of summer from amid some unseen plot of green trees and shadows.
In the second stanza, the speaker longs for the oblivion of alcohol, expressing his wish for wine, "a draught of vintage," that would taste like the country and like peasant dances, and let him "leave the world unseen" and disappear into the dim forest with the nightingale. In the third stanza, he explains his desire to fade away, saying he would like to forget the troubles the nightingale has never known: "the weariness, the fever, and the fret" of human life, with its consciousness that everything is mortal and nothing lasts. Youth "grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies," and "beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes."
In the fourth stanza, the speaker tells the nightingale to fly away, and he will follow, not through alcohol ("Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards"), but through poetry, which will give him "viewless wings." He says he is already with the nightingale and describes the forest glade, where even the moonlight is hidden by the trees, except the light that breaks through when the breezes blow the branches. In the fifth stanza, the speaker says that he cannot see the flowers in the glade, but can guess them "in embalmed darkness": white hawthorne, eglantine, violets, and the musk-rose, "the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves." In the sixth stanza, the speaker listens in the dark to the nightingale, saying that he has often been "half in love" with the idea of dying and called Death soft names in many rhymes. Surrounded by the nightingale's song, the speaker thinks that the idea of death seems richer than ever, and he longs to "cease upon the midnight with no pain" while the nightingale pours its soul ecstatically forth. If he were to die, the nightingale would continue to sing, he says, but he would "have ears in vain" and be no longer able to hear.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker tells the nightingale that it is immortal, that it was not "born for death." He says that the voice he hears singing has always been heard, by ancient emperors and clowns, by homesick Ruth; he even says the song has often charmed open magic windows looking out over "the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn." In the eighth stanza, the word forlorn tolls like a bell to restore the speaker from his preoccupation with the nightingale and back into himself. As the nightingale flies farther away from him, he laments that his imagination has failed him and says that he can no longer recall whether the nightingale's music was "a vision, or a waking dream." Now that the music is gone, the speaker cannot recall whether he himself is awake or asleep.

Like most of the other odes, "Ode to a Nightingale" is written in ten-line stanzas. However, unlike most of the other poems, it is metrically variable--though not so much as "Ode to Psyche." The first seven and last two lines of each stanza are written in iambic pentameter; the eighth line of each stanza is written in trimeter, with only three accented syllables instead of five. "Nightingale" also differs from the other odes in that its rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza (every other ode varies the order of rhyme in the final three or four lines except "To Psyche," which has the loosest structure of all the odes). Each stanza in "Nightingale" is rhymed ABABCDECDE, Keats's most basic scheme throughout the odes.

With "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats's speaker begins his fullest and deepest exploration of the themes of creative expression and the mortality of human life. In this ode, the transience of life and the tragedy of old age ("where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies") is set against the eternal renewal of the nightingale's fluid music ("Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!"). The speaker reprises the "drowsy numbness" he experienced in "Ode on Indolence," but where in "Indolence" that numbness was a sign of disconnection from experience, in "Nightingale" it is a sign of too full a connection: "being too happy in thine happiness," as the speaker tells the nightingale. Hearing the song of the nightingale, the speaker longs to flee the human world and join the bird. His first thought is to reach the bird's state through alcohol--in the second stanza, he longs for a "draught of vintage" to transport him out of himself. But after his meditation in the third stanza on the transience of life, he rejects the idea of being "charioted by Bacchus and his pards" (Bacchus was the Roman god of wine and was supposed to have been carried by a chariot pulled by leopards) and chooses instead to embrace, for the first time since he refused to follow the figures in "Indolence," "the viewless wings of Poesy."
The rapture of poetic inspiration matches the endless creative rapture of the nightingale's music and lets the speaker, in stanzas five through seven, imagine himself with the bird in the darkened forest. The ecstatic music even encourages the speaker to embrace the idea of dying, of painlessly succumbing to death while enraptured by the nightingale's music and never experiencing any further pain or disappointment. But when his meditation causes him to utter the word "forlorn," he comes back to himself, recognizing his fancy for what it is--an imagined escape from the inescapable ("Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf"). As the nightingale flies away, the intensity of the speaker's experience has left him shaken, unable to remember whether he is awake or asleep.
In "Indolence," the speaker rejected all artistic effort. In "Psyche," he was willing to embrace the creative imagination, but only for its own internal pleasures. But in the nightingale's song, he finds a form of outward expression that translates the work of the imagination into the outside world, and this is the discovery that compels him to embrace Poesy's "viewless wings" at last. The "art" of the nightingale is endlessly changeable and renewable; it is music without record, existing only in a perpetual present. As befits his celebration of music, the speaker's language, sensually rich though it is, serves to suppress the sense of sight in favor of the other senses. He can imagine the light of the moon, "But here there is no light"; he knows he is surrounded by flowers, but he "cannot see what flowers" are at his feet. This suppression will find its match in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which is in many ways a companion poem to "Ode to a Nightingale." In the later poem, the speaker will finally confront a created art-object not subject to any of the limitations of time; in "Nightingale," he has achieved creative expression and has placed his faith in it, but that expression--the nightingale's song--is spontaneous and without physical manifestation.

