The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Poetry Saturday – Porphyria’s Lover

Posted on: March 3, 2007

Browning is not a poet I read. I don’t recall covering many if any of his poems in school and I don’t seek him out otherwise. I’ve heard and read very little about his work, and what little I did was not alluring. While reading Handbook his Porphyria’s Lover was mentioned in regards to “Speaker’s Voice”: in the poem the speaker murders his lover. Who can pass up obsessive passion and violence, swirled together? (Not me.)

What pulled at me most while reading was the speaker’s forceful, deranged passion. Whenever he is describing his lover, her movements and affectionate gestures towards him (real or imagined), he does at greater comparative length to other parts of the poem. It’s a particularly grotesque pairing of the two sections, the first when she puts his head on her shoulder and at the end when he places her droopy, “smiling rosy little head” on his. This reversal is mirrored in the warmth she brings to the house by starting the fire, and the affection she displays, holding him to her, in contrast to his cold reserve. At the end it is she that is literally cold and pale while he imparts “burning” kisses.

It works very well with the irony throughout the poem. His love seeks refuge with him from the storming weather outside when it is her lover who poses the most danger. The speaker insists that her love for him is weak, restrained by pride and “vainer ties” but from the start she is the one who displays more care…it his ove that is not only untrue, but perverted. In fact I am sceptical, considering his mental instability, of his assessment of her emotional fortitude in general. How sad it is that he finds more devotional security in her death when he could have had it (and much more, obviously) in her life.

A very interesting and gruesome poem. Maybe Browning isn’t so lame after all.

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 listen’d with heart fit to break. 5
When glided in Porphyria; straight
  She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel’d and made the cheerless grate
  Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
  Which done, she rose, and from her form 10
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
  And laid her soil’d gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
A  nd, last, she sat down by my side
  And call’d me. When no voice replied, 15
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, 20
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. 25
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. 30
Be sure I look’d up at her eyes
  Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipp’d me; surprise
  Made my heart swell, and still it grew
  While I debated what to do. 35
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, 40
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
  Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain. 45
And I untighten’d next the tress
  About her neck; her cheek once more
Blush’d bright beneath my burning kiss:
  I propp’d her head up as before,
  Only, this time my shoulder bore 50
Her head, which droops upon it still:
  The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
  That all it scorn’d at once is fled,
  And I, its love, am gain’d instead! 55
Porphyria’s love: she guess’d not how
  Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
  And all night long we have not stirr’d,
  And yet God has not said a word!

Robert Browning

I know it may seem as if everything reminds me of Blake but anyway, all floral metaphor reminded me of A Sick Rose. I think there is some thematic link, perhaps, with the female repression of passion and the consequences that followed. (From different angles certainly and with one’s destruction more literal than the other.)

6 Responses to "Poetry Saturday – Porphyria’s Lover"

I like what Browning I’ve read — his dramatic monologues are fun. I’ve taught “My Last Duchess” quite a few times, and once students understand it, they seem to like it (and be horrified by it).

I’m a Wordsworth person myself. Both Brownings lived in a very cloistered space – as much as they tried to break free from it. Wordsworth was connected to the space of nature.

Just my 2 cents.

Thanks for the lengthy quotation – it’s nice to be reminded of a glorious technical age of verse.


Good grief. Who know? That’s just waiting to be set to music and droned out by Nick Cave.

Dorothy you’ve really snagged my interest with “My Last Duchess”. I’m trying to resist googling before I figure out most of it for myself. Thanks for mentioning the dramatic monologues–I’ll have to seek out more of his.

ggwfung I admit Wordsworth isn’t my particular cup of tea either but I do appreciate the comparison you made. You’re always welcome to share your 2 cents here.

And you’re welcome!

Solnushka I had the same reaction when I read. Who knew that Browning wrote this kind of stuff? Maybe you should e-mail it Cave, eh?

It’s tempting…

[…] on a strange illustration of Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”, which I blogged about […]

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