(Poetry for Students)

Porphyria's Lover cover image

The action of “Porphyria’s Lover” unfolds through the recounting of the events of one night— culminating in the murder of Porphyria—by the speaker of the poem. Because the story is not retold to an audience but seems rather to be replayed in the mind of Porphyria’s lover, it is somewhat inaccurate to refer to him as the poem’s “speaker,” but most commentators refer to him as such. Browning masterfully builds up tension in the poem by gradually revealing to the reader, through details provided by the speaker, what has taken place. As it also becomes clear that the narrator is mad, it is up to the reader to decide to what extent to believe the speaker’s statements. The poem is a dramatic monologue told by Porphyria’s lover (who is never named in the poem), and like other Browning monologues, what is learned about this person is to be gained not merely from what he says about himself but from what he does not say and from a sense that his depiction of himself may not be completely trustworthy. The speaker describes how his lover comes to him one night and he kills her, and in doing so he preserves their love forever. And while his portrayal of the situation is designed to show that his actions are justified, it becomes apparent that he is not so certain of this. In this poem Browning offers a complex psychological study of an insane man who uses reason and argument to explain and make sense of his actions.

Lines 1–5
The poem opens by setting the scene—it is raining, and a storm is raging outside—and with it establishes the tone of the action that follows. The storm is described in simple, direct language: it sets in early, it tears down tree limbs, and its force disturbs the calmness of the lake. The storm is also personified in a way that anticipates the mood of the speaker. Browning here uses a device called “pathetic fallacy,” in which something nonhuman is endowed with human intentions and feelings. The wind, the speaker explains, is “sullen”; it destroys the trees out of “spite,” and it deliberately tries to “vex,” or anger, the lake. Later in the poem the speaker is sullen and he uses his sullenness to elicit some type of reaction from Porphyria. Also in these first few lines, it is learned that the events described are from the recent past; the speaker refers to “tonight.” The mood of the speaker is made clear when he explains that he listens to the storm raging outside “with heart fit to break”—he is suffering greatly over something, and the weather outside mirrors and intensifies his feelings.

Lines 6–15
Porphyria enters the speaker’s cottage, and immediately the tone of the poem changes. In line 4, the speaker introduces himself as passively listening to what was going on outside, but in his description of Porphyria, he presents a woman who busily and actively moves around. In these ten lines in which Porphyria is depicted, Browning uses an abundance of verbs, which show her as performing no less than twelve actions. However, even as she “shut,” “kneeled,” “made,” “rose,” “laid,” “untied,” etc., there is no sense that she is in a hurry or frenzy. Rather, she is in control of her brusque, purposeful movements, which are emphasized by the use of monosyllables. Porphyria enters the cottage and “straight,” or right away, gets to work. Her presence shuts out the cold and storm, again an indication of her strength of personality. Despite the fact that there is a storm raging outside, there is no fire burning, and she sets about making one “blaze up.” From this the reader gets a sense of her forcefulness but also of the speaker’s passive and depressed state, as he has apparently been sitting alone in his cottage in the middle of a storm without attempting to warm the place up.

Indeed, throughout the poem, there are clear contrasts between Porphyria and her lover. She is described in terms of bright color (her yellow hair, the fire she makes blaze up, her blue eyes and rosy face), while he is pale. She is active, he is passive; she is talkative, and he is silent; she come in after being with many other people, while he sits alone and isolated in his cottage. After she makes the fire, Porphyria rises and takes off her clothes that are wet and soiled from the storm. The poet makes clear that it is only after she has put the scene in order that she approaches her lover. It is learned that Porphyria unties her hat, lets her hair down, “And, last, sat down by my side.” The use of commas around “last” further emphasize that she goes to her lover only after she has set her surroundings right. She then calls to him.

At least one critic has argued that the portrayal of Porphyria in these early lines of the poem suggests that she is a vampire, or at least that the speaker presents her as one to justify his later murder of her. The setting of the poem, this critic suggests, is typical of the traditional Gothic horror story, as a mysterious lady enters at night during a storm. Porphyria “glides” into the cottage in the silent manner of the undead, and she shows her forcefulness and dominance in her actions before trying to seduce her victim. The rest of the poem, it is contended, provides further evidence of the speaker’s belief in Porphyria as vampire, as he thinks her gaze weakens him and his only choice is to kill her, and as he believes that God has not punished him because in killing the vampire he has saved his soul. The name “Porphyria,” too, it is claimed, has links with anti-Christian elements: “porphyre” designates a type of serpent, Porphyrius was an anti-Christian philosopher, and “porphyry” is a type of marble that is sensitive to light in the same way that vampires are said to be.

Lines 15–30
The speaker does not respond to Porphyria’s call after she sits next to him. This failure to respond...

(The entire section is 2424 words.)