Monday, 21 April 2008


A colleague of mine has been going mad that his 15 yr old son is studying Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning for his GCSE English Literature. I have to admit this has left me a little queasy. You can read it here on Spark' notes, an American revision site, so I presume it is considered good High School material in the US too.

It is a deeply shocking poem and Browning writes pure drama in his poems in what I consider to be a very easy to read, modern English. The question still remains, is it suitable for 15 year old boys? I don't think so. The vast majority of them have little concept of the sexual act beyond the "nudge-nudge wink-wink say no more" Eric Idle type. The vast majority have very confused notions about love and "true love". Many, sadly, have a view of women as either as mothers and/or whores. Why is it then suitable to provide them with this flashy art-house snuff-poetry. There are no higher ideals, there is nothing edifying about it. It fails to deal sensibly or maturely with death or true love. Instead we get sexual tension, sado-eroticism, murder and madness. The boys may miss the madness bit and think that this is somehow an allowable form of fantasy.

The boy concerned attends an all boys school, therefore I have not considered the effect on girls that this poem may have and I shudder to think how they may react.


ukok said...

When my daughter was 14 i made an appointment to see her drama teacher...the class had to read a play where every other word was an 'F' word. I told the teacher i found that apalling, especially in a Catholic school. The head of the department met with me instead of the teacher....she promised me it would be withdrawn, but i don't think it was.

A lot of what are kids are being taught seems like soft porn to me.

I think your friend is rightfully indignant.

Irene said...

Rita, how is this different from the sex-and-violence portrayed graphically hundreds of times every day on TV, film, YouTube, etc.? That 15 year old has been steeped in this stuff for years and is probably quite numb to a simple Browning poem.

However, this poem is a little bit of artistic history that escaped me up until now, so I thank you for introducing me to it.

And of course it's sick. That is the point.

Rita said...

Do you like the poem, as a poem? Do your think it is worthy of study?

My biggest problem with it is that it is such an unrealistic depiction of a strangulation, it can never be anything more than erotic fantasy. It is a pretty freaky erotic fantasy too. Doesn't studying this at an academic level somehow numb us even further to the horror it is depicting?

What is right about boys studying a poem about a woman who submits to her own death as part of a man's sexual fantasy? What they look at on the internet is done furtively, they know it is wrong. It cannot be right that their teachers, through talking about this poem, demonstrate such pornographic fantasy is somehow worthy of study.

Tom in Vegas said...

I must admit that the poem is disturbing...VERY disturbing. I just don't know what opinion to formulate right now, Rita. Perhaps my disdain should be focused on Browning for actually finding enough depraved inspiration to pen such a repulsive verse.

The poem reminds me somewhat of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily."

Irene said...

I don't see how studying academically something you've already watched repeatedly on TV is going to numb a child further.

And the teacher is certainly able to point out how sick the poem is -- and at the same time, how sick TV is.

We only damage our own credibility when we complain about the mote and ignore the beam. If you really want to protect your children, throw out your TV, or better, sit down and educate them about these things that they WILL find in the real world.

Irene said...

Do I like the poem? Well, of course not -- it is not merely disturbing, it is frightening and disgusting. But do I like the poem? As a technical tour de force, yes, very much; I admire Browning's talent and skill, to create something that elicits such strong (negative) emotions simply by scraching on a page. Why, those scratchings have meaning only to persons who have been educated rather extensively in English!

I said the poem is sick. More explicitly, the narrator is sick: insane, psychotic. The poem's effectiveness turns on the glimpse it gives us of what goes on in the lunatic mind, as understood in Victorian England. We read it, and involuntarily think in the back of our mind "there but for the grace of God go I".

Remember, the 19th century was very different from the 21st century. Victorians were absolutely obsessed with death (because it was all around them) and sex (because they equated it with sin).

Now in the 21st century we are obsessed with -- violence (= death) and guess what, sex! But we have media that infinitely exceed mere poetry.

We have television (including cable), where success and profit are dependent upon the amount of violence and sex that can be crammed into a program or a commercial. Why? Because the public chooses to watch violence and sex. TV would present round the clock televised masses if the public would watch them, and commercials would feature the lives of Saints if people would go out and buy the sponsors' products.

Newspapers? No different.

And what can we say about the internet? The most profitable sites are the ones that sell the most twisted sex -- with free teasers, of course. The only games that sell are chock full of the most creative violence.

Does that 15 year old have access to TV/cable? Newspapers? Does he have access to the internet (any healthy 15 year old can defeat the filters). Are there drug dealers selling in his high school -- were they selling in his middle school. Sorry, all of these things are present even in our Catholic schools/homes.

Sorry, there is no way that 15 year old can be ignorant of these things. So he had best be educated about them -- by his parents, by his teachers, by his priest. He must learn that he is to be IN the world and not OF it. And if they do, most 15 year olds will turn out just fine (however, their parents will have severe hair loss).

Sorry to have gone on so long with this, but I do consider the formation of our children super-important.

Rita said...

Thanks Irene, I really appreciate your thoughtful responses.

The boy concerned has strict Baptist parents, and I think one of the issues here is they are shocked by the poem and having no interest in literature themselves don't really know how to deal with it. The boy's internet access is strictly limited, all computer games are vetted and he is not allowed a mobile phone.

In a previous post I talked about the issue of "relevance". The current thinking in education is that what students are studying must be relevant to their life experiences. This poem is on the syllabus because it is a tour de force of written English and its themes are accessible to youth: lust, power, sex and killing.

I still hold on to the ideal that education should somehow try to coax the young away from the most base and degenerate of forms of human interaction. I'm just not convinced the context in which this poem is delivered intends to do that. Sadly, critical thinking is not encouraged (probably because of its Marxist overtones).

Irene said...

Ah! Now I understand!

Of course they were shocked by the poem -- that was Browning's intention.

Of course in the old monasteries and convents it was possible to keep a teen-ager's mind "pure". But today, unless they live on a small farm many miles from any city of any size (like that Mormon group in the news recently), there is no way they possibly can so limit this boy's input that he will remain ignorant of the sex and violence. (And a farm is one of the best places to learn about sex.)

I've encountered very few people who do not have a TV in their house, and no high schools and few middle schools where people are not dealing drugs in the hallways and the parking lots. With the naivete you describe, that 15 year old is running circles around them on the internet and probably is at risk. Teaching teen-agers how to cope with the dangers in the world is the only practical way I know to protect them. Perhaps the parents are unable to do this, but hopefully the teacher will interpret the poem accurately to the boy and put it in its proper perspective.

Is there any way you can help the parents learn reality?

Rita said...

The parents are quite scientific and probably mistake the "realism" of the poem for "reality". They cannot see that it is pure fantasy.

I'm interested in your logic about educating children to live in the world. It would suggest you are in favour of (for instance) the most graphic forms of education regarding contraception. After all that is what "the world is up to".

My argument is that, whilst appreciating we must not be naieve and we must accept the realities of the post-modern world, somewhere there MUST be some education regarding higher ideals than the base, coarse and crude that current standards seem to expect.

AutumnRose said...

My dh studied this at University a few years ago, and I must admit, I saw it in allegorical terms, rather than as advocating any kind of sexual sado-masochism, exploring the themes Irene mentioned, of sex and death.

To be honest, I think much of it would go over the head of a 15 year old, especially if he has been desensitised by tv, although it sounds like this boy may still have a fairly naive outlook if his activities are monitered to that extent.

I do believe we need to protect our children but I also think that over-protecting them is unhelpful, as they need to be aware of the nature of the world they are about to grow up into to a certain degree.

Interesting discussion any how, thanks.
AR x