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Understanding "Porphyria's Lover"

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Poetry & Poets

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Trials and hearings take place frequently in our society today. In
a trial, it is the job of two lawyers to persuade a jury to see a situation
a certain way, regardless if it is the right way, the truthful way, or if
it is even the way they themselves see it. It is then the jury's
obligation, after listening to both sides of the story, to make a decision
based on the evidence presented, and in most cases, the evidence is either
not presented in its entirety or overwhelmingly slanted to fit one side's
particular case. Therefore it is up to the juror to be able to throw away
the false information, and to pick out the shreds of truth and make a
conclusion based on them. This process, which is extremely common in
today's society, was also common in the Victorian Age, in Victorian poetry,
in the use of dramatic monologue. Perfected by Robert Browning in the mid
nineteenth century, dramatic monologue very closely mirrors modern
society's legal institution. In comparison, the reader is the jury, the
speaker of the poem is the lawyer, and, thinking more abstractly, the
author, Robert Browning in this case, represents the case as a whole. The
decision the jury must make between what is actually right and what the
lawyers imply to be right is the same one the reader of a dramatic
monologue must make. Browning's Dramatic Lyrics is a collection of poems
in which many are written in dramatic monologue. "Porphyria's Lover" is a
poem from Dramatic Lyrics critics often cite when explaining dramatic
monologue. Because of it, the reader is pulled between what the speaker
thinks is right and what really is. Robert Browning's perfection of
dramatic monologue and use of a dramatic mask in his poem "Porphyria's
Lover" create in his audience a conflict between sympathy and judgement
(Magill, 335).
To fully understand and comprehend Browning's "Porphyria's Lover,"
one must understand dramatic monologue. Robert Langbaum makes a few
observations about dramatic monologues. One of his observations is that
speakers in them never change their minds. A second observation is that
the speaker uses his dramatic monologue to pursue a meaning for himself,
and learn something about himself as well as learn something about reality
(qtd. In Lucie-Smith, 16). In a dramatic monologue, "everything the reader
hears is limited to what the speaker sees, thinks, and chooses to tell"
(Magill, 338). Agreeing with Magill, Ian Scott-Kilvert says, "[the
reader is] provided with no reason tosuppose the speaker's words are not
to be taken at face value, even though [he knows] that [he is] receiving
one man's version of events, which is necessarily incomplete" (360). When
reading a dramatic monologue, the reader must come to a conclusion about
facts and issues raised in the poem by making use of material presented in
the poem (Scott-Kilvert, 360). A final textbook definition of dramatic
monologue is from John D. Cooke. He writes that a dramatic monologue ". . .
condenses a complex psychological study and a tense situation of conflict
into a single climactic speech" (157). In applying this concept to
"Porphyria's Lover," the tense situation of conflict is simply the fact
that the speaker just strangled the woman who loves him, and who he loves.
In the poem, the reader, observing only the perspective of the speaker, is
led to believe that his killing Porphyria was ". . .perfectly pure and
good" (Browning, 37). According to the speaker, Porphyria felt no pain
while he was killing her using her own "long yellow string" of hair (39).
Everything the speaker says, implies that his decision was the right one,
and the only one possible. Magill (338) says, "Exultant that he has done
the perfect thing, he [the speaker] ends his speech with the words, 'And
yet God has not said a word!'" Critics are quick ...

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