Porphyrias Lover By Robert Browning Annotated Bibliography

Part of the anthology for units 1 and 3, Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning is a poem about a couple’s relationship where the man kills the women because at she told him she loved him. Therefore, the man thought by killing her will let her be his forever. As the reader, we are disturbed by this poem from the madness portrayed by the man. Porphyria is the women and Porphyria’s lover is the man. Below is a complete analysis of the poem from the form, language and structured used. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.

Form

  • The poem is the form of a dramatic monologue like many of Browning’s poems are such as My Last Duchess. This is made clear from the use of ‘I’ and use of expressing emotions by the man throughout.
  • The poem is told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator because the narrator is mad. He’s a murderer and still thinks he has done right because  ‘God has not said a word!’
  • There is no silent listener in the poem with only two characters involved being the couple. This draws us in even more because it is disturbing us. From this, we become the silent listener.
  • The unreliability of the man emphasises his insanity. From having this in a form of a dramatic monologue emphasises juxtaposition between moral righteousness and what the man is doing. This makes the poem even more disturbing from the reader’s perspective that this man feels he has done no wrong at the end of the poem.

Structure

  • There are no stanzas in this poem: it is just one long speech.
  • The rhyming scheme used can be seen as consistent hinting towards a ballad form every four lines. This gives the impression that the mindset of the lover does not change from the start of the poem to the end.
  • The poem is in time chronological order.

Due to the lack of stanzas, the structure can be separated through key themes in the poem:

  • Porphyria coming home.
  • Porphyria looking after the man, lighting the fire.
  • Porphyria laying down with the man.
  • Porphyria telling the man she loves him but cannot commit.
  • The man strangling Porphyria.
  • What the man does with the body.

Language

  • The immediate response from the title is that Porphyria is the women and the lover is the man. It also suggests foreshadowing insanity. ‘Porphyria’ is a mental illness that causes the subject hallucination and become insane reflecting upon the actions of the lover.
  • There is use of pathetic fallacy, ‘The rain set early in to-night’. There has been previous rain/bad weather for a while. This makes clear their relationship has been bad for a while (the weather reflects their relationship).
  • The wind is personified, ‘sullen wind’.
  • ‘I listened with a heart fit to break’. This strengthens the form of this poem that it is a dramatic monologue. He is telling us his emotions that he is extremely unhappy.
  • Although she may not be called Porphyria, I will refer her by that name. Porphyria has come from a cold wet place to now a dry warm place providing a juxtaposition between setting.
  • The fact Porphyria ‘glided’ in makes her seem graceful.
  • She ‘Blaze[s] up’ which means she starts a fire going. This illustrates that she is looking after him.
  • ‘When no voice replied’ suggests that if no voice replied, they may have had arguments in the past that supports the point the pathetic fallacy was making.
  • She’s ‘Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour’ makes clear he wants her to love him the way he loves her.
  • ‘From price, and vainer ties dissever’. She is a respectable women in society and cares about how she is perceived. Paranoia is a symptom of the illness Porphyria. This also sugessts she has another life meaning she is unable to commit to him. This moment where she’s breaking apart is here trying to be sweet and nice (otherwise know as ameliorative).
  • He believes ‘Porphyria worshipped me’ making him feel he had power and love. However, it doesn’t mean anything because she cannot commit to a relationship he wants.
  • His madness continues where his materialistic trait comes through, ‘mine, mine, fair’. He thinks he possesses her and strengthens this view by repeating ‘mine’.

He shows desperation through the way he wanted to kill her:

‘In on long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her. No pain felt she‘

  •             Porphyria is portrayed as fragile and vulnerable from the way her throat is ‘little’.
  •             Extreme juxtaposition appears her. The start of the line starts with the way he murdered her innocently. This contrasts to to the ending where he pacifies the murder by unreliably claiming she felt no pain. The use of a caesura (break in the middle of the line being the full stop) makes clear that the line’s conjunction has contradictory words such as ‘strangled ‘ (which is also onomatopoeic) and ‘no pain’.
  • He is forever worried about her love and wants to keep her loved. He wanted to retain her at the most perfect moment in time when she loved him. Therefore, by killing her then will, in his opinion, mean she will love him forever.
  • We gain the impression he is careful and loving after the murder making this seem even more disturbing to read. This is made clear through the use of sibilance on words such as ‘tress’, ‘Blushed’ and ‘kiss’. The repeated ‘s’ sound makes him sound soft and caring juxtaposing to what he just did to her.
  • He is portrayed as even more insane, ‘I propped her head up as before’ showing his affectionate side. However, this is not the way a killer would react.
  • He objectifies Porphyria ‘The smiling rosy little head, / So glad it has its utmost will’. This also makes clear that he believes she wanted to be killed. Therefore, he did it for her sake.
  • ‘And I, its love, am gained instead!’ He is sating that she’s got him forever now instead of her ‘vainer ties’.
  • The use of ‘its’ provides dissociation from society.
  • ‘And all night long we have not stirred’. He has been in the same position all night long. He is finally spending a night with her without interruptions of morals or arguments.

