The two poems I am studying are ‘The Flea’ by John Donne and ‘Porthyria’s Lover’ by Robert Browning. The authors of both these poems approach the theme of love in very individual and original ways. I am going to examine both.
The poem ‘Porthyria’s Lover’ is about a woman called Porthyria who is strangled to death by her lover. The man telling the story seems to want to keep Porthyria by his side forever. He has very obsessive love for her. He is possessive and jealous and his deadly mind games bring nothing but heartache for Porthyria. He wants their love to last forever and plans on doing this no matter what it takes.
Porthyria’s Lover totally adores her. On her arrival she made “all the cottage warm”. When she entered the room she “shut out the cold” and nothing else mattered to him.
Although its seems like he was been waiting for her he is very unresponsive as she called him and “no voice replied”. As much as her seems to adore her he describes her gloves as “soiled”, maybe saying that in his eyes she is not quite as innocent as she makes out to be.
He has very complex feeling for Porthyria and there is a weird balance of power between the two of them. An example of this is around line 15. When he doesn’t reply she is the one that puts his “arm around her waist”. He doesn’t want to do it himself and is a bit distant. Maybe this is because he has found out something bad and can’t bear to touch her at that time. He might be cautious or angry.
Robert Browning gives the impression that something or someone is coming between them. The reader is given this idea when Porthyria’s Lover is talking bout another who is love sick just as he is, the big difference being that the other person’s love is “all in vain”. They are wasting their time because she is his and not theirs. This brings about the question is ‘Porthyria’s Lover’ about the man who murders or could it be about another lover the person that is keeping Porthyria away him. Finding out that Porthyria is his is something that takes him by “surprise”. At last he knew Porthyria “worshipped him” and he finally had her to himself. Porthyria is finally his and he wanted that moment to last forever, this being his motive for murder.
At that moment Porthyria’s “soiled” past had been forgotten and at last she seemed “perfectly pure and good.” We are given the impression that Porthyria has strayed before so maybe the lover thinks the only way to make her his forever is to kill her. He can only be sure she is his alone if she is dead.
The lover makes killing Porthyria sound so shockingly simple and as if it was just something he had to do. The lead to the strangling is so matter of fact that it makes it seem the lover knew what he was doing. Everything was sorted in his head and he was in no doubt of what he had to do. The “mine, mine” made me think that he was going a bit crazy and that it was only a matter of time before he panicked and did something irrational.
As soon as he had strangled her he started making excuses. It seemed as if he was trying to convince the reader as well as himself that his actions were justified as he repeats that he believes she felt “no pain”. He is in denial and feels he has to say things more than once to believe them.
Afterwards he seems weary and checks to see if she is still there. I think that the simile “as a shut bud holds a bee” is saying that although Porthyria looked sweet and innocent on the outside there was something within her that was nasty. By killing her the evil inside could never be let out again.
Now she is dead the lover is finally in control as he “propped her head up” and kissed her cheek. This is a weird reversal as at the beginning of them poem Porthyria was the one who put his arm around her. He finally has the power.
Porthyria is no longer described as “she” towards the end of the poem. Her love for her lover for her lover is not “her” love anymore it has now changed to “it’s love”. The lover has finally got what he wanted, Porthyria as his possession.
When Porthyria first enters the room she is described as “gliding in” which makes her seem graceful and elegant, a respectable woman. Although she seems like the typical perfect woman with her long “yellow hair” and “smooth white shoulders” she is also described as “soiled” which makes her seem dirty and impure. Maybe she is cheating on him or maybe on someone else we’re not told.
The reader is not told why Porthyria is there or what prompted her visit but it seems like they were meeting in secret. The descriptions of the “warm cottage”, the “blazing fire” and the “elm tops” being blown about in the wind give the impression of a private secluded haven.
In lines 22-25 it also gives the impression of there being another person who Porthyria does not want to leave because of pride. Someone who she doesn’t really love and is just with because of materialistic objects. She loves him in “vain”. It also seems that they only met up occasionally, as passion would on prevail “sometimes”. Maybe she is scared to commit to her lover and let her “struggling passion free”.
The poem is set out in a long organised continuous list. Maybe this is to show how the lover’s brain is working. All this thoughts are sorted in his head and he is in a very rational state of mind. It is no surprise to himself he is going to kill Porthyria, maybe subconsciously he always knew.
Throughout the poem there are rhyming couplets. Using these gives more emphasis at crucial points. Words are also out to the beginning or end of a line to also add more emphasis. Sentences are broken up to be left on their own. “And strangled her” is an example of this as is “surprise”. This puts more emphasis on it and gives the reader the impression that he was maybe doubting Porthyria’s commitment.
