I’ve been mired trying to respond to the ugsomest article about teaching poetry in the Senior school classroom I have read in a long time. It’s left me feeling like I need to scrub the inside of my head to get rid of the stench. So, I ask Mr. Liam O’Flynn if he wouldn’t mind playing, (stopping everything to enjoy The Golden Ring (twice)) before following it with Liz Carroll and John Doyle and consider Mr. Robert Browning. In a roundabout way because it's related with what I'm working on. (Not round the Wrekin as such as back to Dublin first.)
Iser on Joyce, discussing the use of Headlines in Aeolus: when the headline matches what follows, the reader experiences a sense of banality. When it doesn’t, the reader feels it could if only they thought about it enough and it’s this which involves the reader. What Iser also identifies in Joyce is surplus: an excess of detail that no one reading will ever wrestle into coherence but which gives the impression that if only you were to try hard enough you could . (It’s similar to Shakespeare’s habitual removal or multiplication of explanations from his source to his play). Because you can’t reduce the writing to a straight simple explanation, it haunts. And gets re read.
Which brings us to Porphyria’s Lover. On the semantic level, you have a string of words that are fairly self-explanatory. It’s a wild night, the narrator is alone. Porphyria enters, sits beside the narrator. N kills her and God doesn’t say anything.
But that semantic reading leaves so much unexplained. It proffers coherence, but it manages to avoid providing enough information for a final definitive reading that might exclude other possibilities. The pome almost insists the reader imagine what’s going on, but at the same time refuses to provide enough information. Which is why it doesn’t exhaust re-readings. (I'm talking about the poem as if it were a recalcitrant witness. Hurm)
Eg: there is no evidence that the narrator is male. There’s a whole set of cultural assumptions that it’s a “he”, but nothing in the poem itself excludes the possibility of the narrator being female. Read it that way, as what Eagelton calls the story of “a lesbian relationship gone horribly awry” and Porphyria’s hesitation takes on a new meaning.
Porphyria itself is a disease.
Readings that try to control the poem by shutting it down fail, not because they are “wrong” but because they cannot exclude other possibilities. There’s enough evidence to support them, but not enough to exclude alternatives. Ryals summarises the poem thus: The lovers of different social class, the girl forced against her will to marry someone of higher financial and social status, her feelings of guilt, her slipping away from her engagement party to the boy’s cottage during a storm, her giving herself to him sexually. It’s neat, but by pulling in the intertextuality of early nineteenth century fiction he creates what is essentially a parallel poem to the one on the page.
It’s not possible to argue that: 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 cannot mean she has been forced against her will to marry, nor it possible to claim it could only mean that.
Other parts of the Ryals reading are more tenuous. If “That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/ Perfectly pure and good:“ means she gives herself to him sexually it raises interesting questions about the meaning of “pure and good’. But you could read it that way. It’s not impossible.
The other factor which undermines the possibility of a finite reading is that this is first person narration. The Browning genius is to create a speaker who comes off the page and lodges in your head in such a way that you’re never quite sure of it. He offers no clue as to how the speaker should be read. And while it’s clear the narrator might not fit most people’s definitions of sanity, there’s a horrible logic to his words.
And to stop before this gets too long….that famous final line; And yet God has not said a word! is such a good trick. How do you read it? Regret, surprise, defiance, anger? To see if you got it right, you have to go back and reread the poem. Every time.
(If I have to do any more ugsome reading I may just take my Ipod, fall into “Childe Roland” and disappear forever.)