Love and Its Corruption: Never the Time and the Place, Porphyria’s Lover and Andrea del Sarto
In both Porphyria’s Lover and Andrea del Sarto, Robert Browning explores the notions of love and its capacity to corrupt an individual’s character and potential through his signature diegetic form; the dramatic monologue. While the form of these two poems is based around an implied audience, the primary agent and core subject matter is the narrator, rather than the subjects they speak on. The form itself requires that the reader complete the dramatic scene from within, through the use of inference and imagination, using the clues provided by Browning’s narrators in regard to their obsessions and preoccupations. In a differing manner, Never the Time and the Place varies in metrical poetic structure, and consists of both iambs and anapaests, combined by Browning with the varying indentations and use of enjambment to create a sense of the environment present as being a space of alterity.
Along with the aforementioned alterity, Never the Time and the Place establishes the concept of the intransient nature of love and its spacio-temporal limitations upon the narrator, doing so within the title (and first line of the poem) itself. The negative adverb of time “never”, when used as the first word in the poem, highlights the frustration of the narrator on the nature of his love that is to be explored. The epexegetic conjunction “and” is used by Browning to connote the inseparable nature of space and time, strengthening the totality of which the two are impossible to experience in tandem, and the concluding anapaestic foot “and the place” rushes rhythmically, indicating the desire of the narrator to speak upon the “place” in question. After it is revealed to be a house he lives in with his lover within the liminal spatiality of the dream, this rush illuminates the narrator’s fixation upon experiencing the pleasures of a love that is disallowed to him in waking consciousness. The paratactic hyphenations used by Browning following “This path” and “This May” suggest the inherent hesitation of the narrator in divulging details of the dream, due to his awareness of its transient nature and its inevitable conclusion, forcing his return to the reality of life without his lover. Once the narrator enters the world of the dream, the environment is described by Browning in such a manner so as to indicate it as a force conspiring against the lovers. The pejorative descriptions of the “rain” and “wind” as “hostile” and having “malice”, depict the natural environment as a malign and malevolent entity, providing an existential perspective of the universe itself preventing the love he wishes to attain from being fulfilled in reality. A similar breakdown in cosmic harmony is used by Browning in Porphyria’s Lover with the “sullen wind” that “tore the elm-tops down” and “vex[es] the lake”, a personification of the environment as a destructive force. Similarly destructive traits are noted within Porphyria herself, however, with the incendiary imagery of “blaze up” and “warm” indicating the narrator’s perception of the damage being caused by his lover.
Unlike the contriving universe of Never the Time and the Place, Porphyria’s Lover documents a unique barrier to love that is similarly insurmountable; the jealousy of the narrator. The title of the poem itself adumbrates this concept with the use of the apostrophe of possession, and is reiterated throughout the piece. Combined with the preponderance of the first person pronouns “me” and “my”, the forceful demand for Porphyria to “give herself to me forever” is used by Browning to draw attention to the narrator’s egotistical nature, and his desire for total and unwavering commitment from his lover. Whilst demanding such unequivocal love and loyalty, the narrator remains solely focused on the physical form of Porphyria, rather than deeper emotional or mental connections, evidenced by repetition of her “yellow hair” and commenting upon her “smooth white shoulder bare”. Further to this, Browning employs a syntactical hierarchy when the narrator references that “she put my arm around her waist” in order to contextualize the physical connection of the pair with the possessive disposition of the narrator. Dissimilar to this, the eponymous narrator of Andrea del Sarto is devoid of the same capacity or willingness to exercise control upon his wife. His comment to “bear with me for once” is used by Browning to imply to the reader that the narrator is in fact submissive within the relationship, as opposed to the dominance of the narrator in Porphyria’s Lover. However, the two are united in their shared experience of relational frustration, yet it is addressed in starkly distinct manners. Whilst the narrator in Porphyria’s Lover opts to ensure his ultimate possession of Porphyria through ending her life, Andrea’s remark in iambic pentameter “So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!” is used by Browning to allude to his acceptance of the fleeting nature of time within his relational dynamic, and emphasized through the use of the exclamation mark.
Much like Andrea del Sarto, the concept of temporality as a force working in opposition to the narrator in question is explored in Never the Time and the Place. The failure of the narrator to grasp and operate within the limits of time with confidence is explored in the three-line series “Do I hold the past / Thus firm and fast / yet doubt if the Future hold I can?”. The effect is achieved structurally with the third line, which does not feature the two metrical feet with two iambs and an anapaest of the first two lines. Instead, the third line incorporates tetrameter, along with a syntactical inversion. The combination of these devices is employed by Browning in order to create a disjunctive reality for the speaker, as well as to undermine his confidence in operating within the temporality of waking reality. Instead, he yearns for the liminal spatiality, free from the bounds of time that can finally unite him with his lover; death. The euphemism for death, “sleep”, is depicted by Browning as being a position of positivity for the narrator through the use of the tricolon of adjectives within the semantic field of comfort, “close, safe, warm”. The narrator of Porphyria’s Lover experiences a comparable relational harmony with his lover in death, as instead of the disjunctive pronouns of “I” and “she” from earlier in the poem, the narrator unites himself and Porphyria with the inclusive pronoun “we”. Whilst objectively depriving both himself and his lover of a functioning relational dynamic and the emotional and physical pleasures it affords, Browning uses such pronouns to suggest that the narrator has reached his moment of true connection with Porphyria, despite the process of culminating at this point being imbued with violence and domination of personal agency.
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In both Porphyria’s Lover and Andrea del Sarto, Robert Browning explores the notions of love and its capacity to corrupt an individual’s character and potential through his signature diegetic form; […]