Describe the characters of Porphyria and her lover in the poem "Porphyria's Lover" by Robert Browning.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning is a dramatic monologue.  The poem’s story comes from the mind of the man who waits for Porphyria. The poem belongs to the lover and his perspective.

The setting of the poem is a cottage in the country.  The cold and rainy storm outside exacerbates the atmosphere of the story.  The narration is first person with the poem being told from the mind of the lover.

Porphyria

This subject of the poem glides rather than walks into the cottage. This is a young woman who is breaking all societal conventions by meeting a man in his house in a sexual affair.   

Porphyria  is a blond with long, beautiful hair.  Passion and sexuality exude from the young woman.  Her first movement is to make a fire. The author makes Porphyria a force of nature when she enters the cottage. 

The narrator does not answer Porphyria when she calls his name.  Obviously, her love for him comes from her heart when she puts his arm around her waist and places her bare shoulder next to his cheek. 

Pulling him under her spell, Porphyria shows him how much she loves him.  Although this pleasant night of love convinces him that she loves him, the lover believes that she will give in to family pressure and not remain with him forever as she promises.  Her eyes portray her deep feelings of happiness and pride. She has given herself to him fully.

Porphyria’s Lover

To the reader, it should be obvious that something is wrong with the lover.  Why is he not extremely happy to have this beautiful young woman come to him through a terrible storm to give him her love? His unresponsiveness predicts something is wrong.  When Porphyria tells him that she loves him, he does not respond.  In his mind, he avows his love, but this is overshadowed by his feeling that this is all in vain. 

The narrator’s problem comes from his feeling that Porphyria is weak.  The societal pressures will force her to give up this affair. Even though they are together, he knows that this will not last.  He comes to the conclusion that she worships him.  In his mind, he debates about what he needs to do about this situation. 

The lover realizes that for the moment Porphyria belongs to him entirely.  Suddenly, he decides what to do. He strangles her to death with her long blonde hair. He believes that she felt no pain and repeats this in his mind.

Clearly, the narrator has slipped the bounds of sanity.  He compares her closed eyes to a bee that opens up a flower bud; he opens her eyes. He let go of the hair around her neck.  He kisses her and thinks that her cheeks are blushed in reaction.

Here is the scene that he sets in his delusion:

I propped her head up as before,

Only, this time my shoulder bore

Her head, which droops upon it still. 

The smiling rosy little head,

The insane lover props her head up as those she is just sitting by him with a smile on her face. He believes that all her worries are behind her now and that he has gained her love forever.   So they sit together all night long and do not move.  He seems to feel good that God has not spoken to him yet to give his disapproval.  

Browning was exploring sexuality and violence in his work. The poem divided into two parts addresses two problems that Browning’s society felt were shocking.  The first problem would be the illicit love affair. In the second half of the poem, Browning examines the madness of the narrator and the murder of his lover.   What an interesting poem from 1832!

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