Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning cover image

Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning: Complete Analysis

Women in the Victorian era lived with difficulty and they faced hardships ranging from sexual inequalities to their basic rights. However, men were allotted more stability, respect, control, and power over the house and women. Men controlled women during this period and a similar image is put into the poem Porphyria’s lover.

Robert Browning became popular due to his dramatic monologues and “Porphyria’s lover” is one of his most famous works. It was published in the year 1836 and it was later republished under the title “Madhouse cells” now the question arises why did the poet want to publish this particular monologue with this title, it is only after reading the poem that we understand so.

After reading the poem, we realize just how the speaker objectified the woman he loved and wanted to own her, similarly when we love something we want to own it. Through this poem, the poet has not only addressed the position of women during the Victorian era but has also presented to us what we do to the things we love. He has also tried to subtly depict how a patriarchal society works and how they justify the morality of women based on their purity.

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! 
- Robert Browning

Meaning and Summary

The poem is set in a cottage on a stormy night. The starting lines of the poem give important details about the poem like the rain had set early that night, and the wind was howling, the wind was so strong that it was breaking the top of the elm trees and it became worse when it started disturbing the water of the lake. All these things gave us a hunch about what was about to happen.

In the next line, the speaker tells us that he was listening to the storm, and he knew his heart was about to break, but then Porphyria came in. It was cold and windy in the cottage, but Porphyria shut all the windows to keep out the storm, and then she started to light a fire in the fireplace.

Porphyria made the cottage warm, it was as if she carried the warmth with her and as soon as she entered the cottage everything was better, the speaker wasn’t lonely anymore but he was with someone he loved. After doing that, since she came out in a storm her “cloak” and “shawl” was “dripping”, so she decided to take them off along with her dirty gloves and untied her hat, loosening her hair.

She came and sat down next to the speaker and tried to speak to him, but he did not answer. This woman put his hand around her waist, brushed her “yellow hair” off her “white shoulder” and made the speaker’s cheek lie there.

She spread her “yellow hair” on his face and shoulder and whispered to him that she loved him. Though Porphyria wanted to be with the speaker, her “pride” and other vain feelings stood in the speaker’s way to possess her completely. But, this time she let desire take the best of her.

She had been to a happy and joyous party in the evening, but it did not stop her from thinking about the speaker. She thought that the speaker must have turned pale, wanting to meet her.

The speaker tells us that she came through the storm just to meet him, he says “be sure” and looks into the happy and proud eyes of Porphyria. At that moment the speaker realized that Porphyria worshipped him, it surprised the speaker but also made his heart full of happiness and pride.

He debated what he should do next, he knew at that moment that she belonged to him and only him. She was beautiful, noble, and pure. The speaker finally “found” what he should do next, so he gathered her “yellow hair” and twisted it around her neck three times to strangle her.

The speaker tells us that she felt no pain and repeated it to himself to be sure. Her eyes looked like “shut buds” that held a bee within them.

The speaker opened her eyelids and saw that her blue eyes were happy and looked perfect. He loosened the hair from around her neck and he kissed her rosy cheek again. He “propped” her head up, but this time Porphyria’s head rested on the speaker’s shoulder.

Her pink smiling face is resting on his shoulder and she seems finally happy because she got what she wanted. All of her problems have fled away now and she won his love. The speaker thinks that this was her desire and she might wonder how the speaker was aware of it. 

And now, the speaker is sitting with Porphyria and they haven’t moved all night. It seems that God also hasn’t said a word, denoting that the speaker thinks God has justified his act of killing.

Analysis of the 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.

The speaker of the poem tells us that the rain had set early that night, and the “sullen wind”, meaning depressed and morose wind was howling. The wind was so strong that it broke the top of the elm trees, just for “spite”.

But what followed next was even worse, because it had now started disturbing the waters of the lake. The speaker was sitting alone in his cottage and he thought he was about to face heartbreak.

The above lines provide the setting and the mood of the poem. It seems that the speaker’s mood has been described through the weather that was outside. The weather was stormy and instinctive. It was cold and the speaker was sitting in despair.

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;

Then, Porphyria glides in, and straight she shuts the cold wind out and brings in warmth. As soon as Porphyria comes in she closes the windows that prevent the cold wind from coming in and then she kneels to light a blazing fire. It’s as if her presence made everything warm and pleasant.

In these lines, the setting of the poem changes, and there is a sudden shift in the mood of the speaker. The cold weather outside depicts the speaker’s mood in her absence, but her presence lights everything up in the speaker’s life and makes him feel warm and cozy. 

