Explore how Browning and Marvell present the theme of Obsession in 'Porphyria's Lover' and 'To His Coy Mistress' 

Robert Browning and Andrew Marvell both use the idea of obsession as the basis for their poems but although there are similarities in the personae’s obsessions, each seems obsessed in a different way. I understand the word ‘obsession’ to mean when a person’s thoughts are completely dominated by something or someone. This is definitely what we see in these poems and each author subtly portrays their own ideas on obsession very effectively.

The obsessed personae in the two poems are clearly very different but share an obvious common ground, they are both obsessed with a woman.

In Porphyria’s Lover the relationship which exists between the man and his female lover does not seem a conventional one. It seems very special and passionate and she seems to be the basis of his whole life. At the start is says how she “glided in” and “shut out the cold and the storm” this use of imagery makes us think of her as almost god-like and certainly very important in the way he perceives her.

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The reference to the storm is a warning sign of things to come, as it is the only downside to an otherwise perfect image being built up. The relationship seems somewhat of a secret or an affair and the use of the weather again seems to suggest it, when she is walking to his house in the terrible storm it says that the wind “tore the elm-tops down for spite”. The idea of it being an affair is backed up later on, “From pride, and vainer ties dissever”, “Passion sometimes would prevail”.

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This is suggesting that she has another, higher-class relationship or a marriage but that lacks the passion she gets with this lover, and that she is ashamed to be seen with him., this would explain her travelling to his house during an obviously terrible storm.

In To His Coy Mistress however the relationship is not quite so secret, but seems more long term and serious. The girl who is the focus of the obsession is not given as big a mention as that of Porphyria’s Lover but in the title we are told that she is “his coy mistress”, suggesting that she is not the one in control in the relationship and is coy, meaning she is shy and innocent. She does not get a chance to speak or any of her reactions noted during the course of the poem and it is clear that she does not have power over him but merely gets talked at by him, the phrase “quaint honour” backs this up. Her feelings for him seem more like love than his as they seem to have been together for a long time and have strong feelings for each other, “vegetable love” is mentioned, but he is the one that has lost patience and cannot accept her for who she is. “And into ashes all my lust”, he says that if she does not hurry up he will lose interest and his feelings will turn to “ashes”.

It is very much different in Porphyria’s Lover as it is clear that the love and passion is present and that they are both delighted with the current status of the relationship, “Murmuring how she loved me”. She has control in this relationship and that is one of the things that her lover is obsessed with getting. He says how “She put my arm about her waist”, and then how she “made her smooth white shoulder bare” “and stooping made my cheek lie there”. These are obvious signs of power and dominance over him, after we have already been led to think that she is socially of a higher class than he is. She enjoys this power and in a way that is what she is herself obsessed with, as it is natural to her and the way she is used to going about it. However this is not the way the obsessed persona wants it, he wants the dominance and it is most clearly shown after he kills her. “I propped her head up as before, only this time my shoulder bore her head”, this repetition of ideas emphasises the point that he wants the dominance as a male and Robert Browning uses this sadistic act to show it.

A lot can be said about the obsessed persona in To His Coy Mistress as the whole poem is a monologue by him, giving his perspective and giving us an insight into his mind. He sees his girlfriend as a na�ve, silly girl who is keeping her virginity intact too long, “That long preserv’d virginity”, he claims he loves her but as I showed earlier he goes on to say how he will lose interest and she will have missed her chance. The extent of his obsession is shown by what he says during his monologue, “I would love you ten years before the flood”, he goes about flattering her at the start of the poem and tactfully uses biblical references such as “Till the conversion of the Jews”. He tries so hard to get her to have sex with him and it’s clear how far his obsession goes because of this enormous effort.

We are not given and indication of her reaction but we can assume that this flattery does not affect her and then we are shown the first signs of his desperation and Marvell gives us a glimpse of his gruesome side. “Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound my echoing song: then worms shall try that long preserved virginity”, he starts an attempt to scare her into having sex with him by saying that if she doesn’t she will die and worms will invade her body.

The obsessions in Porphyria’s Lover are more psychopathic, like his obsession with her “yellow hair”, which ironically is what he uses as his murder weapon. The fact that he refers to it as yellow as opposed to blonde makes us think less of it as hair and more as an object, like the “yellow string” he refers to it as later on. It is a twisted way of killing someone, strangling him or her with their own hair and makes us think of him as psychopathic. This idea of psychopathic behaviour is repeated at the very end of the poem after he has propped her head on his shoulder as if she were a doll, it says “And all night long we have not stirred, and yet God has not said a word”. He sits in the same position with her corpse draped over him all night, as if he really is stuck in the moment, he does not try and rid of the body or cover up the murder, but just sits there with her for hours on end.

