Wednesday, 7 August 2013

'Porphyria's Lover': A Feminist Reading

Josh Rampton offers a Feminist reading of Robert Browning's poem 'Porphyria's Lover'. This article was originally published in the 'Fight Club' issue of Portsmouth Point magazine in July 2013.

This poem is clearly a controversial one, in the eyes of contemporary Victorian audiences and even more so in the eyes of an audience of today, accustomed to relative equality. To be shocking and controversial may have been the aim of Robert Browning, who with his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning campaigned for liberal causes such as the rights of women. This poem could therefore have been aimed to satirise the stringency of the idea of perfect femininity, tied to husband and home, and the endemic domestic violence that was only just coming into public awareness.

From a feminist’s point of view, this poem could be seen to represent the indifference that men seem to show towards women exerting power and control to a degree, especially in a sexual sense, where this poem seems to infer the way men seem to find the reversal of dominance and passivity in this area erotic and even preferable. However, once women assert “too much power” men immediately take advantage of their testosterone fuelled brute force to restore women to their “rightful place”. This could be seen, to an extent, to reflect the discomfort that some men still feel towards women who are powerful or assert power or control.
This poem could be a reflection, satirical or non satirical, on the immensely popular contemporary work by Coventry Patmore ‘The Angel In The House’, becoming a household term to describe a woman who embodied the Victorian ideal of femininity, devoted to husband and family, that was epitomised by the Royal family (Queen Victoria and her devotion to Prince Albert) for the middle classes to emulate. A feminist may well see this as a nauseating reminder of the sickening and even pathetic devotion of women to their husbands that feminists still criticise some women for today.

Although those who retain a Victorian perspective on women might argue that Porphyria is some kind of loose woman or whore, a feminist or indeed a male inclined to respect the prerogatives of women over their own bodies and their sexual liberation would disagree. The way Porphyria “Made her smooth white shoulder bare” and made the lover’s “cheek lie there” is more of a sign of sexual independence and assertion than the vulgar, lewd acts of a “fallen woman” if one adopts this point of view.

The title of this poem “Porphyria’s Lover”  immediately satirises the convention that the woman would always be the possessed object however as it turns out it is the man who is passive, sitting waiting for her in a cottage and watching her action drive the narrative while he is inert. On one level this poem could be a reflection of the Pygmalion Myth, a male delusion that women can only be pure and truly feminine when they are an art object, under total control of men. Or simply, on a more disturbing level, the murder of Porphyria may just be simply a bid to regain control of a woman who has subverted the expectations and limitations of her sex as opposed to an attempt to attain some kind of warped perfection. The fact that the versification (the way the poem looks on the page) and the rhyme scheme remain unbroken even by the killing is a chilling suggestion that the lover is callous, cold and calculating.



Although open to different interpretations, the final line of this poem “And yet God has not said a word!” could be interpreted by a feminist as reminiscent of the religious roots of the oppression and mistreatment of women in that God “has not said a word” to condemn the cold blooded killing of Porphyria. Moreover, ironically linking back to the idea of ‘The Angel in the House’ Porphyria is portrayed as almost angelic at the beginning of the poem “when glided in Porphyria”, “making all the cottage warm” this not only emphasises the cruelty of her death but makes her an angelic martyr in a way that mirrors the portrayal of Emily Davison years later after her perceived martyrdom to the cause of women’s suffrage.

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