Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Different Interpretations of 'Porphyria's Lover': Introduction

Fay Davies introduces a series of articles responding to Robert Browning's poem 'Porphyria's Lover'. This series of articles was originally published in the 'Fight Club' issue of Portsmouth Point magazine in July 2013.

When we think of the term ‘fight’, poetry interpretation might not immediately spring to mind. But I would like to propose that ‘Fight Club’ is not such a far cry from ‘Poetry Club’. An interpretation (or reading) of a text is, in some ways, an argument. You are telling people what you believe this text to mean. You are bringing your own philosophical, ideological, political and personal stance to the text; a stance that is to some extent unique. You are pitting yourself against other interpretations of this text, which may indeed contradict your own. In his 1976 article ‘Interpreting the Variorum’ the literary theorist Stanley Fish claims that we interpret texts as part of ‘interpretive communities’. This gives us a particular way of reading the text; a particular set of cultural assumptions. So, a group of different readings of a poem is really a clash between different ways of thinking.
These readings of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ do indeed encompass different ways of thinking. Poetry is rooted firmly in historical context in Tom’s Historicist piece, but it has less prominence in Ben’s Aestheticist reading where he explores the conflicting images of the text. Josh brings a Feminist slant in his examination of power relations; such concerns are absent in Gregory’s Structuralist reading, in which he identifies allusions to other texts, genres and ideas. He argues that such allusions create expectations on the part of the reader, which Browning goes on to subvert. Note how Josh and Tom offer differing interpretations of the final line. Both attribute great importance to these last words, but their reasons are distinct.
Of course, meaning and significance is a vague area. Different interpretations will often overlap, drawing on similar ideas to shape meaning. But even when they collide head-on, both are correct. So perhaps the true difference between this exercise and the typical fight is that, in this case, there can be no winner.    

(see poem below):

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!

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