 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,

After lighting the fire, she stood up and started taking off her wet clothes. The speaker starts to name each cloth that she removes. First, she takes off her cloak, then her shawl, then her soiled gloves and lastly, she unties her hat, loosening her damp hair.

These lines somehow indicate that she loved the speaker enough to offer herself to him. However, her “soiled” gloves are indicative of something else, “soiled” means dirty or stained. It seems that the speaker questions her moral state and interprets that she has already compromised herself and committed a sin.

 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

Porphyria let her damp hair fall and then she came and sat beside the speaker. She tried speaking to him but he did not reply, so she took his arm and put it around her waist. She brushed off the hair and made her “smooth white shoulder” bare for the speaker to rest his head.

Porphyria tries to offer herself completely to the speaker, and maybe he is bewildered about what to do, so he does not respond to her offer. But she puts his arm around her waist, telling him to trust her as much as she trusts him. She tries to show affection to the speaker by telling him to rest his head on her shoulder.

And all her yellow hair displaced,

    And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,

    And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,

She displaced her “yellow hair”, and laid the speaker’s cheek on her shoulder. She spread her hair all over the speaker’s face and body. It seems that the speaker is obsessed with her blonde hair and therefore keeps on repeating the word “yellow hair”.

He also describes all the actions that she does with her hair. Hair in poetry is a symbol of beauty, power, seduction, and danger. Therefore, the speaker is conscious of the danger and refuses to give in.

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.

Porphyria whispers in the speaker’s ear that she loves him. But the speaker calls out to her as “too weak” for her “heart’s endeavour”. It means that she is too weak to follow her heart’s desire and set her passion free from her pride and all the other vain feelings that she holds. These feelings guard her against giving herself completely to the speaker.

In these lines, we understand that though Porphyria has made all the attempts the speaker does not give in, so she murmurs her love to him. The “murmuring” is symbolic of the fact that she is too weak to express her love to the speaker loudly or publicly. The speaker knows that her pride stands in the way, so he can’t possess her forever. 

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:

But, Porphyria replies to the speaker by saying that sometimes passion does get the best out of us and prevails. Though she was attending a happy and cheerful event the speaker resided in her thoughts. She thought, how the speaker would have turned pale in her absence and her love. But it turned out all in vain.

In these lines, it seems that Porphyria is trying to explain herself to the speaker, proving to him that she is not weak. That she left a social event just to be with him. Here, we understand that while the speaker was alone in a cottage, Porphyria was at a social event. It gives us an idea that Porphyria belongs to a rich and royal family, whereas the speaker is a common man. 

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.

She came through a storm just to be with him. He tried not to doubt her and looked into her eyes. Her eyes seemed happy and proud. At that moment, the speaker started believing that Porphyria worshipped him. It was surprising, and it made his heart “swell” with happiness and it kept growing. While he was feeling this, he was subconsciously in a debate with himself, pondering what he should do.

It is in these lines we understand that the speaker was happy that Porphyria loved him. But he was thinking about something, what did he want 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.

The speaker believed that at that moment she belonged to him and only him, therefore repeating the word “mine” twice. Now, the speaker thinks that she is beautiful, virtuous, and pure. He finds a thing to do. He ties her hair in a string and wraps it around her neck three times to strangle her. The speaker tells the readers that she did not feel any pain, and he is quite sure of it.

In these lines, when the speaker had just started to feel the genuineness of Porphyria’s love and started to respond to it, no one would have believed that he would strangle her. This was the solution that the speaker was looking for and he had finally “found” it. The speaker ironically tells us that she did not feel any pain.

As a shut bud that holds a bee,

    I warily oped her lids: again

    Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.

The speaker tells us that her eyes looked like flowers with closed petals holding a bee. He carefully opened her eyelids and her blue eyes were happy and smiling at him. It seems that her smile was pure without a “stain”. These lines tell us about the insanity of the speaker.

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 speaker then unwraps the hair from around her neck, and then he kisses her cheek once more and tells us that she is blushing. He props her head and makes her sit. But this time, it is her head that lies upon the speaker’s shoulder, it still “droops” just like a flower.

The madness of the speaker goes on increasing because the image of someone kissing a corpse is disturbing. Moreover, the fact he was propping her up and making her sit beside him is not normal.

  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.

The speaker does not miss to tell us in each line that she is “smiling”, because she is happy. He thinks she is happy because that is what she wanted. All that she is worried about has vanished now because she is dead, but it is the speaker’s love that she gained after dying. He believed that Porphyria’s greatest desire was to die and he tells us that she might be wondering how he interpreted her desire.

 The speaker does not seem to be a sane person, he thought that killing her would fade away all her concerns and she would gain him and his love. Not only did he kill her but he is objectifying her.

