Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2424
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.
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.
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.
The speaker does not respond to Porphyria’s call after she sits next to him. This failure to respond indicates his sullenness; perhaps he is even in a catatonic state. Interestingly, the speaker does not even present himself as “I,” and the sense of his passivity is stressed once more when he says that “no voice replied” to her calls. Porphyria again is the active partner, as she puts her arm around the speaker’s waist and bares her shoulder to him. She proceeds to seduce him, moving her blonde hair from her shoulder, pressing his cheek against it, and then enfolding him in her long tresses. By modern standards, this description may not be considered sexually explicit, but in early Victorian poetry this would be considered a daring and erotically charged scene. The fact that the woman dominates and controls the situation is, of course, unusual, and this aspect is made all the more shocking when it is learned in the next few lines that she is a married woman of a different social class than the speaker. These facts are not immediately obvious, and the reader only gleans from several hints offered by the speaker that the two of them are engaged in an illicit love affair. He explains that Porphyria murmurs to him how much she loves him. But, he says, she is too weak, despite wanting to very much, to overcome her pride and follow her desire to be his forever. She cannot “dissever,” or break, her “vainer” ties. However, sometimes her passion overcomes her and she cannot help but come to her lover. Tonight, for example, she has left a “gay feast” to be with him. Thoughts of her pale, lonely lover cannot keep her at the party, and she has come through wind and rain to be with him. The fact that she was at a “gay feast” indicates that she is from the wealthy classes, and so she has a much higher social position than he, who lives in a cottage. Their love affair would thus be frowned upon because of their different social backgrounds.
The picture of Porphyria in these lines of the poem comes as a contrast to the description of her given earlier in the poem. In lines 6 through 15, the speaker presented a figure of a strong, forceful, dominant woman. Now, he presents her as being weak and unable to do what she actually wants—which is to leave her “vainer ties” and be with him. It is not entirely clear whether in lines 22 to 25 the speaker is merely giving his own explanation of her actions or whether he is offering a mocking reproduction of Porphyria’s own narration of her feelings and actions that evening. It is clear that while the earlier portrayal of Porphyria is offered in objective terms, the speaker now presents how he sees his lover in light of his selfimportance, frustration, and bitterness. Before, the description was of outward events (the storm, Porphyria’s entrance and action), and now the speaker turns inward to present a subjective interpretation of her state of mind and motives. While before she was dominant and in control, coming to him only after she has done what she needed to do, in his mind, she is weak and struggling, torn between the party’s allure and coming through wind and rain to be with him.
Suddenly the demeanor of the speaker changes, and it seems that all is well and he is happy. But it becomes clear again that what he describes is not presented objectively but from the recesses of his troubled mind. While in the first half of the poem the speaker is depressed and morose, it becomes clear in this part that he is in fact quite mad. It becomes especially difficult to determine what to believe about the account he offers. He says that he looks up at Porphyria’s eyes and they are happy and proud. He “knows” at that instant that Porphyria worships him. He is surprised and made proud by this realization, and his feelings intensify as he decides what he should do. In lines 31 to 36, the speaker suddenly uses a series of first-person pronouns: “I looked,” “I knew,” “my heart,” “I debated,” “mine, mine,” and “I found.” He thinks that at “that moment” Porphyria is completely and utterly his, and not only that but she is “fair / Perfectly pure and good.” It suddenly occurs to him what he should do, and that thing he finds to do is to take her hair in one “long yellow string” and wind it three times around her throat, strangling her.
There is no description at all of Porphyria’s struggle or horror, and according to the speaker, she feels no pain. He insists upon this twice. The reader knows the events cannot have occurred exactly as the speaker presents them, that he gives the interpretation of those events shaped by his demented mind. The speaker imagines that his lover who has trouble leaving her social circle to be with him in fact “worships” him, that she is completely his, and that at the moment she is with him she is perfectly pure. He is taken with the perfection of the moment, and he realizes that what he must do is preserve it. Killing her is the only way he can possess her completely. This act, he suggests, is not to be condemned, since, he insists, his victim feels no pain.
After strangling and killing her, the speaker opens Porphyria’s eyelids, using a strange simile that is at once grotesque and oddly innocent: he lifts her dead lids as perhaps a child would who opens a flower that holds a bee. Again, her eyes indicate that she is happy: they are laughing and “without a stain”—an unusual occurrence indeed, since Porphyria is dead. The speaker then proceeds to loosen the hair from around Porphyria’s neck and kiss her on the cheek, which blushes beneath his caress. Now he props her up and puts her head on his shoulder; he points out that this is the same position they were in before, but now the roles are reversed, and he bears her on his shoulder. The balance of power, it seems, has shifted, after Porphyria has “given” herself to him completely and he has made sure that this will be the case for all time. The speaker explains that as he utters these lines, Porphyria’s head is still on his shoulder, smiling and happy and free of its worries and in the state in which it has always wanted to be. He imagines that Porphyria shares in his joy of having stopped the passage of time in the exact moment in which her love for him is complete. She is finally free of all she scorned—perhaps her life in a monied society— and has gained her true love. This strange and disturbing depiction of what is happening is made all the more eerie by the fact that the speaker says that it is Porphyria’s head, drooped on his shoulder like a flower, that has these thoughts and feelings.
The last five lines of the poem show the speaker sitting still with his dead lover’s head upon his shoulder, as he reflects that Porphyria would never have guessed how her darling one wish—to be with her lover forever—would finally be granted. The moment of their perfect love has been captured and preserved for all time. They have sat together in the same position all night, not stirring at all, and this, it seems, is the beginning of an eternity together. Again the speaker tries to convince himself (or the reader) that what he has done is not to be condemned, for he says that even God has not spoken about his act. But he leaves it open that he is himself not absolutely sure of God’s approval, as he says that “yet God has not said a word”— indicating that He might still do so. Once again, this seems to imply that the speaker, by presenting or reliving his account of the night’s events, tries in his demented state to justify to himself, presenting the situation in such a way as to show how he is not to blame but seeming to feel undercurrents of distress and guilt at his crime.
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