Murderer and Victim: Fantasies of Death and Power in the Poems of Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Browning
Russell Rutter L-SAW 2009
Both Edgar Allen
Poe's poem "For Annie" and Robert Browning's poem "Porphyrias Lover" create
complex connections between sex and death. In "For Annie" the masochistic narrator sees sexual
passion as an agony to be endured and embraces the state that follows as an
approximation to death.
He is a masochist, who takes pleasure in imagining himself dead and resolves
his own sexual fears by imagining a situation in which he is still and
unmoving, while his lover takes on a maternal role. In Robert Browning's "Porphyrias Lover," on the
other hand, the speaker is sadistic, resolving his issues by murdering his
lover and rationalizing his actions in terms of an imagined post-sexual state. Both speakers believe they
are moral figures and victims of their own desires, but both reveal in their
diction and imagery the real sexual nature of their problems. In both poems, moreover,
death becomes a metaphor for contentment whether it is forced on another or a
state achieved for oneself.
The opening lines of
"Porphyria's Lover" establish a tone of gloom and violence that continue
throughout the rest of the poem.
The wind is personified as a destructive human force, motivated by the same
"spite" that the speaker will show in his murder of his lover. (Line 3) Porphyria's
entrance in the sixth line begins a ten line sentence that ends with the moment
she calls on the speaker.
The last word of the sentence is "me"; the speaker stresses the fact that the
he himself is the goal to which she is moving, and he remains the center of her
attentions in the lines leading up to her murder. (15) Porphyria pays attention to her lover,
attempting to soothe
him in a way that suggests she is
perhaps aware that he is angry with her; he, however, does not communicate with
her. Porphyria is
presented as the dominant partner in the relationship. It is she who places the speaker's head on
her shoulder; she seems comfortable, moreover, baring her shoulder in front of
him and by "murmuring how she loved me," takes on the role of caregiver. (21) The reference to the
"gay feast," given the common use of "gay" at the time to describe a "fallen
woman," suggests that perhaps she is a prostitute, used to intimacy with men,
and that she has taken time to visit the speaker out of affection rather than
for money. (27) The
speaker, at this point in the poem, is clearly the weaker of the two. Even the title suggests that
he is defined by his relation to her, rather than having a separate identity of
his own; we know her name but never discover his own.
however, is apparently transformed by his act of sadistic violence toward his
lover, an act that he presents as something that he thinks of on the spur of
the moment rather than a premeditated act: "I found /A thing to do." (37-38) The blond hair that
Porphyria has used to comfort the speaker earlier becomes the means of her
death, as "all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound...And strangled her." (38-41) When she is alive,
the narrator seems impotent and unable to please her. He describes himself as "one so pale/ for
love of her, and all in vain."
(28-29) However, once she is dead, the speaker rapidly takes on a dominant role. Her kindness to him and the
vulnerable position in which she places herself, thus become the cause of her
Once she is dead,
the speaker is no longer afraid to have contact with her, taking the initiative
in their sexual contact: "this time my shoulder bore/ her head, which droops
upon it still." (50-51)
To the speaker, she resembles a painting, still and beautiful, and he describes
her from a comfortable objective distance, dwelling on the details of her
features and imaging her thoughts. After her death, moreover, the speaker's language becomes
unconsciously sexual, with language that could equally well describe her vagina. Porphyria has a "smiling
little rosy head," and when he opens her eyes, it is a preliminary to
penetrating her: "as a shut bud that holds a bee, I warily oped her lids." The narrator's kiss becomes
"burning," a word that emphasizes his own passion and life and creates contrast
with the cold lifeless form that he is embracing. (52, 43-44, 49) Browning's poem thus becomes a
sadist fantasy, where the speaker overcomes his own fears and inadequacies by
killing the person he loves and inventing the specious reason that he did so to
save her from herself.