And thus we sit together now,

    And all night long we have not stirred,

    And yet God has not said a word!

The speaker is sitting with Porphyria who he has just killed. All night they have been sitting like this without moving and God has not uttered a word yet.

In these lines, the speaker is trying to justify his act by telling us that the silence of God means he approves his act of killing for love. The silence also represents his loneliness.

Themes

Objectifying women is one of the themes in the poem, where the speaker has constantly tried to describe her physical beauty. Not only that, after reading the poem we understand that he did not only praise her, but he also acted like she was an object possessed by him.

Therefore he says, “she was mine, mine, fair,”. Porphyria seemed to be an independent woman because it was her own will to come to his cottage during a storm leaving an event. She was someone who could make decisions for herself and the speaker did not like it somehow.

The speaker maybe did not love her but just wanted to own her and hence he kills her so that her love is limited only to him.

This brings out another theme of the poem which is control. The speaker wanted to have control over Porphyria and he knew it wouldn’t be possible until he killed her. The control of the speaker was reflected when after killing her he put her head on his shoulder.

He wanted to make decisions for her, so he interpreted that Porphyria’s last wish was to surrender herself completely to him. After she dies, she ceases to have the control that she had. The speaker opens her eyes for her and even though she did not want it, she is going to be under his control.

The speaker wanted Porphyria to remain pure and untouched, so he decided to kill her. Here, he thinks that God does not reprimand his act of killing and the speaker starts to think it was moral of him to kill Porphyria.

Therefore, sexuality and morality is also the theme of the poem. The speaker tries to protect her morality and prevents her from sinning by engaging in sexual acts. It seems that the speaker has a corrupted idea of morality, where he believes that killing someone in the name of morality is justified by God.

Form and Structure

Porphyria’s lover is a dramatic monologue written by the poet Robert Browning. The poet is interacting with the readers in the third person, and it seems there is a stark difference between the poet and the speaker.

Browning was one of the people who made this writing style popular. A dramatic monologue does not have a set meter or rhyming pattern, it is upon the poet to find the perfect form that describes its characters. 

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter and follows the rhyming scheme of ABABB in the first five lines and goes on changing in each segment, like ABABBCDCDDEFEFF. 

Literary Devices

The literary devices used in the poem give us an idea about their writing style of Browning. A few of the literary devices used in the poem are:

Alliteration – The poet has used alliteration in the following lines:

The sullen wind was soon awake,

She shut the cold out and the storm,

Her hat and let the damp hair fall,

Anaphora – It is a literary device in which the words are repeated at the beginning of a sentence several times. For example:

And thus we sit together now,

    And all night long we have not stirred,

    And yet God has not said a word!

Personification – The poet has personified the wind in the first three lines by giving it human qualities like “sullen” and “spite”.

The rain set early in to-night,

    The sullen wind was soon awake,

It tore the elm-tops down for spite,

Simile – The poet uses a simile to compare the eyelids of Porphyria to that of a bee that is closed up in a flower.

As a shut bud that holds a bee,

Enjambment – The poet has used enjambment throughout the poem and a few examples of it would be:

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,

Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how

    Her darling one wish would be heard.

Conclusion

Porphyria’s lover is a poem written in the Victorian era, and there are many things in the poem that are directly proportional to the rules and regulations followed during that time. At the beginning of the poem, it seemed that the speaker did not want to respond to Porphyria’s love, and we thought that later on his reply would be a yes or no answer. But, the speaker had something else in mind and it was astounding when he strangled and killed her. 

We all understood that the speaker is not of a sane mind or reliable. I believe the title also demonstrates his control over Porphyria, and he is Porphyria’s lover. However, he did nothing to prove his love for her, it was Porphyria that did everything.

She came in through a storm, she shut the windows and lit a fire and she missed her social event just to be with him. For a Victorian-era woman, it requires guts to do whatever she does and we can truly call her independent. 

She is being called by the speaker for her morality and he thinks by killing her he is trying to connect her with God. But why doesn’t he want to connect with God? Why does he think that killing her was justified because God was silent.

But it wasn’t only God who was silent, it was all the readers that read the poem and also all the people of that era that would have turned silent if they knew that she was offering herself to a man? Everyone would have agreed with him if he had said that he killed her because he wanted to keep her pure and that is the society the poet lived in.

Therefore, through this poem, the poet has tried to show us the society that he used to live in, the different treatment given to men and women, and lastly, the control men had over men. The question is who makes up the society? It is us, we are a part of society and we do become judgemental, but no one deserves to die due to these corrupted moral reasons.

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