Porphyria's Lover Essays and Criticism
by Robert Browning

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The Mad Speaker's Account of Events

(Poetry for Students)

Many readers agree that “Porphyria’s Lover,” is a poem in which a madman recounts to himself the events of the night before that end with his murdering the woman he loves. The speaker’s actions and words—his strangling of his victim with her own hair and his insistence afterwards that she is glad at what has happened—surely point to his tenuous grip on reality. However, if the narrator in “Porphyria’s Lover” is in fact insane, certain difficulties arise. Since his is the only account offered of what happens that stormy night, it seems that the reader gets only his version of events and then must try to figure out from his view how to assess the situation. But what is the truth in the speaker’s description of the circumstances and what are merely delusions of a demented psyche? How is the reader to determine which part of the deranged speaker’s story should be believed and which rejected as untrue?

One reason the dramatic monologue as a poetic form is so compelling is that it offers a situation told from the perspective of a single character who, the reader gradually realizes, cannot be completely trusted to present with total accuracy the events he describes. The reader, then, must be the judge, both of the speaker’s character and the veracity of what he says. How is the reader to do this? In “Porphyria’s Lover,” Browning presents subtle clues to reveal to the reader the speaker’s psychotic state, and it is up to the reader to pick up on these to make inferences and recognize what kind of man the speaker is. That is, Browning offers hints that tell the reader what can be believed about what the speaker is saying and that also show the workings of his unbalanced mind.

The clues Browning provides are of two kinds, which are used together to show the speaker’s increasingly precarious grasp of what is real. First, with the structure of the poem, Browning shows the descent of the speaker into madness that takes place in three distinct stages. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is in a depressed state, but he is not completely mad. His language and description of outward events indicate as much. But in the second part of the poem, as he turns increasingly inward, he is seen to be losing touch with reality: he does not describe outward events but presents only an interpretation of his lover’s inner feelings and motives. By the end of the poem, the speaker can be seen to be clearly mad, as he offers again a description of outward events but in a manner that could not possibly accord with reality because they are so colored by his inner perspective. So then, Browning’s second technique is to use changes in language to show how the speaker loses his grip on reality. In the first part of the poem, the language used is straightforward and descriptive. In the second part, it becomes more evaluative and concerned with emotion. In the final section of the poem, the speaker again offers descriptions of outward events, but this time his language is much more metaphorical, and the description of external events is offered together with the speaker’s unlikely interpretation of them. The further the reader is taken into the speaker’s mind, the clearer it becomes that while his description of outward events can be taken seriously, his interpretation of them cannot be.

The first twenty lines of the poem consist of almost exclusively straightforward, descriptive words. Browning uses an extraordinary number of verbs—over twenty—in this section, and the adjectives he chooses for the most part describe external features. The speaker opens by setting the scene, explaining that it is raining, presenting the backdrop of trees and lake. He is alone in his cottage when in walks Porphyria. The description that is offered of Porphyria in the first part of the poem is completely external; it focuses on her actions, clothes, and body. She kneels down, rises up, unties her hat; her shoulder is “smooth white,”...

(The entire section is 7,038 words.)