At the end of the poem, however, Browning shows the deep-rooted insecurity that
lies beneath his speaker's confident exterior. While the speaker is suggesting that he is immune
from any divine retribution for his crime, the last line is ambiguous. The speaker seems happy that
G-d has not yet "said a word," but the reader is left to think about the divine
vengeance that he knows is certain to happen.(61)
In Poe's "For
Annie," by contrast, the narrator finds comfort in his death-like state and
feels closer to his lover by imagining that it is he who has died. Though on
a literal level the poem can be
read simply as Poe's gratitude to the woman who
nursed him through an illness, the
poem has clear sexual undercurrents. The illness the speaker experiences is described as "Living,"
with the implication that it is life itself that he is seeking to escape from. (5) In the second stanza he
describes himself as motionless, with the repetition of the word "length"
suggesting that he is stretched out like a corpse. (10) In the third stanza, similarly, he repeats the
word "dead." (16) The
illness from which he has recovered, moreover, is described in overtly sexual
terms: he pictures the "moaning and groaning,/ The sighing and sobbing...that
(19-22) His diction suggests the sounds and feelings of a sexual act. This interpretation receives
additional support when Poe ascribes his pain to "the torture of thirst/ For
the naphthalene river/ Of Passion accurst." (34-36) Passion is something he wants to remove
from his life, and he finds release from passion in the waters from a hidden
"cavern not very far/ Down under ground," an image that seems to suggest his
lover's vagina. (43-44)
Poe seems to have undergone a petite mort, reaching a death-like state
through the act of orgasm.
However, for Poe it is this state, rather than any sexual pleasure, that is the
object of his desires.
In contrast to
Browning's speaker, who finds pleasure in dominating his lover, Poe finds
masochistic pleasure in the complete powerlessness that he has managed to
achieve. He describes
himself as covered by her hair, presumably as she leans over him, but he
manages to transform the experience into yet another fantasy
of death: "drowned in a bath/ Of
the tresses of Annie."
(71-72) At the same time, Poe seems to infantilize himself. He pictures himself being
lulled to sleep, as she "fondly caress'd him" like a mother taking care of a
child at night. (74) He
also is drawn to the "heaven of her breast," as if is still being fed and finds
comfort from his mother's touch.
(78) Annie also "pray'd to the angels/ To keep me from harm," like a
mother praying over her child as she puts him to bed. (81-82) The warmth and happiness that he
feels, however, contrasts sharply with the imagined response of the addressee
in the next to last stanza of the poem. The fact that Poe addresses an unnamed observer directly is
important. Part of his
joy comes from the fact that he is observed, just as the speaker of
"Porphyria's Lover" feels the need to unburden himself to his addressee. At the same time, Poe's
speaker, too, seems aware of the horror that his actions will provoke in
others; the addressee will "shudder to look at me/ Thinking me dead." (93-94) Finally, Poe closes
his poem with images of light, comparing his state to something that is
immaterial and intangible.
He is now far removed from the act of sex, and associated with the heavens
rather than the physical world that tortures him here on earth.
Both Browning and
Poe share a common fascination with sex and death, and both poets assume the
role of the speakers of each of their poems to explore their own sexual
feelings and inadequacies.
For Browning, the feeling of being undervalued and impotent reveals itself in a
fantasy in which he murders his lover. Only when she is dead and lifeless can he assert himself
sexually and initiate any
intimate contact. Poe, on the other hand,
finds sex itself painful and torturous, an unpleasant necessity to be endured
in order to reach the passionless state that follows. For Poe, the act of sex frees him from the
role of an adult male, allowing him to become an infant again and to retreat
from the world. He
revels in the passivity that he has found, lying still and helpless,
overwhelmed with a masochistic joy that he wants others to see.
Browning, Robert. "Porphyria's
Lover." Poetry Online. <http://www.poetry-online.org/browning_robert_porphyrias_lover.htm>.
Poe, Edgar Allen. "For Annie."
The Oxford Book of English Verse. Bartleby. <http://www.bartleby.com/101/696.html>.