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.
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
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.
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:
          “…I found
          A thing to
do, and all her hair,
          In one long
yellow string I wound
          Three times
her little throat around,
          And strangled
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’. 

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