"Ode to the West Wind"

The speaker invokes the "wild West Wind" of autumn, which scatters the dead leaves and spreads seeds so that they may be nurtured by the spring, and asks that the wind, a "destroyer and preserver," hear him. The speaker calls the wind the "dirge / Of the dying year," and describes how it stirs up violent storms, and again implores it to hear him. The speaker says that the wind stirs the Mediterranean from "his summer dreams," and cleaves the Atlantic into choppy chasms, making the "sapless foliage" of the ocean tremble, and asks for a third time that it hear him.
The speaker says that if he were a dead leaf that the wind could bear, or a cloud it could carry, or a wave it could push, or even if he were, as a boy, "the comrade" of the wind's "wandering over heaven," then he would never have needed to pray to the wind and invoke its powers. He pleads with the wind to lift him "as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!"--for though he is like the wind at heart, untamable and proud--he is now chained and bowed with the weight of his hours upon the earth.
The speaker asks the wind to "make me thy lyre," to be his own Spirit, and to drive his thoughts across the universe, "like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth." He asks the wind, by the incantation of this verse, to scatter his words among mankind, to be the "trumpet of a prophecy." Speaking both in regard to the season and in regard to the effect upon mankind that he hopes his words to have, the speaker asks: "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"

Each of the seven parts of "Ode to the West Wind" contains five stanzas--four three-line stanzas and a two-line couplet, all metered in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme in each part follows a pattern known as terza rima, the three-line rhyme scheme employed by Dante in his Divine Comedy. In the three-line terza rima stanza, the first and third lines rhyme, and the middle line does not; then the end sound of that middle line is employed as the rhyme for the first and third lines in the next stanza. The final couplet rhymes with the middle line of the last three-line stanza. Thus each of the seven parts of "Ode to the West Wind" follows this scheme: ABA BCB CDC DED EE.

The wispy, fluid terza rima of "Ode to the West Wind" finds Shelley taking a long thematic leap beyond the scope of "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and incorporating his own art into his meditation on beauty and the natural world. Shelley invokes the wind magically, describing its power and its role as both "destroyer and preserver," and asks the wind to sweep him out of his torpor "as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!" In the fifth section, the poet then takes a remarkable turn, transforming the wind into a metaphor for his own art, the expressive capacity that drives "dead thoughts" like "withered leaves" over the universe, to "quicken a new birth"--that is, to quicken the coming of the spring. Here the spring season is a metaphor for a "spring" of human consciousness, imagination, liberty, or morality--all the things Shelley hoped his art could help to bring about in the human mind. Shelley asks the wind to be his spirit, and in the same movement he makes it his metaphorical spirit, his poetic faculty, which will play him like a musical instrument, the way the wind strums the leaves of the trees. The thematic implication is significant: whereas the older generation of Romantic poets viewed nature as a source of truth and authentic experience, the younger generation largely viewed nature as a source of beauty and aesthetic experience. In this poem, Shelley explicitly links nature with art by finding powerful natural metaphors with which to express his ideas about the power, import, quality, and ultimate effect of aesthetic expression.

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