Robert Browning and a Summary of Porphyria's Lover
Porphyria's Lover is one of Robert Browning's earliest dramatic monologues. In sixty rhyming lines it details the workings of a suspect mind within a gothic scene of love, murder and intrigue. The lover wants complete control over her, but only her death, when she is pure and good, can preserve the precious moment of perfection.
- In the narrative, the first person speaker goes back a few hours in time, earlier in the evening, describes the meeting and the murder of Porphyria and then, almost casually at the end informs the reader that the two are sitting together still. It is both bizarre and chilling.
- As the poem progresses the reader is given various subtle clues as to the reasons behind the meeting and the awful act. The male protagonist is clearly upset and feels wronged; the female perhaps has come to end what has been a bittersweet intense relationship, despite still loving the man.
- Browning's clever use of language and subtle timing introduce uncertainties into the reader's mind. Is the man mentally deranged? What of the sexual undertones? Is the woman merely a figment of his imagination? Is it the woman or the man at fault in this relationship?
- Many questions arise particularly with regards to the physical act of murder - strangulation by the woman's hair. It seems to be premeditated? Is fetishism at play? By killing her is he releasing her from torment?
- Is the disease porphyria affecting either one of the two involved? Porphyria is a hereditary disease that can eventually lead to mental impairment and hallucination.
Robert Browning had a deep interest in the psychology of love and unusual relationships and wrote several poems exploring these themes. Among these are My Last Duchess, Andrea del Sarto, In the Laboratory, Meeting at Night, Parting at Morning.
Porphyria's Lover, because it depicts the murder of a woman, is perhaps the most controversial. Here is an unstable yet controlling man wondering what to do with the woman who has left a gay feast (a party) to be at his side on a stormy evening.
There is a definite air of sexual tension created in those opening lines which build up slowly - the man knows Porphyria will never totally commit to their relationship; he quite rationally decides that he must do something to end the emotional agony.
Why she chose to brave the elements to visit him is unclear but she must have had a compelling reason. Was it for one last act of passion before parting for good? Perhaps she was torn between love and social standing - she worshipped him but her status meant that a permanent union, marriage, was impossible.
Browning creates a powerfully disturbing human scene and skilfully plays on the reader's sense of outrage and curiousity by opening up the mental process of the perpetrator.
In his day, family, moral and religious values were of the utmost importance. Breaking social rules and stepping outside traditional boundaries was taboo. To have a female as 'lead' character visiting her male lover and ending up dead would have been highly contentious.
Here is a man who coolly waits for an opportunity to kill his lover, who knowingly sins then when this is done, is relieved or surprised that there is no response from his God. For him, Porphyria's death is his distorted life - he thinks of her as a possession, a doll; she or it has taken on a new life, which is why he sits with her all night.
Browning's great gift is to sequence the narrative as a normal timeline whilst simultaneously subtley offering the oblique processes of the lover's mind in such a way that the lover looking back never mentions his own guilt, or emotion or empathy. In some way he's hardly a lover; he's a helpless criminal in waiting, trying to work things out in his own haphazard yet calculating way.
Porphyria has been the dominant figure in their relationship and he has been the needy one. His ego cannot take any more - though he's silent there is resentment of her power over him. Perhaps he has never been capable of articulating those needs.
All the signs point to his hostility towards her, yet he's incapable of taking the blame. He hasn't a conscience and his rational capacity has been exhausted. Her worshipping him is the key to his awful act, setting him up as rival to God, beyond responsibility.
What is the Theme of Porphyria's Lover?
The main themes of Porphyria's Lover are:
- the psychology of love,
- the tensions at play within a sexual realtionship,
- preserving the ideal in love,
- capturing the perfect moment in a relationship
- fantasy versus reality - did the murder actually place?
Summary of Porphyria's Lover
Lines 1 - 5 The rain set early...
The opening five lines describe the foul weather conditions, its effect on the nearby countryside. The male, indoors, relates to spite, vex and sullen because he is heart-broken.
Lines 6 - 15 When glided in Porphyria...
Porphyria enters and immediately sets about building up the fire for warmth. She then takes off her wet cloak and shawl and hat, lets her hair fall then sits down at his side. The idea is that she is setting the scene, she is the one in charge.
Lines 15 - 25 When no voice replied...
Repeated use of the word And at the beginning of certain lines helps build up a curious sexual tension as the pair become more intimate. She admits her love for him but he thinks she is too weak to commit fully, for ever. Note the feminine endings in lines 21-25, which have an extra syllable, slowing the lines down, relating to loss of control.
Lines 26 - 30 But passion sometimes....
