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Porphyria's Lover
A Poem by Robert Browning (1812-1889) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Summary
Text of Poem and Notes
Interpretation and Theme
Meaning of Porphyria
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Structure
Enjambment
Anastrophe
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Browning Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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Type of Work

.......“Porphyria's Lover” is a dramatic monologue, a poem that presents a moment in which the speaker (narrator) discusses a topic and, in so doing, reveals his feelings and state of mind to a listener or the reader. Only the narrator talks—hence the term monologue, meaning single (mono) discourse (logue). The main focus of a dramatic monologue is the personal information about the speaker, not his topic. A dramatic monologue is a type of character study. 

Publication Information

.......“Porphyria's Lover” first appeared with the title "Porphyria" in the January issue of The Monthly Repository for 1836, published in London by Charles Fox. In the same city, Ward, Lock & Company, Ltd., republished the poem in 1842 in Bells and Pomegranates, a collection of Browning' poems. In the 1842 volume, the work appeared as one of two poems sharing the title “Madhouse Cells.” In 1863, Browning changed the title of the poem to “Porphyria's Lover.”

Setting

.......The action in the poem takes place on a stormy evening in a cottage at an unidentified locale. The time is the 1830s. 

Characters

The Speaker/Narrator: A man who welcomes his beloved's show of affection for him but kills her a moment later. 
Porphyria: The narrator's beloved. 

Summary

.......Rain falls and high winds blow while the speaker (narrator) of the poem sits in a room in his cottage, depressed. In walks Porphyria, quickly shutting the door on the storm. After stoking the fire and warming the room, she removes her wet cloak, shawl, gloves, and hat. Then she sits next to the speaker and addresses him. When he does not reply, she places his arm around her waist and draws his head to her shoulder. Her yellow hair falls over his face.
.......She tells him that she loves him. In the past, she has been reluctant to free her passion from her pride “and give herself to me forever,” the speaker says. But this night, the speaker says, she realizes that he is "pale / For love for her” (lines 28-29) and decides to brave the storm to visit him and tell him that she loves him. Her expression of her feelings for him makes "my heart swell" (line 34), he says. His elation grows as he considers how to respond to her.
.......“That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good. . . " (lines 36-37), he says.
.......So here is what he does. He takes a string of her hair, winds it around her throat three times, and strangles her. She did not suffer, he says. Of that he is sure. When he unwinds the hair, color returns to her cheeks as he kisses her. He props her up and puts her head on his shoulder.
.......And now, he thinks, her will is done, and “she guessed not how / Her darling one wish would be heard” (lines 56-57).
.......Then they sit there all through the night. All the while, he feels no guilt for killing her, noting, “And yet God has not said a word.” The reader is left with the impression that the narrator is a psychopath.

Text

.........Porphyria's Lover

.........By Robert Browning

1.......The rain set early in to-night,
2.......The sullen wind was soon awake,
3.......It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
4.......And did its worst to vex the lake:1
5.......I listened with heart fit to break.
6.......When glided in Porphyria; straight 
7.......She shut the cold out and the storm,
8.......And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
9.......Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
10.....Which done, she rose, and from her form
11.....Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
12.....And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
13.....Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
14.....And, last, she sat down by my side
15.....And called me. When no voice replied, 
16.....She put my arm about her waist,
17.....And made her smooth white shoulder bare
18.....And all her yellow hair displaced,
19.....And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
20.....And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
21.....Murmuring how she loved me—she
22.....Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
23.....To set its struggling passion free
24.....From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
25.....And give herself to me forever.
26.....But passion sometimes would prevail,
27.....Nor could to-night's gay feast2 restrain
28.....A sudden thought of one so pale
29.....For love of her, and all in vain:
30.....So, she was come through wind and rain.
31.....Be sure I looked up at her eyes
32.....Happy and proud; at last I knew
33.....Porphyria worshiped me; surprise
34.....Made my heart swell, and still it grew
35.....While I debated what to do. 
36.....That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
37.....Perfectly pure and good: I found
38.....A thing to do, and all her hair
39.....In one long yellow string I wound
40.....Three times her little throat around,
41.....And strangled her. No pain felt she;3
42.....I am quite sure she felt no pain.
43.....As a shut bud that holds a bee,4
44.....I warily oped her lids: again
45.....Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
46.....And I untightened next the tress
47.....About her neck; her cheek once more
48.....Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
49.....I propped her head up as before,
50.....Only, this time by shoulder bore
51.....Her head, which droops upon it still:
52.....The smiling rosy little head,
53.....So glad it has its utmost will,
54.....That all it scorned at once is fled,
55.....And I, its love, am gained instead!
56.....Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
57.....Her darling one wish would be heard.
58.....And thus we sit together now,
59.....And all night long we have not stirred,
60.....And yet God has not said a word!

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Notes

1....Lines 1-4: The narrator seems to project his feelings onto nature. 
2....gay feast: Porphyria may have been attending a social event. Then, thinking of the narrator, she left it and came to him.
3....no. . .she: The narrator has convinced himself that Porphyria did not suffer. 
4....As . . . bee: A dangling modifier that mars the poem. This clause attempts to modify the pronoun I at the beginning of line 44, turning the narrator into the "shut bud that holds the bee."

