“Porphyria’s Lover,” which first appeared as “Porphyria” in the Monthly Repository in January 1836, is the earliest and most shocking of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. The speaker—or, perhaps more accurately, thinker—of the poem recounts how he killed his illicit lover, Porphyria, by strangling her with her own hair. He does so to keep her his forever, reliving his story to justify his actions and preserve the moment of her death. The simple language and precisely structured form of the sixty-line poem combined with its asymmetrical rhyming pattern suggest a complex madness concealed beneath the speaker’s outwardly calm manner and reasonable tone.
The poem’s themes of sex, violence, and madness were of particular interest to Victorian readers, who reveled in sensational tales of horror and depravity despite societal condemnation of all things immoral, but Browning overturns normal expectations of such stories by presenting the sex between Porphyria and her lover as natural, making the reader consider the relationship between sex and violence, and exploring the complex nature of the speaker’s madness. The result is a study of human nature and morality that poses more questions than it provides answers. The reader is left wondering, for example, whether to believe the mad narrator’s account, how to understand society’s condemnation of sexual transgressions, and why sexuality is so often linked with dominance and power. The widely anthologized poem is also considered one of the finest poetic explorations of criminal pathology, an early example of Browning’s treatment of the theme of experiencing an infinite moment, an ironic reaction against the Romantic idealization of love, and a work that shows a skilled use of lyricism to present the complex workings of a character’s mind.