Passion rules the head, passion drives a person on - to leave a party for the wind and rain and? But it's all in vain.
Lines 31 - 35 Be sure I looked up....
She worships him, or is this mere hubris on his behalf? He is deluded; caught between head and heart. Something has to give? Browning's exemplary use of enjambment - one line running on into the next - brings momentum and rhythmic change.
Lines 36 - 41 That moment she was mine...
Premeditated or opportunistic murder? There's little doubt he intended to act and found the trigger in the perfect moment, when the ideal Porphyria was his and his alone. He strangles her.
Lines 41 - 42 No pain felt she....
At least she didn't suffer. A repeated sentiment - to reassure the speaker?
Lines 43 - 45 As a shut bud...
He opens (oped) her eyelids, compares them to a bud with a bee. Her eyes are still blue, clear blue.
Lines 46 - 55 And I untightened...
She and he are together still, he kissing her cheek informing the reader that she is now 'it', an object, her rosy head on his shoulder. Clearly he is deranged. She scorned him but now has his complete love.
Lines 56 - 57 Porphyria's love...
She wanted them to be one but couldn't have foreseen such an end result.
Lines 58 - 60 And thus we sit...
They've been together all night. The almighty is silent. Perhaps no sin has been committed? Perhaps there is no God to speak of?
Analysis of Porphyria's Lover Line by Line (1 - 30)
Lines 1 - 5
As common an opening as you could wish for, a description of evening rain and wind. But the reader soon discovers that this is no ordinary weather. Browning employs the poetical device of pathetic fallacy - giving human emotions to the environment and weather. For example, the wind was so strong it tore down the tops of elm trees, for spite. Innocent trees are deliberately attacked.
The first person speaker is looking back in time, a few short hours perhaps, relating totally to the stormy weather because it reflected his state of being. The lake as a symbol of emotion is stirred up by that wind. Already there's something brewing; the situation isn't quite right.
Use of the word vex implies an element of mental uncertainty; something has unsettled and annoyed the speaker.
So, the language is clear from the start: sullen, tore, for spite, worst, vex and break. Browning wastes little time creating tension and drama - positioning the speaker within the storm, and the storm within.
These opening five lines with regular iambic beat are ended with punctuation, the reader having to pause, which helps the full rhyme knit and sets the scene. Image-wise, we're moving from the countryside outdoors, lake and trees, to the inner world of the speaker.
Lines 6 -15
The term used to describe the way Porphyria enters the cottage - glided in - evokes an image of the classic Victorian lady with heavy skirt trailing down to the floor and no sign of any legs. She's moving as if on wheels.
Alternatively there is the idea of a ghostly figure entering. Porphyria is already a phantom in the mind of the lover. This seems far-fetched however because as soon as she gets in out of the wind and rain she busies herself at the fire. Presumably she uses a metal poker to stoke the coals (or wood), but the details aren't clear.
What is clear is her practical mind. It's cold and stormy outside and she naturally feels an immediate need to boost the warmth. She's so keen to get the fire going she doesn't even acknowledge her lover's presence.
Being wet she then removes her cloak and shawl (a woollen garment worn over the shoulders and/or head for warmth on cold days and night), dirty gloves and hat. Her hair falls down as she sits down by her lover's side.
- This repeated use of And....helps build up what could be loosely called sexual energy. In Browning's time illicit affairs were most definitely taboo. Women were supposed to be good Christians, obey their husbands at all times and be well behaved. Ladies of class would have servants and nannies to look after the house and children.
- Porphyria seems to be a rebel in this respect. She's involved with a man who could be of a lower class (living in a nearby cottage on a large estate?), a forester perhaps or handyman.
By letting her hair fall in such a way she's giving out a signal that she's completely relaxed in her lover's company and wishes to stay awhile.
Momentum further builds by Browning's astute use of enjambment (when one line runs on into the next with no pause) in five of the ten lines. As Porphyria makes herself at home the reader becomes more at ease with the idea of the two coming together in what seems to be a clandestine meeting.
The use of the word called in line 15 is a challenge because it suggests that Porphyria either loudly attempts to get her lover's attention, or else simply voices his name. Her being already at his side seems to eliminate the former - if she's right next to him why raise her voice?
The other part of split line 15 states that no voice replied, so she definitely addresses him in some way - he just doesn't respond. Perhaps he's too deep into his own thinking to reply? Is he being defensive? Does he know that this will be the end of their 'fling' and is too upset to speak normally?
Lines 15 - 25
Again Porphyria takes charge placing his arm round her waist, baring her shoulder and spreading her yellow hair over his cheek in what could be interpreted as a sexually inspired move.