The repetition of “mine” makes the reader that Porthyria’s lover is not sure if she is really his. He is trying to convince himself. It is written in the first person narrative, which makes the poem seem more meaningful. An interesting point is that is that the word “he” is never mention once yet the reader assumes the lover is a man. The word “she” is used a lot in the poem and maybe this is to show the lovers unhealthy obsession with Porthyria that contributes to her murder.
I think that the ending is effective. The lover has finally solved his problem. He feels that he has done nothing wrong. They are finally “together” Porthyria has been dead all night and no one has found her so he thinks that he had done nothing wrong because if he had God would have punished him and someone would know by then.
The lover says, “we have not stirred” he didn’t say Porthyria had not stirred and I think this is because at last he feels himself and Porthyria are one.
The second poem I studied was “The Flea” by John Donne. In this poem the poet is trying to seduce his mistress and convince her to sleep with him. There is a flirtatious love displayed within it. It is a very unconventional love poem. John Donne has made it very playful and witty which makes it seem as though he is trying to amuse himself and his mistress. It is just meant to be a fun poem.
The poet chooses to use a flea as the metaphor of their love. The mistress is reluctant at loosing her “maidenhood” so he belittles her fears by comparing their love to a flea. He does this in three different arguments.
The first stanza opens with a dramatic voice talking. He says that loosing her virginity is no big deal just like the flea. The flea has already “suck’d” them both and “mingled” their bloods. They are already united within the flea so in a way it is like it has already happened.
Then in the last three lines of the first stanza the poet tells is mistress that he regrets that the flea has done more than they will ever do, and it didn’t have to “woo” her before doing it like he had.
In his next argument he tells his mistress that they are “more than married” within the flea. He may have leaped up as he said “Oh stay” because she was about to kill the flea. If she killed the “living walls of jet”, meaning the flea, then she would also be killing him. He wanted her to “spare” it and the parts of them that are united inside it too. He is not talking about marriage but sex.
He is trying to hurry her along to after the marriage with talk of the “marriage bed”. It is described as the “marriage temple” to make it seem more sophisticated. The flea finds itself elevated to a temple. Their love is enshrined in it. The poet then says that the flea is sacrilegious and that killing it would be a crime against god. She would also not just be killing the flea but herself and him as well. He wants to make her laugh and relax.
The poet becomes very melodramatic and full of mock horror when his mistress finally squashes the flea. It seems to become dramatic as the stanza starts “cruel and sudden”. He tells her the only thing the flea was guilty of was biting her, it’s not important that it had bitten him. He acts as if it annoyed him because he resects her. He is using mock flattery.
His last argument is that she has killed the flea, which is just like using her virginity, and it wasn’t so bad. Neither of them are any worse off than before. She was worrying about nothing. He talks of her “honour” and how they shouldn’t care what other people think. They flea died for them so they shouldn’t waste any time. She should just “yielst” to him, just give in. Their parents “grudge” but they have come so far so why not just do it.
There is a speaking voice throughout the poem, which makes it conversational. Lines are broken up mid sentence which help show the feelings and emphasise certain bits. The lines are not end stopped either which makes the reader read it faster. The poet can tell his mistress is not impressed so he then starts to babble. The poem picks up as he tries to convince her.
There are rhyming pairs throughout until the last three lines of each stanza. These three lines conclude each argument before moving on to the next. Its becomes slower and more serious as dense reasoning is used to try and convince the mistress. Each of the three stanzas starts a new argument.
The argument balances as if on scales as it goes back and forth. There is alot of “me” and “thee” used. When one is mentioned the other is too, maybe to show they are as one.
Lofty language is used to describe such a lowly subject. The poet is trying to elevate it to make it seem more important like their love is. The poem also seems a bit too clever making the mistress and the reader doubt there is any warmth in it or if he really only wants sex. Lighthearted ideas are used to amuse.
“The Flea” is an unconventional love poem that is very well thought out. Most love poems are about flowers and sunshine and this poem is about a flea, which is an original yet unusual idea. In both poems the poet is trying to convince someone that what the want or what they have done is right. In “Porthyria’s Lover” he is trying to convince the reader, and himself, that killing Porthyria was the right thing to do where as in “The Flea” the poet is trying to convince his mistress to loose her “maidenhood”.
Porthyria and the mistress are both made out to be respectable women. They don’t want to do anything to harm their “honour”. For the mistress it means not loosing her virginity when she is not married and for Porthyria its not carrying on with two lovers as the poet suggests.
There is a big contrast between the two poems. Although they are both love poems they are very different. In “Porthyria’s Lover” the poet seems to really lover Porthyria but in the flea it seems as if the poet just wants to get his mistress in to bed.