Analysis and Interpretation of Browning's Porphyria’s Lover
"Porphyria’s Lover", under the name Porphyria, was first published in a magazine named Monthly Repository. It appeared again in Dramatic Lyrics together with "Johannes Agricola in Meditation". It is significant that both the poems were published under the common title "Madhouse Cells". Taking the same format of octo-syllabic lines, like the other ‘madhouse’ poem, Porphyria’s Lover opens with an ironic discrepancy between the speaker’s statement and the real meaning. But the poem is much more complex than Johannes Agricola, where the issue of motivation is concerned. Like Agricola, Porphyria’s lover describes a supposedly natural course of action, which is, on introspection, illogical. Where Agricola rejects the authority of the Gospels, Porphyria’s lover breaks one of God’s Ten Commandments that,
“Thou shall not kill.” The Old Testament, ‘Exodus’ 20: 13.
The lover does so by perpetrating a murder. Again, the title of the poem alludes to a physiological condition—‘Porphyria’, strongly reminiscent of the term ‘porphyrin’ in biochemistry, refers to congenital abnormality in pigmentation. In the context of Browning’s poem the term suggests a link between physical and mental abnormality.
The opening lines are evocative of a fierce and malicious natural force, which is illuminated later on in 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:”
If one is particularly watchful, then the ‘elm-tops’, which have been torn down, signals death and presages Porphyria’s terrible destiny. The storm outside bears some correspondence with mental disorder that provokes the lover. Here ‘rain’ and ‘storm’ are personified as agents of destruction. Yet, while depicting this violently animated nature, the lover perfectly sane and his speech proceeds clearly and logically, so that these disturbing detail take on their full significance only in retrospect. Browning was sufficiently well versed in contemporary psychological theories to know that a spurious rationality is a mark of madness. Porphyria’s lover establishes a false sense of causality and motivation. He moves from thought to action in a manner that strikes him as perfectly reasonable.
His narrative, frequently couched in monosyllabic words, enumerates Porphyria’s every move and look in a carefully controlled manner. Entering the cottage she ‘‘kneeled and made the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm”. At this point it must be said that the reader cannot be sure of what kind of woman Porphyria is. The speaker either carefully avoids disclosing her true identity or finds it psychologically troublesome to do so like a confirmed psychiatric patient since it is an unpleasant fact. What his speech betrays—“vainer ties dissever”—makes her identity and position in the society all the more equivocal. We cannot be sure whether she was a married woman or not. One thing is, however, clear that she belonged to the higher stratum of society than the speaker.
Symbolically Porphyria’s rekindling of the fire serves as a commonplace figure for the lovers instantly aroused desires. Welcoming her passion and worship of him, which he responds with ‘surprise’, the lover debates his force of action:
A thing to do, and all her hair,
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.”
At this divided point in the poem, it becomes clear for the first time that the abnormal lover is recounting step by step the history of a sexual murder. We realize now with a shock that this a very recent event since he now rests against Porphyria’s corpse. For him the dead Porphyria becomes a property ‘gained’. Yet nothing has been gained except a lifeless body.
His speech concludes with his equivocal contemplation of the empty silence, in which “God has not said a word”. He anticipates God’s judgement. This may, on the one hand, strike a note of comfortable expectation; on the other, we may choose to think that the lover is expecting his relief of God’s wrath. It is to decide between these divergent reading. It is, in fact, the uncertainty about the lover’s final state of mind that prompts us to consider closely the brief and violent history that constitutes the poem. The reader’s sole interest rests on the motive of the man—what exactly compelled him to perpetrate the ‘deed’.