Interpretation and Themes

.......After leading his readers to believe that "Porphyria's Lover" is a poem about a typical romantic encounter, Browning shocks them with an unexpected event: The narrator's calm and dispassionate strangulation of Porphyria. 
.......Apparently, the narrator's deep mental distress—referred to in line 5—causes him to cross the border from sanity to insanity. (Or perhaps he was always mad but retained enough control to mask his derangement.) Believing that Porphyria's show of affection for him indicates that she wishes to “give herself to me forever” (line 25), he makes it easy for her to remain at his side. He simply kills her. Then he props her head on his shoulder and sits with her all through the night. They become a tableau vivant.
.......Two themes emerge from the poem. The first is this: Some people really can be "madly in love." It is not at all uncommon for a person in love to exhibit bizarre behavior, sometimes out of fear of losing the beloved; a man or woman may even resort to violence against the beloved to prevent such a loss. In "Porphyria's Lover," the narrator is madly in love not only figuratively but also literally; he is psychopath. The second theme is this: Shocking, unexpected behavior is part of life. Not infrequently, seemingly normal and harmless people turn out to be child molesters, rapists, serial killers, and so on. 

Meaning of Porphyria

.......You may have noticed that dictionaries define porphyria as a group of diseases characterized by sensitivity to sunlight as well as other symptoms, such as skin blisters and anemia. This information might have led you to conclude Porphyria had this disease and that the narrator murdered her to end her suffering. But such a conclusion would be wrong. Here is why. Browning wrote the poem in 1836. Porphyria was not identified and named as a disease until 1874. 
.......Browning may have based the name Porphyria on the Greek word for purple, porphyrus. Since ancient times, purple has been associated with royalty, as attested to by the purple robes worn by kings and queens. It may well be that the narrator calls his beloved Porphyria to indicate that he considers her a regal figure who has been out of his reach—until the stormy night when she comes to him and confesses her love.
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End Rhyme

.......The rhyme scheme is ABABB (lines 1-5), BCBCC (lines 6-10), DEDEE (lines 11-15), and so on. In other words, in each set of five lines, the first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth and fifth.
.......All but three of the end rhymes are masculine rather than feminine. Masculine rhyme occurs when only the final syllable of a line rhymes with the final syllable of another line, as in still and will (lines 51 and 53) and head, fled, and instead (lines 52, 54, 55). Feminine rhyme occurs when the final two syllables of one line rhyme with the final two syllables of another line, as in endeavor, dissever, and forever (lines 22, 24, 25). The dominance of masculine rhyme helps to underscore the narrator's fatal conquest of Porphyria.

Internal Rhyme

.......Browning also also included occasional internal rhyme in the poem, as in the following lines.

And kneeled and made the cheerless grate (line 8)
From pride, and vainer ties dissever (line 21)
And I untightened next the tress (line 46
Meter

.......The meter in the poem consists mainly of iambic tetrameter, as the first four lines of the poem demonstrate,

.......1...............2............3............4
The RAIN..|..set EAR..|..ly IN..|..to- NIGHT,

.......1...............2.................3..................4
The SULL..|..en WIND..|..was SOON..|..a WAKE,

......1...............2.................3..................4
It TORE..|..the ELM-..|..tops DOWN..|..for SPITE,

......1.................2...............3...............4
And DID..|..its WORST..|..to VEX..|..the LAKE

Structure

.......Although the poem consists of one long stanza, it contains two distinct sections, as follows. 

Lines (1-30): Browning presents what appears to be a traditional romantic love poem while making Porphyria the active character and the narrator the passive.
Lines (31-60): Browning turns the poem into a tale of horror while making the narrator the active character and Porphyria the passive.
Enjambment

.......In his poetry, Browning occasionally uses enjambment, a literary device in which the sense of one line of verse is carried over to the next line without a pause. Here is an example:

When glided in Porphyria; straight 
She shut the cold out and the storm (lines 6-7)
Notice that straight belongs with the words that follow it, not with the words that precede it. Consequently, no pause occurs after it. Here are other examples of enjambment.
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall (lines 12-13)

Porphyria worshiped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew (lines 33-34)

Anastrophe

.......From time to time in "Porphyria's Lover," Browning uses anastrophe, the inversion of the normal word order. A man forgotten (instead of a forgotten man) is an example of anastrophe. Anastrophe not only adds a poetic ring to verses but also helps the poet complete his rhymes. Examples from the poem include the following:

When glided in Porphyria (line 6)
(When Porphyria glided in)

all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she (lines 38-41)
(I wound all her hair in one yellow string three times around her little throat)
(She felt no pain)


Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

The sullen wind was soon awake (line 2)
Murmuring how she loved me (line 21)
Made my heart swell, and still it grew (line 34)
I am quite sure she felt no pain (line 42)
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss (line 48)
Her darling one wish would be heard (line 57)
Anaphora
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word! (lines 58-60)
Irony, Dramatic
The narrator's behavior suggests that the speaker is insane. However, he himself apparently believes he is normal. 
Irony, Situational
After Porphyria brings warmth to the cottage by stoking the fire
and offering the narrator her love, the narrator coldly kills her.

The narrator is pale but alive. Porphyria is rosy but dead.

Because Porphyria is "perfectly pure and good," the 
narrator kills her.

The narrator has committed a monstrous deed. However, he
thinks he has made Porphyria happy, believing she wanted to
die in order to be with him forever. He says, "The smiling rosy
little head, / So glad it has its utmost will."

Onomatopoeia
Murmuring (line 21)
Personification
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite (lines 2-3)
The wind exhibits human emotions
Simile
As a shut bud that holds a bee (line 43)
Comparison of Porphyria's closed eye to a bud
Synecdoche
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will (lines52-53)
The head stands for the person 
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Do you agree that the narrator is insane? If you do not, explain why you disagree?
  • Is the narrator describing the incident as it happened? Or is he distorting information. Explain your answer.
  • Write a dramatic monologue on a subject of your choice.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the narrator of "Porphyria's Lover" with the narrator of "My Last Duchess," another Browning poem. 

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