Step by step she increases the intimacy before starting to murmer her love for him. This seems to indicate her need for more involvement and is an obvious pointer toward passion and a kind of helplessness.
He however at this stage doesn't reciprocate. There's some reluctance - his thoughts are focussed on her weakness, pride and vanity. This is the first time the reader gets to learn of his ponderings, his true state of being. He's already beginning to doubt her.
He wants her, for ever. But she can't fully commit because of these ties which aren't detailed specifically but must involve family and class status. She's passionate alright but that's not enough to fulfill his desires; he wants all of her for all time.
Lines 26 - 30
At certain times in their relationship passion would take over and this was sufficient to sustain; this was all they needed. By passion is meant sexual involvement aside from the notion of romantic love.
Even a gay feast - a social gathering - couldn't keep her away from him. She had to leave and run the gauntlet of a storm to be with her lover. Was this meeting pre-arranged or did she suddenly decide to up and leave her partying for an impulsive get together with him?
But these four simple words have a devastating effect....and all in vain. Her coming will amount to nought when all's said and done. The narrative here almost gives away the intentions of the male lover. All in vain....his heartbreak, her passions, his desires, her pride...the whole situation...their efforts, useless.
Analysis of Porphyria's Lover Line by Line (31 - 60)
Lines 31 - 35
Her lover looks up into her eyes because he needs to know if she's still in love with him. Eye to eye contact means that there's little room for doubt when you want to know if someone is genuine. Porphyria seems so to be - she's happy and proud.
The language here is a clue to the state of the lover's mind. The word worshipped implies that he could be thinking of himself as a god. There is no hint of his affection for her; throughout the poem it is Porphyria who, according to the speaker, dotes on him.
she sat down by my side/And called me
She put my arm about her waist
Murmering how she loved me
And give herself to me for ever
So, she was come through wind and rain
Porphyria worshipped me;
He could well be deluded. Or has he a God complex? There seems to be only a weak undercurrent of love for Porphyria (of one so pale / For love of her), which isn't strong enough to allow forgiveness or acceptance.
The reference to his heart swelling points to a modicum of humility but is this feeling false? He seems pleased and pleasantly surprised that Porphyria loves him so, yet cannot help his inner thoughts - he debates what to do as he looks into her eyes.
Lines 36 - 41
At this crucial moment in time, experiencing goodness and perfection, he decides to act. The debate didn't take that long. Porphyria's fate is sealed when her lover realises that the only way he'll be able to reconcile conflicting energies - passion and power - is to have her dead.
In ritualistic fashion, Three times her little throat around he uses her long yellow hair to strangle her. There's a touch of the fetishist about this murder, which could also be the work of a religious maniac, someone sexually repressed.
Lines 41 - 42
Her death is painless or so he tells himself, but he needs to repeat the phrase to believe it. Physical pain perhaps not but strangulation takes a few seconds usually and in that short space of time who knows what she was feeling?
Lines 43 - 45
Figurative language enters the scene with the imagery of a shut bud and a bee, symbols of what? Spring and sweetness? New growth and pollination? Porphyria's eyes are likened to a flowerbud that has closed in around the bee.
He's checking to see if she is really dead? He's not sure if she is, or he's frightened of finding out that she is. Those all important eyes, those blue eyes, are still happy, they're laughing. This is an outrageous adjective to use to describe the eyes of someone who has just been murdered.
There's no contrition at this point; no regret, no emotional breakdown. It's as if he's coldly executed his lover then 'warily' checked for signs of life - all in a matter-of-fact fashion.
Lines 46 - 55
The reader discovers next that Porphyria's hair is still around her neck, like a hangman's rope. He unties it then kisses her on her cheek, the adjective burning used almost cruelly as this implies a somewhat passionate kiss. He didn't manage a kiss when she was alive; he waited till she was dead.
He props her head on his shoulder in darkly comic style, contrasting greatly with the previous time when his head was on her bare shoulder. What a turnaround, what a scene, what ghastly horror. And to cap it all, they're still together. He strangled her but instead of leaving the scene of the crime or calling for help, he is right beside the corpse.
To underline his dark, twisted sense of achievement, he addresses Porphyria's rosy little head as it, as if it were an object, and now claims that his love has replaced all that she scorned - did she scorn him and his world or the trappings of her own class?
Lines 56 - 57
This is what she wanted - to be one with him in love - but never would she have thought that her wish would come true in such an awful manner. He's still referring to her
Lines 58 - 60
So there they are together, the lovers, sitting near the warm fire on a stormy night. Time passes. Porphyria is dead and no one knows save for the murderer, who hears nothing from God, not a word.