The same is not true of the obsessed persona in To His Coy Mistress, as he does not have these strange obsessions as such although there are some similarities. He mentions the girl’s youth a lot, mentioning her “youthful hew”. Andrew Marvell highlights her youth often in this poem, mostly subtly in the way that the man is talking down to her, persuading her to have sex, suggesting her youth. This obsession with her beauty and youth is what helps him in his argument when he turns hostile, he mentions that “Thy beauty shall no more be found”. He says that she will turn ugly with age and this suggests that he only wants to sleep with her while she is young and fresh, the freshness is shown by the use of the words “morning dew”, which follows the phrase mentioned earlier in the paragraph. These obsessions are different at first look but actually are very similar, with both poets emphasising the men’s need to preserve the women’s beauty and attractiveness.

This idea of preserving the moment or capturing time is an obsession that both of these men clearly posses and is the core of both poems.

In Porphyria’s Lover the idea of preserving the moment is most obvious, he kills her because he says, “at last I knew Porphyria worshipped me”. He wants to preserve that perfect moment in time and Robert Browning makes us aware that it isn’t an act that he commits spontaneously, “surprise made my heart swell, and still it grew while I debated what to do”. This is something that he thinks about and feels that he is doing it for the best as his “heart grew” while he decided what he would do. This makes us think further about him as psychotic as he gives it thought and still goes through with it.

The obsession with time in To His Coy Mistress is not quite the same and is not so much with preserving the moment but with capturing time and transcending it. He uses this idea of time as his argument for his girlfriend sleeping with him but uses it in many different contexts, usually with the same theme running through, that time is precious and is running out.

He starts off the poem by telling his girlfriend what it would be like IF they had all the time in the world, “Had we but world enough, and time”. This immediately puts the theme of time into our minds and especially the idea of time running out. He uses personification, with a chariot racing after them to represent time chasing them down, “Times winged chariot hurrying near”, and this starts him off on his attempt to scare the girl into having sex. He continues with this and Marvell makes us see that it is an obsession as he carries on and starts to talk about how time will devour them with slowly grinding jaws, “Rather at once our time devour, than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r”. The obsessed persona gets wrapped up in his speech and ends on a relatively high note, saying that they can break “through the iron gates” of time that are holding them back and defeat time if they have sex. This time he uses the sun to represent time, “though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run”.

The form of the two poems can also be compared for the way that Browning and Marvell present the two pieces of poetry. Both are told through the eyes of the obsessed persona and from their perspective and this is relevant to the form that the two poets choose to use.

In Porphyria’s Lover the whole poem is told in one continuous stanza, without being separated, this re-inforces the idea of the fiery passion in the relationship and the quick pace at which it all happens. The poem seems to slow down in pace after Porphyria is killed but still remains in one stanza, where only the pace changes.

This is not the case in To His Coy Mistress as although it is free flowing and lacks stanza divisions it is clearly divided into three sections. These three sections are the different parts of his argument, this first concentrates on flattery where lots of imagery is used such as “Thou by the Indian Ganges side should’st Rubies find”. There is a strong emphasis on rhyming and it is very slow paced so that the beautiful images being conjured up can be appreciated and Marvell can show the more pleasant side to his character. The second section is much shorter and focuses on her missing her chance and how is she doesn’t hurry up her beauty “shall no more be found”. The same rhyme scheme is used here and this section is much faster paced than the first, this is to show his desperation with the obsession. Finally the last section is where he uses strong imagery and persuasive language, like using “am’rous birds of prey” to represent passion. The rhyme scheme continues here and stays constant throughout the poem but the rhythm is different, it is more powerful and emphasised in the final section with it being at a pace in between the first two. It is split up like this so that Marvell can show different sides to the persona’s obsession and so that the reader can get a better insight into his mind.

I think that Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress portrays desperation best and uses more powerful language to support the case in hand but in my opinion Porphyria’s Lover gives a better portrayal of obsession. More empathy can be felt in this poem where as it is pure sympathy for the girl in To His Coy Mistress due to Marvell’s persona’s bullying tactics. Robert Browning’s use of repetition and the way he depicts the obsessed persona as insane such as when after he kills her he talks about her “smiling rosy little head” as it “droops upon” his shoulder works very well and portrays obsession very effectively. Overall I see this as a better poem as it gives a clearer picture of what is happening and in my opinion is the better poem for the portrayal of obsession.


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Explore how Browning and Marvell present the theme of Obsession in 'Porphyria's Lover' and 'To His Coy Mistress' . (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/explore-browning-marvell-present-theme-obsession-porphyrias-lover-coy-mistress-new-essay

Explore how Browning and Marvell present the theme of Obsession in 'Porphyria's Lover' and 'To His Coy Mistress' 

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