Below is a paper I wrote for my english class on "Porphyria's Lover", a poem by Robert Browning. I know we're not supposed to write subjective nodes, and I really don't mean to offend anyone. I put this up not as the correct interpretation, but as one possible interpretation. If anything, I hope this essay offers some insight to those who read it, and helps them formulate their own opinions of the poem. However, I encourage you all to read the the poem and try to interpret it yourselves before reading mine. Any criticism on my writing is appreciated, though I've already received my grade :)

P.S. This paper of mine has no copyright or anything, use it as you see fit.




Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” describes a secret rendezvous between two people: a woman, Porphyria, and her lover. This innocent encounter turns deadly when Porphyria’s lover strangles her to death with her own hair. Although the lover seems disturbed and insane, his actions are quite justified in his own mind. Browning conveys the scene through the eyes of the murderer, and uses language and imagery to help the reader understand what is going through the murderer’s mind, and why he does his evil deed.

Porphyria is introduced as she enters the cottage from a raging storm. To the lover, Porphyria “glided in” (6), which casts her in a somewhat angelic light – dignified and graceful. Porphyria is not subservient to her lover either. In the lines, “straight… / And, at last, she sat down by my side / And called me” (6-15) Porphyria is handling the situation – turning up the fire, fixing her attire and sitting with her lover – all without needing his instruction. She is presented as headstrong, confident and attractive.

Unfortunately for Porphyria, her lover is quite insane. As Porphyria sits down on her lover’s lap, “all her hair / In one long yellow string I would / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her.” (38-41) There is no doubt that Porphyria is murdered by her lover; the only question is why. Why would he kill someone whom he loves and admires so much?

Porphyria obviously means a great deal to her lover. When the lover is waiting in the cottage for Porphyria, he speaks of a great storm outside: “The rain set early in tonight…I listened with heart fit to break.” (1-5) He speaks of the storm not only outside, but in his mind. As he waits in the cottage, his mind is a storm of emotion and his “heart is fit to break.” It is only when Porphyria enters the cottage and “shuts the cold out and the storm” (7) that the turmoil he feels melts away. It is as if all of his problems become insignificant and forgotten when he’s in her presence, he loves her so much.

The lover also means a lot to Porphyria. Why else would Porphyria make her way to a remote cottage in the middle of a storm? The lover says, “Nor could tonight’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” (27-30). Apparently there was a celebration of some sort for Porphyria to attend but the thought of her lover waiting, sad and alone in the cottage, made her leave to keep him company.

But the lover thinks that no matter what kind of feelings Porphyria may have for him, he will never be able to satisfy or attain her permanently. The lover describes her:

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. (21-25)

What the lover sees is that Porphyria wants to be with him - it is her “heart’s endeavor” - but she is struggling to free her passion from her pride. It seems that on some level, the lover is not good enough for Porphyria. Perhaps she already has a husband who is of high social class (represented by the “gay feast” in line 27), and feels that her lover – of lower social class – is good for only that: love. She knows that he cannot provide the kind of lifestyle she enjoys with her current husband. This is why the lover sees his pursuit for her “all in vain” (29). For as much as he loves Porphyria, he can never make her truly love him. There will always be her “pride” and “vainer ties” that lure her away from true passion.

According to the lover, though, “passion sometimes would prevail.” (26) During this night, the lover looked “up at her eyes / Happy and proud; at last I knew / Porphyria worshiped me.” (31-33) This is what the lover has wanted since the beginning. It seems as if Porphyria has finally chosen passion over pride, and found true happiness with him. He is obviously pleased with this (“surprise / Made my heart swell” (34)) but is unsure how to react to this revelation (“and still it grew / While I debated what to do”). For the lover, this single moment is perfect: he has finally won Porphyria’s love.

The lover strangles Porphyria because he wants her to stay in love with him forever. He knows that Porphyria had to battle within herself to find true happiness with him, and he must be afraid that someday in the future she will decide that he is no longer worthy of her love. When the lover looks into Porphyria’s eyes he thinks, “That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good: I found / A thing to do” (36-38). The lover does not want to lose this image of Porphyria. Since he wants to preserve Porphyria in this “pure and good” state which “she was his”, the only “thing to do” in his mind was to murder her.

The lover does not mean to hurt Porphyria: in his mind, what he is doing is good for her; it’s what she wanted. The lover says, “No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain” (41-42) and is quite sincere. He honestly believes she felt no pain, though in almost all certainty she was fighting for her life. He then proceeds to model her lifeless body as she was before, trying to recapture her pose during the perfect moment he felt. He takes note of her “blue eyes without a stain” (45) which were probably bloodshot and terrifying: the lover sees only what he wants to. The lover makes the ironic remark, “Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how / Her darling one wish would be heard.” (56-57) Porphyria obviously wished for love as a living being, and would never have guessed the lover to choose her love as a corpse.

It is fitting then, that the lover chose to strangle Porphyria with her own hair. From the beginning of the poem, her hair seemed to symbolize the love she had for her lover. She comes in from the storm and sheds her hat, letting her hair hang down. The hat covered her hair while she was outside the cottage – she had to hide her secret love – but once inside the cottage is free to express her feelings. Again, when she sits by her lover “spread, o’er all, her yellow hair” (20) she is draping him with her love. But as we see from before, it is this realization of love that encourages the lover to murder Porphyria with her own hair. In essence, Porphyria’s love – as symbolized by her hair – was the cause of her death both physically and emotionally.

The structure of the poem helps to establish the mindset of the lover. Upon first glance, the rhyme scheme seems odd and disjointed. More careful inspection reveals an odd pattern: every two non-indented lines rhyme and every three indented lines rhyme (ababb.) So there is in fact a strict logic behind the somewhat chaotic structure. This mirrors the lover’s own mindset. He is obviously disturbed (chaotic) but within his own mind there is a very strict logic, and he can justify his actions to himself.

On a final, subjective note, I looked up “Porphyria” in the dictionary. It is a disease that among other symptoms causes “mental unbalance”. Perhaps the lover was afflicted by “Porphyria’s love” in more ways than one.

I personally think that the essay has its own interpretations but a lot of it is in fact just the meaning of the poem. But i'm not meaning to offend anyone, it's just merely my opinion. When i first read this poem, immediately the first thing that came into my mind was another poem by Robert Browning: "My Last Duchess". I think that they are both parallel in different ways. For example, in "Porphyria's Lover", the speaker strangles Porphyria at the end because he wants her to stay in love with him forever as stated in the above essay. This is directly parallel to "My Last Duchess" because the duke killed (it is not proven and there is no direct evidence that the duke killed his duchess, but it is assumed so as stated in the poem: "I gave commands;/ then all smiles stopped together." (45-46) ) his duchess because he wanted her to only "smile" at him and be his possession, to only love HIM. Obviously there are differences, but this is my first impression I got when i read "Porphyria's Lover" =)

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