Robert Browning‘s poem, Porphyria’s Lover, opens up with a classic setting. It’s a stormy evening. The rain and the wind are harsh. The speaker is alone in a small cottage. Suddenly, a woman enters, bringing cheer and warmth in the midst of the dark and cold night. It seems like a classic love poem, but when the tone shifts and the speaker does the unthinkable, it leaves the reader questioning everything from the authority of the speaker, to the reality of his descriptions. The woman’s voice is not heard, and the reader is forced to draw conclusions from the voice of a speaker who proves to be less than trustworthy.
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:
The opening four lines provide the setting and the tone. It was evening, and the rain began to fall. The wind is described as “sullen” which allows the reader to experience the gloomy, downcast mood the speaker intends to present. The wind is then personified as the speaker describes that it “was soon awake”. Once the wind woke up, it then “tore the elm-tops down for spite”. The speaker describes the wind as a hostile being. It wakes up and destroys its surroundings out of spite. The speaker describes the wind as doing everything it could to upset the lake. This description effectively sets the tone and mood for the rest of the poem. Nature is clearly at odds with humans and itself. The reader can begin to relate with the uneasy feelings of the speaker who is experiencing the wrath of the wind on a rainy night.
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;
The next lines give the reader insight into the speaker’s feelings. Now that the setting and tone are set up, the speaker lets the reader into his own mind. He explains that his heart is “fit to break” as he listens to the wind and rain outside of his door. Then, there is a sudden shift in tone and mood when he describes the way that Porphyria “glided in” and “shut out the cold and the storm”. This implies that her absence was the reason that the speaker’s heart was breaking. For when she came in, she shut out the cold. Then, she builds a fire, and the blaze made “all the cottage warm”. The fire she built in reality also represents what she does for his soul. Her very presence provides warmth and light to his otherwise dreary existence. The wind and the rain outside of the cottage represent that storms of the speaker’s life. They have a great effect on him when she is not near. When Porphyria is near, however, life’s other difficulties seem to fade in the presence of her light and warmth.
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,
These lines imply that Porphyria has offered herself to the speaker. She comes in from the storm, starts a fire, stands up, and begins to shed her clothes. The speaker describes each piece of clothing as she removes it. She begins with her coat and her shawl, and then she removes her gloves and her hat. The description of her clothes allows the reader to further understand the intensity of the storm. It also serves to reveal Porphyria’s feelings toward the speaker. She was willing to brave the storm to get to him. When she begins taking off her outer clothes, it reveals that she intends to stay with him through the storm.
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,
With these lines, it is evident that she is offering herself to him completely. She sits down beside him and calls to him. It is unclear what this call meant, but the speaker says that he did not reply to her. This allows the reader to see that the speaker is unsure of how to respond to Porphyria’s offer. She does not seem to be discouraged. It would appear that she is confident of his feelings for her. When he does not reply to her, she takes his arm and puts it around her waist. She is making it very clear that she is willing to give herself to him. After putting his arm around her waist, she bares her shoulder.
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
With these lines, Porphyria continues to try to seduce the speaker. She spreads out her hair, takes his face, and makes him lay his cheek against her 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.
When Porphyria has made every seductive gesture she could configure, and the speaker has still made no move, she finally speaks of her love for him. The speaker describes her confession as a “murmuring” and then claims that she is “too weak for all her heart’s endeavour”. The fact that she murmured of her love to him in his ear rather than proclaiming it in public is of significance to the speaker. He believes that her claim to love him is “weak” and believes that her love itself is “too weak…to set its struggling passion free”. This is the first time the speaker reveals to the reader that he has a reason for his hesitance in responding to Porphyria. He claims that her love is weak, too weak to withstand all that is set against. This is why he claims that her passion for him is not strong enough to break free “from pride and vainer ties”. This reveals that a union between himself and Porphyria would not be accepted by society. Perhaps this is why the speaker opens the poem with the description of the storm. The wrath of the wind and the rain represents society. It is hostile toward the two lovers, and the speaker knows that Porphyria’s passion is not strong enough to break free from societal restraints. He also blames her own pride and vanity for her inability to really love him. This is why he knows that even if she wants to give herself to him in this moment in time, she would never “give herself to [him] 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:
These lines reveal that Porphyria left a “gay feast” just to come through the storm to see him. This gives some insight into what her “vainer ties” might be. While the speaker is alone in a small cottage that seemed barely able to withstand the rain and wind, Porphyria had just come from a fancy party. This suggests that she is rich and he is poor. This is perhaps the reason that society is against their love. The reader can speculate that the reason she “murmured” her love for him is because she is of a higher socio-economic class, and her love for him would be scorned by society. This is why the speaker claims that she would not be willing to give up her pride or her “vainer ties” in order to really be his forever. Nonetheless, in this particular moment, she seems to be all his. She left a fancy party because she couldn’t stand the thought of his being alone and sick with love for her. The speaker claims that this love he has for her is “all in vain”. Porphyria’s actions on this night do not suggest that their love is in vain. But the speaker has made it clear to the reader that he has no confidence in the strength of her love when put up against societal norms.
