To begin with, I am going to give a brief contextual background of the poem. Robert Browning, who lived during the 1800s, was an English poet and playwright whose mastery of the dramatic verse, especially the dramatic monologue, made him one of the most famous poets of the Victorian era. One of his more sensational dramatic monologues is Porphyria’s Lover, which was part of the group of poems called the Madhouse Cells. He gave them this name because he felt he needed to give a signal to confused readers but he later dropped it because it lead to reductive reading and he preferred that each reader come up with their own interpretation. During the Victorian era there was a cultural transition away from the rationalism of the Georgian period towards romanticism and mysticism with regard to religion, social values and the arts. The era is popularly associated with the values of social and sexual restraint. Despite his parents’ staunch evangelical faith, Browning was an atheist for a brief period during his teenage years. Now that we know little more about Browning and the time at which the poem was written I can proceed to discussing some of the themes involved with this poem. These themes include death, madness and sex.
Death is a prominent theme in many of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Browning uses this theme in many ways in this poem. Firstly, he uses it as a way of immortalising that particular moment the speaker had with Porphyria. Line 35 states “That moment she was mine, mine”. For that particular moment “Porphyria worshipped ” and this made his “heart swell”. This entails a sense of happiness and means that he wouldn’t at all have minded if things could be that way all the time. It seems that this is when the speaker got an idea…in fact, a desire, the desire to freeze this special moment, to ensure that in his mind she worshipped him forever. Killing her would mean that she would forever be in that state, the state in which she worshipped him, the state that meant he was the primus mobile, and the state that meant she would be his forever. On lines 44-45 he says “again Laughed the eyes without a stain” and this shows us that he believes that he managed to save that moment since her eyes still have the same “Happy and proud” they had when he realised that she worshipped him. This is similar to the situation in My Last Duchess. The memory of the duchess lives on through the painting but the painting obviously portrays her in a particular manner, a manner the Duke would like to show her off to other people, a manner that isn’t the one that the Duke had her killed for. The memory that is brought about by the painting is one of a perfect moment, as in Porphyria’s Lover. Now every time the speaker thinks of Porphyria they will remember that particular moment.
In addition, in Porphyria’s Lover death also serves to illustrate Browning’s religious attitude. We already know that Browning was once an atheist and this would mean even though he may have considered himself a believer again afterwards, questioning what he said to believe in would most likely be inevitable. At the end of the poem the deranged speaker says “And yet God had not said a word”. This may be a reference to how the poet, Browning, believes that one’s actions on earth will only have their consequences on earth, otherwise there will be no reprimanding what-so-ever. This is once again similar to My Last Duchess. The Duchess is killed and the Duke goes about his life like her death, in fact, murder, was completely insignificant and he even starts planning on finding himself a new Duchess. I believe that Browning is trying to convey the message that even though people do bad things it is quite likely that they will not be chastised for these deeds, which is against the basic principles of Christianity, that you should do good because if you do not you will be punished. Browning thus uses the theme of death as a way of preserving a particular moment as well as a way of addressing an issue he may have with religion but cannot openly express because of the social constraints of the Victorian era.
As this poem is part of the group of poems formerly labelled as the Madhouse Cells, madness is bound to be a major theme. This idea of madness is portrayed in several ways. The rhyme scheme in the poem is mainly ABABB, which is regular but rather asymmetrical. This deters the flow of the poem since the ends of the lines don’t always rhyme. This fluctuating rhyme scheme alludes to a sense of mental imbalance or instability within the speaker. The use of anastrophe in this poem also adds to the reader’s feeling that the speaker is not the sanest person in the world. This use of an odd word order, along with enjambment and the excessive use of punctuation give the poem an intermittent flow and this may reflect the speakers thought process, suggesting that it is also irregular.
Furthermore, the speaker’s madness can also be seen in his monomania. On line 35 he says “That moment she was mine, mine”. Instead of meaning that she was figuratively his, he may have meant that she actually belonged to him. This would mean that he would have been free to do with her as he wished, and therefore killing her would just be exercising his possessive power. The fact that the speaker actually thinks he can have such dominion over another human being shows us that he is a monomaniac. He goes on to say “And I, its love, am gained instead!” on line 55. The fact that he refers to her as ‘it’ reinforces how he sees her as an object that can be possessed, not a human being. This may be a reference to how women in general were treated by men during the Victorian era, that, to men, they were nothing but objects to be possessed and used as they pleased.
Lastly, the speaker’s madness is suggested when he states his reason for killing her. On lines 55-56 he says “Porphyria’s love: she guessed not / How her darling one wish would be heard.” It can be seen here that the speaker believes he was doing Porphyria a favour, that he was putting her out of her misery. Since she was not strong enough to separate herself from “pride and vainer ties” he took upon himself to set her free. Once again this shows how egocentric the speaker is. He really did believe all that Porphyria said to him and that all she really wanted was to be with him even though she only came around when passion prevailed, as it says on line 26. His egocentric dementia is further portrayed as he fondles her after her death. On lines 47-48 he says “her cheek once more / Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss”. This bright blushing of the skin was probably because of the fact that he had just untied the hair around her neck and this was the blood’s last rush. He, however, took it as if it was his kiss that made her blush and this gives us the sense that he feels that even in death he still manages to excite her and this shows just how deranged the speaker is.
However, the language the speaker uses is quite delicate and almost adorns the murder.
“No pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain. As a shut bud holds a bee, I warily opened her lids”.
This image this brings about is a very gentle one, and as the reader we get the sense that it is actually what Porphyria wanted, since we receive no evidence that she put up a struggle. But then again, we have to bear in mind that this poem is written in the first person and we only receive images that the speaker wants us to. It is very likely that Porphyria struggled because it is a basic survival instinct to fight when one’s life is threatened. This may lead some readers to see the speaker as a tender murderer and expresses how the ambiguity in Browning’s poetry leaves it open to a vast range of interpretations.
Lastly, I’m going to speak about the sexuality of the poem. As I mentioned earlier, the Victorian era was a time of social and sexual constraint. This meant that having partners purely for sexual purposes would have been looked down upon. Porphyria is a hereditary defect of blood pigment metabolism marked by an excess of porphyrins in the urine and extreme sensitivity to sunlight. This means that people who suffer from this disease cannot go out under the sun, and therefore they cannot be seen during the day. This was the nature of the relationship between Porphyria and her lover. Due to social restraints their relationship could only exist in darkness. This is what “but passion would sometimes prevail” refers to. How they only saw each other when Porphyria’s sexual needs made it necessary.
Since this was a period of constraint, one would believe that all the literature would be censored as well, however, Browning uses imagery that then would’ve been seen as very carnal even though as 21st century readers we find it very normal. The image of Porphyria taking off her cloak, shawl, gloves and letting her hair down would have been scene as very riské. This meant that Browning appealed to the suppressed carnal side of the people and since they could not openly indulge in sex related pleasures Browning’s sexual poetry was the next best thing.
As a 21st century reader, one of the words that come to thought when reading this poem is necrophilia. As a Victorian reader having such a thought would have been greatly looked down upon. During the Victorian era, there was a fine line between what was considered moral and immoral but nowadays actions that were considered immoral by Victorian readers are becoming more and more frequent and tolerated. For example, in Swaziland we have newspaper headlines such as “Man has sex with goat” and this means that to us as 21st century readers, the thought of necrophilia is not very farfetched. It can thus be said that society has become increasingly carnal since the days of Queen Victoria since it has become more accepting of deeds that would have been considered taboo by Victorians.