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:
In other words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Thus begins the poet’s Robert Browning’s dark and disturbing dramatic monologue, Porphyria’s Lover, a portrait of a madman that is wonderful to read with students around Halloween. I usually use an audio recording that I can play, and I pause the recording twice as we listen.
The unnamed narrator of the poem sits in a cold cabin, a rendezvous with his lover, Porphyria, who “glides in” as she
…shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
The narrator’s isolation in the gloomy setting takes on the tone of an illicit romance as Porphyria removes her wet clothing in order to
… let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me.
But when the recalcitrant narrator does not respond, Porphyria increases her ardent attentions
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-
Porphyria’s devotion to the narrator is extreme, expressed in his words “passion” and “worshipped.” He acknowledges that she could “give herself to me forever” even as she had “come through wind and rain” for this meeting. This “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:
The narrator revels in this epiphany; Porphyria’s devotion is at its zenith. His reaction seems predictable to my students, and they eagerly anticipate the romantic tumble they have expected since Porphyria entered the cabin. After all, the word “lover” is in the title.
Yet, the next five lines take a decidedly different turn. The narrator dispassionately admits,
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.
Here is where I pause the recording as my students take a moment to comprehend what they have read. Their reactions generally follow this script:
“Wait a minute!”
“What did he do?”
“He ...killed her?”
“What is going on here?”
I direct them back to the poem so they can hear the voice of the narrator explain his actions, and his explanation is chilling. “No pain felt she;” the narrator continues, as if to assure my students, “I am quite sure she felt no pain.” As if to prove his judgment, he opens her closed eyes, loosens the hair from her throat, and places a “burning kiss” upon her cheek. Again, the students react in shock:
“This guy is sick!”
“He KISSED her??”
“Why did he do it?”
Why did he do it indeed? The narrator calmly continues to explain his reasons as Porphyria’s head, limp and lifeless, leans upon his shoulder,
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!
The narrator’s twisted logic in claiming Porphyria’s life in a moment of pure love is so perverse that students are horrified. The final shocker comes as the narrator confidently claims that the murder of Porphyria was something desirable,
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! –
“He’s a monster.”
“He is insane.”
Browning’s poem that chronicles a deadly obsession is an excellent addition to the Halloween literary repertoire. The high interest monologue engages students in the “close reading” required by the Common Core.
A close reading can be accomplished by dividing the poem into sections and asking students to identify if the line can be placed into categories:
- establishing setting
- poetic technique (metaphor, personification)
- character development
Students are encouraged to make adjustments based on their group discussions or to create their own categories. Once they have categorized the lines, they create large posters that “illustrate” the lines literally or symbolically. They draw or use images that they find online or use photos; then they share the posters which are hung around the room and explain how these details serve the author’s purpose in creating an unforgettable character who is a madman.
Come this Halloween, if you are looking for a poem to send shivers down the spines of your students, try Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”.
Try not to think that this frightening portrayal of insanity was created by the husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, famous for the poem “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.”
You can save that sonnet for Valentine’s Day!
What an engaging lesson. I am recently retired, and I so regret not being in the classroom to use this with the students. I hope other teachers will.