The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Porphyria’s Lover” is a sixty-line poem of irregular iambic tetrameter with an ababb rhyme scheme, a pattern which continues through the poem’s twelve five-line divisions. It is believed to be Robert Browning’s earliest study in abnormal psychology. It is perhaps more accurately termed a soliloquy or an inner monologue than a dramatic monologue, since it identifies no specific auditor. The term “dramatic” more aptly describes many of Browning’s later poems, in which the tension arises from the drama that builds as the speaker unwittingly reveals himself to a specifically identified listener present in the poem. The fact that Browning called the poem “dramatic” is probably explained by his reaction to reviews that had ridiculed his earliest work as too subjective. After these, he insisted that readers see his poetry as objective by distinguishing between his personal self (the poet) and the voices of his fictive speakers in his monologues. He did not want critics to think these created speakers expressed the poet’s personal emotions.

The title leads one to expect a love relationship, perhaps two lovers in a cozy cottage retreating from the storm described in the opening lines. However, the perceptions reported by the speaker (the “lover”) soon alert the reader to his unbalanced perspective. This speaker attributes attitudes and willful actions to the wind: It is “sullen,” it has torn the elm trees “for spite,”...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Sex and Scandal in the Victorian Era Strictly speaking, the Age of Victoria should correspond with the beginning and end of Queen...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Browning’s forte and his principal formal strategy in this early poem is a monologue through which an unaware speaker reveals character disorders. It is the speaker’s diction and syntax as he reports his perceptions and inferences that reveal his moral character. The first four lines are simple, flat, four-measure statements, end-stopped and regular in meter until the spondee of line 5, “heart fit.” After the speaker’s personification of the wind, which suggests his own helplessness and suppressed emotions, the ambiguous grammar of the emphatic spondee suggests both a heart ready to break and a heart that is having a fit. Lines 6-15, which describe Porphyria’s movements, are correspondingly more fluid, with enjambment and midline clause breaks. The effect is a contrast between Porphyria’s action and the speaker’s unmoving passivity. Lines 15-30 show the speaker overcome by Porphyria’s presence. He has lost even the weak “I” of line 5 and has become so dissociated from himself that he reports his inability to reply to Porphyria’s call as “no voice” being heard, as though he is outside himself listening. The word “displaced” (line 18) suggests the displacement of the speaker’s center of being, a kind of moral paralysis. This self-alienation continues with the speaker’s sense that Porphyria is the one who moves his arm and head. The word “stooping” (line 19) is, again, grammatically ambiguous, this time as a dangling modifier,...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Dramatic Monologue
“Porphyria’s Lover” is a dramatic monologue, a poem in which a speaker talks to a silent listener about...

(The entire section is 713 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1830s: The invention of the steam press, cheaper paper, and increasing literacy in England results in the proliferation of newspapers,...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Compare and contrast “Porphyria’s Lover” with another of Browning’s dramatic monologues, such as “Johannes Agricola” or “My...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

The Victorian Web maintains a Browning web page at rbov.html with links to other interesting...

(The entire section is 98 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

“My Last Duchess,” published in 1842, is perhaps the most celebrated of Browning’s dramatic monologues. It presents in fifty-six lines...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Blackburn, Thomas, Robert Browning: A Study of his Poetry, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967.

Cohen, J....

(The entire section is 274 words.)