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.
At this point, the speaker looks up into her eyes, and he sees that she is happy and proud. He realizes that despite their differences in wealth and class, she holds him in high regard. This is why he claims, “at last I knew Porphyria worshiped me”. Prior to this moment, the speaker was unsure of whether or not Porphyria’s love was genuine. This revelation comes as a surprise to him, and it “made [his] heart swell”. Then he begins to debate what he should do. She has come to him and offered herself to him. He sees that her love for him his genuine. Yet, he doubts that it is strong enough to stand up against society. He has not yet made a reply to her or moved to accept her offer.
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.
These lines are shocking, to say the least. The reader expects the speaker to either reject or accept Porphyria’s love, but not to strangle her. For one moment, the speaker has her completely as his own. He has her in his arms and looks into her eyes and sees genuine love for him there. He fears he will lose her, and he wants to keep her forever. So, rather than accept or reject her love, he takes her hair and wraps it around her throat until she is dead. He has an ironic concern for her, as revealed when he says, twice, that she “felt no pain”. Suddenly, the speaker has transformed from a poor, love sick man to a deranged killer.
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:
With these lines, the reader begins to understand the true depth of the speaker’s mental illness. He had wanted her for so long, and when she finally came to him in love, he was afraid that he would lose her, so he killed her. Now that he has killed her, he feels that he finally has her as his own because she cannot leave him anymore. At this point, he opens and shuts her eyelids, laughs at her blue eyes (or perhaps says that her blue eyes were laughing at him), unwraps the hair from around her neck, kisses her cheek, and props her body up against him. The reader suddenly learns to be frightened of the speaker. The imagery of a man playing with a dead corpse in this way is intensely disturbing.
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!
At this point, the speaker reduces Porphyria to a mere object. She is dead, but he still admires her “rosy little head”. He then makes his own desires out to be hers. Though she is dead and can no longer desire anything, the speaker says that to be with him forever was her “utmost will”. He claims that because he killed her, he got rid of everything she hated, and gave her himself instead. Clearly, the speaker is delusional. The reader can no longer trust his point of view. Nonetheless, the speaker believes that he has given Porphyria her greatest desire in killing her. He believes that she would have wanted to be with him forever, and to see the rest of her worldly concerns fade. Therefore, he claims that all that she scorned “at once is fled” and claims with triumph that he himself was “gained instead”. Thus, the speaker believes that he did her a favor in ended her life. He took away all of her concerns and presented her with himself. However, the reader is now aware that the speaker is not to be trusted. Now that the speaker has not only killed the woman who loved him, but also objectified her by playing with her body, the reader can no longer trust him. It is apparent that the speaker is not sane, and perhaps never has been. This makes the reader question everything the speaker has said in the poem thus far.
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!
These lines reveal that the speaker, in his delusion, believes that he has given Porphyria the one thing that she wanted more than anything. He claimed that her “one wish” was to be with him forever. He says, “she guessed not how her darling one wish would be heard” and then proceeds to explain that he granted Porphyria’s wish by ending her life. In his delusion, he continues to describe that he has been sitting with her corpse all night. He ends the poem by claiming that “God has not said a word!” With this claim, the speaker concludes that he did the right thing in killing her. He has been laying with her corpse all night, and because he has not heard anything from God, he concludes that he has done the right thing.
By the end of this poem, the reader can conclude that the speaker is a deranged and love sick man. In order to freeze a moment in time, he kills the woman he loves and lies all night with her corpse. He treats her as an object, and he takes no concern for her life. Rather, he believes that he has the right to choose for her, and he chooses to kill her. In his delusion, he believes that she would rather be with him forever than go on living without him. Since the speaker has proven to the readers that he is not sane, the reader becomes unsure of everything that the speaker has said. Suddenly, it is unclear how closely the reality of the woman’s actions corresponded with the way the speaker described them. Like a true sociopath, the speaker denies that his actions were wrong. Instead, he concludes that because God has not spoken out against him, what he did must have been right.