Porphyria's Lover Critical Overview
by Robert Browning

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

“Porphyria’s Lover” was published early in Browning’s career in the first issue of the journal The Monthly Repository under the title “Porphyria.” It received little notice upon its initial publication in 1836, and critics were similarly unresponsive when it was reprinted in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics together with a companion piece “Johannes Agricola” under the general title, “Madhouse Cells.” When it appeared again in 1863 in Poetical Works under its present title, Browning’s reputation had grown, and all his earlier poems were more favorably reviewed than when they were first published, but the work was not singled out for praise. In Browning: The Critical Heritage, which includes all major critical assessments of Browning’s works in his lifetime, “Porphyria’s Lover” is mentioned but twice, and at that only briefly and in passing. The English writer Charles Kingsley writing in 1851 is said to have disliked it, but an anonymous 1876 critic refers to it as an example of a good short poem by Browning. In general, in the nineteenth century the poem seems to have been seen as one of a handful of immature verses written by a young Browning during a period when he was writing poetry in the confessional style and developing his techniques of the dramatic monologue.

In the twentieth century, Browning’s reputation in English literature having been firmly established, “Porphyria’s Lover” was heavily anthologized but presented to be “of interest” by most critics almost solely by virtue of its being a “murder” poem, an example of Browning’s interest in criminal psychology and violence, and Browning’s first dramatic monologue. However, as the critic Norton B. Crowell points out in his study of Browning’s works, the poem “rarely received the attention it deserves.” Most of the analyses of the poem were brief and covered single aspects of the poem.

An interesting but largely discredited interpretation of the poem was offered in 1900 by James Fotheringham, who claimed that the lover in the poem is dreaming and the entire action takes place in “wild motions” of his brain. C. R. Tracy’s 1937 Modern Language Notes article, one of the first devoted entirely to a discussion of the poem, argued that the speaker of the poem...

(The entire section is 557 words.)