‘And yet God has not said a word!’ 

This quote can have different interpretations:

  • He must think he has been morally right if God has not disturbed him while murdering Porphyria.
  • He doesn’t know if he has done right or wrong. Therefore, he wants God’s approval.
  • He is criticizing God that he could let such a deed like this happen without any consequences.
  • He is criticizing religion. He has done something this bad and has not been punished by God questioning religion.

Be sure to check out other poems I have analysed on Ask Will Online. Also check out PoemAnalysis.com that has one of, if not the, largest database  of poetry analysis online – if I have not analysed a poem you are looking for on Ask Will Online, you will find it on PoemAnalysis.com.

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Complete Text

The rain set early in tonight,
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 endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight’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 worshiped 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!

Summary

“Porphyria’s Lover,” which first appeared in 1836, is one of the earliest and most shocking of Browning’s dramatic monologues. The speaker lives in a cottage in the countryside. His lover, a blooming young woman named Porphyria, comes in out of a storm and proceeds to make a fire and bring cheer to the cottage. She embraces the speaker, offering him her bare shoulder. He tells us that he does not speak to her. Instead, he says, she begins to tell him how she has momentarily overcome societal strictures to be with him. He realizes that she “worship[s]” him at this instant. Realizing that she will eventually give in to society’s pressures, and wanting to preserve the moment, he wraps her hair around her neck and strangles her. He then toys with her corpse, opening the eyes and propping the body up against his side. He sits with her body this way the entire night, the speaker remarking that God has not yet moved to punish him.

Form

“Porphyria’s Lover,” while natural in its language, does not display the colloquialisms or dialectical markers of some of Browning’s later poems. Moreover, while the cadence of the poem mimics natural speech, it actually takes the form of highly patterned verse, rhyming ABABB. The intensity and asymmetry of the pattern suggests the madness concealed within the speaker’s reasoned self-presentation.

This poem is a dramatic monologue—a fictional speech presented as the musings of a speaker who is separate from the poet. Like most of Browning’s other dramatic monologues, this one captures a moment after a main event or action. Porphyria already lies dead when the speaker begins. Just as the nameless speaker seeks to stop time by killing her, so too does this kind of poem seek to freeze the consciousness of an instant.

Commentary

“Porphyria’s Lover” opens with a scene taken straight from the Romantic poetry of the earlier nineteenth century. While a storm rages outdoors, giving a demonstration of nature at its most sublime, the speaker sits in a cozy cottage. This is the picture of rural simplicity—a cottage by a lake, a rosy-cheeked girl, a roaring fire. However, once Porphyria begins to take off her wet clothing, the poem leaps into the modern world. She bares her shoulder to her lover and begins to caress him; this is a level of overt sexuality that has not been seen in poetry since the Renaissance. We then learn that Porphyria is defying her family and friends to be with the speaker; the scene is now not just sexual, but transgressively so. Illicit sex out of wedlock presented a major concern for Victorian society; the famous Victorian “prudery” constituted only a backlash to what was in fact a popular obsession with the theme: the newspapers of the day reveled in stories about prostitutes and unwed mothers. Here, however, in “Porphyria’s Lover,” sex appears as something natural, acceptable, almost wholesome: Porphyria’s girlishness and affection take prominence over any hints of immorality.

For the Victorians, modernity meant numbness: urban life, with its constant over-stimulation and newspapers full of scandalous and horrifying stories, immunized people to shock. Many believed that the onslaught of amorality and the constant assault on the senses could be counteracted only with an even greater shock. This is the principle Browning adheres to in “Porphyria’s Lover.” In light of contemporary scandals, the sexual transgression might seem insignificant; so Browning breaks through his reader’s probable complacency by having Porphyria’s lover murder her; and thus he provokes some moral or emotional reaction in his presumably numb audience. This is not to say that Browning is trying to shock us into condemning either Porphyria or the speaker for their sexuality; rather, he seeks to remind us of the disturbed condition of the modern psyche. In fact, “Porphyria’s Lover” was first published, along with another poem, under the title Madhouse Cells, suggesting that the conditions of the new “modern” world served to blur the line between “ordinary life”—for example, the domestic setting of this poem—and insanity—illustrated here by the speaker’s action.

This poem, like much of Browning’s work, conflates sex, violence, and aesthetics. Like many Victorian writers, Browning was trying to explore the boundaries of sensuality in his work. How is it that society considers the beauty of the female body to be immoral while never questioning the morality of language’s sensuality—a sensuality often most manifest in poetry? Why does society see both sex and violence as transgressive? What is the relationship between the two? Which is “worse”? These are some of the questions that Browning’s poetry posits. And he typically does not offer any answers to them: Browning is no moralist, although he is no libertine either. As a fairly liberal man, he is confused by his society’s simultaneous embrace of both moral righteousness and a desire for sensation; “Porphyria’s Lover” explores this contradiction.

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