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Porphyria’s Lover: Love and Relationships Analysis

This intensely graphic poem is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker, overwhelmed by his emotions towards a woman, strangles her

At the start of the poem, Robert Browning depicts stormy weather as the brooding backdrop of the poem, as a woman called Porphyria enters the speaker’s cottage. Porphyria removes her damp clothing and lets down her hair, declaring how much she loves the speaker. Overwhelmed by her declaration, the speaker resorts to strangling her – using her hair to do so.

The speaker insists that Porphyria is pain-free; he then spends the night lying with her body. At the end of the poem, he seems proud that God did not stop him.

Poem

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!

Robert Browning (1836)

Context

Robert Browning himself did not strangle a woman; this poem creates a fictional dramatic scenario. Browning was famed for being a Victorian poet and playwright who tended to explore complex psychological themes. He was known for crafting intricate monologues, such as Porphyria’s Lover, to explore the complexities of human desires and moral ambiguities. Robert Browning was also writing at a time when publishing was becoming more popular, and there was increased competition between writers.

The Gothic genre was gaining popularity during this period, so perhaps Browning wrote this poem to shock and stir his audiences, and to keep up with the trends of the era.

Robert Browning married Elizabeth Barrett Browning after they both eloped together (they spent years writing letters back and forth and falling in love, but Elizabeth’s family forbade her to marry). The couple both became renowned poets in their own right.

Language

  • Personification
  • Pathetic fallacy
  • Active verbs
  • Connotations
  • Metaphor
  • Plosives and fricatives

Porphyria’s Lover opens with the use of pathetic fallacy “rain set early” and “sullen wind”. This provides a disturbed and unsettling tone, with the personification of the wind being “sullen” suggesting human emotions (misery). The wind was so strong that it “tore the elm-tops down for spite”, foreshadowing the violent acts to come later in the monologue.

The speaker expresses frustration in the fifth line when he says, “I listened with heart fit to break”. Feeling at a bursting point, the poem then changes tone “when glided in Porphyria”. The verb “glided” also has connotations of being holy or delicate. Sibilance (repeated soft ‘s’ sounds) is used to describe her entrance as soft and warm:

“straight
She shut the cold out and the storm”

A stream of consciousness is clear in the poem, where the tone yet again changes to that of some anger or doubt about Porphyria. The speaker describes her “dripping cloak” and “soiled gloves” perhaps suggesting that the speaker is paranoid about where Porphyria has been. The speaker provides silence, indicating a growing eeriness – “no voice replied”. This removes blame from the speaker himself, showing a lack of responsibility for his feelings and actions.

The language starts to use more fricative sounds ‘s’ and ‘f’ – making the speaker sound more vicious and luring. Whilst “murmuring how she loved me”. This later becomes ‘plosive’ with ‘p’ sounds in “pale” “passion” “proud” and “worshipped” creating a more intense sense of danger. The speaker plainly reveals “I debated what to do”.

Possessive pronouns are used to show the speaker’s control and power over Porphyria in the line “That moment she was mine, mine…” followed by “I found a thing to do”. This suggests the speaker is now using her like a game or object. The imagery becomes more graphic as the speaker recounts:

“In one long yellow string [hair] I wound
Three times her little throat around”

The adjective ‘little’ infantilises (makes her seem young) Porphyria.

The speaker describes his actions after her death:

“I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again”

The simple verbs and descriptions highlight the speaker’s detachment and emotional numbness. This adds to the violent imagery and graphic picture being painted in the poem.

The lack of remorse further ensues towards the final part of the poem, where the speaker says:

“thus we sit together now”

He uses the collective pronoun ‘we’, implying, perhaps misleadingly, that Porphyria might have wanted this outcome. However, she was clearly unaware that she was about to die. The poem finishes with a religious proposal “And yet God has not said a word!” This final line makes the speaker sound proud of his actions.

Structure

  • Foreshadowing
  • Repetition
  • Enjambment

Robert Browning’s poem is structured chronologically, detailing the events that lead up to the speaker’s act of killing Porphyria. The poem acts as a stream of consciousness, where the lack of stanzas contributes to the speaker telling the tale in one go. The enjambment used in the poem also adds to the effect of continuation.

There is foreshadowing throughout the poem, typically where the weather illustrates a dark sense of something bad brewing. There is the repetition of “yellow hair” which implies the woman is an object to him. It also suggests that he is obsessing over using her hair as the murder ‘tool’.

Form

The form of the poem is that of a dramatic monologue, which was common for Browning to use. Browning makes it seem that the event has just happened and that the speaker is anecdotally recalling the recent occurrences.

Also, in Porphyria’s Lover, there is a juxtaposition between the poem’s content and its form. Browning crafts a narrative filled with passion, obsession, and the shocking act of murder, yet he conveys this turbulent emotional landscape within the confines of a strict rhyme scheme (ABABB) and consistent iambic tetrameter.

For example, consider the lines:

“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,”

Despite the unsettling content of these lines, where the speaker describes the act of strangulation, the rhythmic quality of the iambic tetrameter gives a methodical, almost sing-song quality to the narration. This has a jarring effect on the reader. Why might Browning choose such a controlled, rhythmic structure for this?

Firstly, it might indicate the speaker’s own internal logic and rationalisation. Although readers are horrified by the speaker’s actions, the rhythm suggests that, in his mind, everything is orderly and justified. This could be a reflection of the speaker’s detachment or even a delusion about the gravity of his actions. His composed recollection, reinforced by the metrical regularity, paints a portrait of a man who may not fully grasp or perhaps chooses not to recognise the moral implications of his act.

Furthermore, the strict structure might also serve to heighten the sense of unease for the reader. Just as the speaker tries to fit his violent act into a neat rhythmic pattern, he also tries to fit his actions into a framework where they make sense, even suggesting that Porphyria might have wanted this outcome.

Compare it to:

Sonnet 29 – I think of Thee! – in the two poems, both poets fixate on another person. Their love is smothering. Natural imagery is used in both poems. Although the speaker in Sonnet 29 ends up fulfilled in their romantic love, it is less clear whether the speaker of Porphyria’s Lover is fulfilled. This is because the speaker becomes angry, perhaps jealous, and murders his lover. Whilst Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses a strict sonnet form, Robert Browning’s poem is free-flowing and fictional.

The Farmer’s Bride – both poems show an obsessive male, whereby the romance is destructive and even dangerous. The Farmer’s Bride speaker seems more aware of suffering compared to the speaker of Porphyria’s Lover, who seems proud and aloof.

When We Two Parted – There is an overt reference to death and dark imagery, yet Byron’s imagery is softer.

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