The question remains: Did he expect to hear God's voice telling him just how sinful he had been in strangling his lover?
There is no mention of guilt. There is only the certainty that he has committed a terrible, selfish act, taking the life of one who loved him but could not give her all. In mitigation he may be mentally ill, but is that an excuse for such a brutal murder?
What is the Metre (Meter in US) of Porphyria's Lover?
Porphyria's Lover is in classic iambic tetrameter, four feet per line, eight syllables, with the basic beat repeated, daDUM, four times, unstressed syllable followed by stressed.
The rain / set ear / ly in / to-night,
And did / its worst / to vex / the lake:
Certain lines have an inverted iambic foot, a trochee, which gives emphasis to the first syllable, DUMda:
Perfec / tly pure / and good; / I found
This line starts with a double stressed foot, a spondee, DUMDA:
Blushed bright / beneath / my burn / ing kiss;
There are certain lines that deviate from this eight syllable norm. Seven lines have nine syllables - lines 6, 22, 24, 25, 33, 44 and 56. Browning, a technical master, would have known about this. For the reader there is a simple extra syllable here and there.
When gli / ded in / Porphyri / a; straight
Porphyria is scanned as a four syllable word. Here is another nine syllable line:
Too weak, / for all / her heart's / endeavour,
The last syllable, sometimes known as a hyperbeat and previously termed a feminine ending, falls away.
What is the Rhyme Scheme of Porphyria's Lover?
The rhyme scheme is:
the first and third lines rhyming, for example to-night/spite and the second, fourth and fifth: awake/lake/break. This scheme repeats throughout the poem, bringing together essential emotional energy, stretching then coming closer.
All rhymes are full except for tress/kiss which is slant rhyme, in lines 47 and 49.
What are the Possible Influences for Porphyria's Lover?
When the poem first appeared, in 1836 in the magazine The Monthly Repository, it was simply titled Porphyria. A second poem, Johannes Agricola, followed on the next page.
In 1842 Browning's book Dramatic Lyrics was published and the poems again were paired but this time under the title Madhouse Cells I and II. So Browning definitely had the idea that mental derangement was at the core of the murderous action. One or two lines were altered.
- Change occurred yet again when in 1863 the poems were separated and Porphyria's Lover became an entity in its own right.
Robert Browning's dramatic monologue was probably inspired by several earlier accounts of the same basic act - the unfortunate murder of a female lover at the hands of a deranged male.
The emphasis is on the preservation of beauty, to leave the victim 'clean' as if caught in the perfect moment.
Shakepeare's Othello for example smothered his wife Desdemona because he was told, wrongly by his manipulative colleague Iago that she had been unfaithful with lieutenant Cassio. Othello's character completely changes, from calm and controlled to impulsive and aggressive.
Browning possibly knew of this text which was published in 1818, by John Wilson:
'Do you think that there was no pleasure in murdering her? I grasped her by that radiant, that golden hair. I bared those snow-white breasts – I dragged her sweet body towards me, and, as God is my witness, I stabbed, and stabbed her with this dagger, forty times, through and through her heart. She never so much as gave one shriek, for she was dead in a moment – but she would not have shrieked had she endured pang after pang, for she saw my face of wrath turned upon her, – and she knew that my wrath was just, and that I did right to murder her who would have forsaken her lover in his insanity…I saw the dim eyes beneath the half-closed lids, – that face so changeful in its living beauty was now fixed as ice, and the balmy breath came from her sweet lips no more. My joy, my happiness, was perfect. '
“Extracts from Goschen’s Diary No. 1”, John Wilson, Blackwood’s Magazine, 111 (1818), quoted in Michael Mason, “Browning and the Dramatic Monologue”, in Isobel Armstrong, ed., Robert Browning (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1974), p. 256.
Bryan Proctor's poem, Marcian Colonna came out in 1820:
Upon him. With a pulse rapid and wild,
ibid eyes lit up with love, and all his woes
Abandoned or forgot, he lightly rose,
and placed himself beside her. « Julia!
My own, my own, for you are mine," he said;
Then on her shoulder drooped his feverish head.
And for a moment he seemed dying away
Browning's Porphyria's Lover (archive.md) Explicator, Fall 93, Vol 52, Catherine Maxwell
Eggenschwiler, David. “Psychological Complexity in ‘Porphyria’s Lover.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 8, no. 1, West Virginia University Press, 1970, pp. 39–48, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40001520.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
National Portrait Gallery, London, UK website
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Spacey