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A Short Analysis of Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’

A reading of a classic dramatic monologue

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is one of Browning’s first great poems, written when he was in his early twenties. It is also one of the first great dramatic monologues in English verse, the 1830s being the decade in which Browning and Tennyson developed the genre, penning a series of classic poems which see the poet adopting a persona and ‘staging’ a soliloquy given by an (often unreliable) speaker. Here, the speaker is the titular lover of the girl, Porphyria. Before we proceed to an analysis of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, here’s a reminder of Browning’s poem.

Porphyria’s Lover

The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

Although we know it now as ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning’s poem didn’t acquire that title until 1863, nearly thirty years after he wrote it: originally it appeared as ‘Porphyria’ in the Monthly Repository (1836), then, in Browning’s 1842 volume Dramatic Lyrics, it appeared as a two-parter with another far less famous monologue, ‘Johannes Agricola in Meditation’, under the title ‘Madhouse Cells’. These earlier, discarded titles for the poem provide some clues as to how we should analyse it: the focus was initially on the doomed and murdered girl, then it was the speaker’s madness that was emphasised, and finally, it was the speaker himself who was placed centre-stage – though not under his own name (which we never learn) but merely as Porphyria’s lover, i.e. his relation to the lover he strangles. ‘Lover’, of course, given the fact that he kills the girl, is meant to make us reflect on the speaker’s state of mind. How can he ‘love’ her if he is willing to wring the life from her? But then didn’t Othello suffocate Desdemona for ‘love’, albeit jealous, selfish, twisted and perverted love?

What’s more, how should we read the word ‘lover’? Is the love returned? The speaker of the dramatic monologue may love Porphyria, and she, we are told, ‘worshiped’ the speaker – but then should we take the speaker’s word for it? Perhaps he is deluded (he may, after all, be mad), or perhaps he is lying to us and Porphyria does not worship or love him. Browning’s first attempt at a dramatic monologue establishes one of the key features of the form in his hands: namely, the only source we have for the poem’s action is the speaker, and we have no choice but to take his (faulty) word for it that what we are being told is true.

Another key aspect of the dramatic monologue which we can find in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is the idea of the confession: the speaker is addressing us and telling us what happened in an attempt to explain and justify himself and his actions. Yet one of the most remarkable things about this poem is how few answers the speaker’s confession actually provides: we remain unsure as to why he murdered Porphyria, what her precise relation to him was (lover, sister, sister and lover, or perhaps even, in one analysis, figment of his overheated imagination?), and what he means by that final line: ‘And yet God has not said a word!’ Did he expect to be struck down for committing such an evil deed? Or – mad as he may be – was he even expecting God to congratulate or reward him for killing this woman when she was ‘mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good’?

It would be dangerous to propose firm answers to these questions, for the very good reason that Browning leaves them unresolved so that we are left scratching our heads over the motive of the killer and his relation to Porphyria. How often have we heard or read in the news about a murder and wondered why the killer did it, and whether he knew his victim? Indeed, Browning appears to have been inspired to write ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ after reading an account of a murder included in John Wilson’s ‘Extracts from Gosschen’s Diary’, which was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1818. Browning’s friend, the now forgotten poet Bryan Procter (1787-1874), wrote an 1820 poem, ‘Marcian Colonna’, based on ‘Extracts from Gosschen’s Diary’ – and it was Procter who added the detail of the killer sitting up all night with his victim after he has committed the murder.

Yet we can work from internal details Browning gives us in the poem to a tentative analysis of the speaker’s psychology and his (possible) motives for killing Porphyria. We know he acts impulsively, for he tells us ‘surprise / Made my heart swell, and still it grew / While I debated what to do.’ But even here there’s some ambiguity: he may have already resolved to kill her, making this an act of premeditated murder, but he simply hasn’t planned how he is to carry it out. Alternatively, the decision to kill her may be one that he has made on the spot, carried away as he is in the moment. And the ‘moment’ is crucial:

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I would
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.

The suddenness and directness of those last three words, arriving after the tortuous and roundabout syntax of the previous line, catches us by surprise, as ‘string’ is manipulated into ‘strangled’, a twist of the word ‘string’ that echoes the twisting of her strings of hair to fashion a gruesome noose or garrotte. It seems to be that this brief moment of total possession – even if it is only imagined possession – is so perfect that it needs to be preserved, and the only way to keep Porphyria as she is, at the height of her adulation and adoration, is to snuff out her existence at this moment. Next, the killer’s justification:

No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.

The man doth protest too much: somehow the surety of the second line with its repeated assertion of a painless death weakens rather than strengthens the claim in the first. What Browning’s poem demands of us is that we treat his speaker’s words with a pinch of salt, analytically appraising them and regarding his claims with suspicion.

If you found this analysis of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ interesting, you might also enjoy our short introduction to Browning’s life and our pick of Browning’s best poems.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on October 12, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. A little long to read but enlightening! Thanks!

  2. I remember reading this at school! This and The Lady of Shalott. They both stuck in my memory

  3. My Last Duchess is mixed in somewhere with this poem. Two poems about killing women?

    • Yes I want to do that one next. He did seem curiously drawn to murderers (especially of women)! His dramatic monologues are often spoken by unstable and/or malicious types…

      • I interest students in Duchess by turning it into a detective mystery—What happened to the girl in the painting? Someone needs to write a novel about the Duchess. Maybe Tracey Chevelar is up for it having done the Girl in the Pearl Earring.

  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best Robert Browning Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

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