Themes and Meanings
This poem enacts the behavior of a distorted personality and mocks, pointedly, the attribution of the capacity to love to such a personality. Browning would not have used the term “schizophrenic” because it did not come into psychiatric parlance until the twentieth century. He could, however, present the disordered thinking of one suffering from personality dissociation, experiencing alienation from self and from what is normally perceived as reality, exhibiting inappropriate emotion and behavior, and unable to feel responsible for his emotions or his actions. This “lover,” so dubbed ironically, obviously cannot love or even affirm himself as an autonomous being who could generate love. In Browning’s moral perspective, this speaker would be another jealously possessive and tyrannical male similar to the duke who speaks in the more widely known poem “My Last Duchess.” The theme is a frequent one in Browning’s poetry.
A possible additional thread of meaning may be derived from the knowledge that the poem was first published with another poem, “Johannes Agricola in Meditation,” and that the two poems were later grouped under the heading “Madhouse Cells.” Browning clearly believed that both poems represented forms of madness. Johannes Schneider (Agricola) was associated with German religious reformer Martin Luther, but they did not agree on all points of theology. He was the founder of the Reformation sects of antinomianism, a belief labeled heretical by the orthodox because it taught that those among the elect (that is, those predestined for salvation, according to some forms of Calvinism and Wesleyanism) could not sin regardless of the apparent evil of their acts. The periodical in which Browning first published the two poems, the Monthly Repository, was edited by W. J. Fox, who was a friend of the Browning family and who rejected Calvinist ideas of election in favor of Unitarianism. Either he or Browning prefaced the poems with a note explaining that antinomianism maintained that God would not chastise one that he had chosen to save even if that person broke the moral law by committing murder or other heinous crimes. This context of early publication seems to offer the best explanation of the final line of the poem. Browning’s characterization of his speaker as a lover can thereby be read as his satiric exposé of a religious fanatic so convinced of his predestined salvation that he feels himself to be beyond divine retribution for his murderous act and subsequent necrophilia.
Browning’s study of madness in “Porphyria’s Lover” is subtly presented. At the beginning of the poem there is little sense that the person who narrates these events is insane. The form of the poem is regular, with a tight ababb rhyme pattern. Most of the poem is written in an uncomplicated iambic pentameter, in which every other syllable is stressed, creating a rhythmically soothing beat. The diction of the poem is straightforward (most of the words used are monosyllables), as is much of the description of events presented by the speaker. The poem begins with a simple description of a storm and then moves into a similarly straightforward description of Porphyria’s movements. The narrator explains everything methodically, presenting a catalog of his lover’s movements, as she shuts out the cold, kneels down, makes a fire, takes off her coat, and sits by his side. However, as is soon made clear, the apparent objectivity of the account and the outward, metrical impression of reasonableness and calmness belie the psychological upheaval in the speaker’s mind. As the events of the evening unfold through the speaker’s monologue , the reader realizes the speaker is not completely in touch with reality. The sudden shift in the speaker’s perception of Porphyria—she is at first a strong, commanding presence and in the next moment is shown as weak and indecisive—indicates that actual events and his interpretation of them are...
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