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Historical Context in Porphyria's Lover
Sexuality in Victorian Society: English poet Robert Browning lived during the vast majority of Queen Victoria’s reign, making him an exemplary writer of the Victorian era and its ethos. One of the hallmarks of Victorian culture was sexual restraint and an overarching sobriety of conduct. The dark side of such repression was an obsession with sex; Victorian London had more brothels than schools and some 80,000 working prostitutes. “Porphyria’s Lover” is a poem that reveals the culture’s dark view of sexuality. Porphyria, with her overt sexuality, represents the kind of woman the Victorians shunned. All in all, the sexual material in the poem would have been viewed as taboo by Browning’s contemporaries.
Historical Context Examples in Porphyria's Lover:
"shoulder bare..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
Porphyria's overt sexuality, communicated by her bare shoulder and the “withdrawing” of her clothing, would have been shocking to a Victorian audience. Women’s sexuality was severely repressed at this time and seen as abhorrent, sinful behavior not fit for polite society. This agency moves the poem away from romantic themes to a more modern consideration of sexuality and gender relations.
"gay feast..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
The adjective “gay” means bright or lively, joyful, and full of mirth. For the middle class, Victorian parties were opportunities to make social connections, maintain relationships, and gain social power. That Porphyria leaves this happy party in order to go to her lover is a sign of her social deviance; she abandons this social ritual because her passion and love for this man are more important. The speaker sees this action as a type of weakness: her passion is so great that even her obligations to society cannot “restrain her.” He paints Porphyria as a wild, uncivilized woman who is at the mercy of her passion.
"I listened..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
Much like Browning’s famous poem My Last Duchess, “Porphyria’s Lover” takes the form of a dramatic monologue. A dramatic monologue is a poem in which an imagined narrator describes a particular situation or series of events and inadvertently reveals aspects of their own character. The speaker in a dramatic monologue is generally suspicious as they are not immediately forthcoming with aspects of their personality or actions.