Porphyria's Lover Analysis
by Robert Browning

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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,” and it has tried to “vex the lake.” These opening lines reveal the speaker as fearful, as a passive listener, and as one who seems to project his own emotions onto the external world. He appears to be an unreliable reporter.

He then describes the entrance of Porphyria, whose actions and words contrast with the speaker’s passivity: She has “come through wind and rain” to “shut the cold out and the storm.” She then warms the cottage, an action that the speaker has lacked the will to perform for himself. He seems to lack any awareness that he has a will or a voice of his own: He reports that his arm and his cheek are placed by Porphyria around her waist and on her shoulder. He seems to experience himself as being without an active, directing center of his own being, since he has only “debated” possible action, being too engrossed in his own feelings to initiate action. When he can finally act, prompted apparently by a drive to preserve the moment of Porphyria’s surrender to him, he murders her by strangling her with her own hair. In the remaining lines, the speaker clinically describes opening Porphyria’s eyelids, loosening her hair around her neck, kissing her dead cheek, and propping her head on his shoulder in an act that mimics her earlier placement of his head. As he had projected his own attitudes and emotions onto the external storm in the opening lines, he concludes by attributing his murderous act to Porphyria’s “utmost will” and “one wish.” The final line suggests a complete lack of conscience in the speaker: “And yet God has not said a word!”

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 Victoria’s reign (1837 to 1901), but literary historians generally agree that the Victorian period began around 1830, when many social, political, and economic changes were taking place in English society. The Catholic emancipation of 1829, which enabled Catholics to sit in Parliament; the construction of the first railway in 1830; Parliamentary reform in 1832, extending the enfranchise to the middle classes (now one in five adult males could vote); the suppression of slavery in the colonies in 1833; and the beginning of the world’s first industrial revolution meant profound changes in the existing social order. However, despite many positive social reforms, Victorian England was known also for its repressive attitude toward sexuality. This might have been partly as a backlash to the...

(The entire section is 2,954 words.)