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 listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
     She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
     Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
     Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
     And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
     And, last, she sat down by my side
     And called me. When no voice replied,
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,
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 for ever.
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.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
     Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
     Made my heart swell, and still it grew
     While I debated what to do.
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,
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;
     Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
     About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
     I propped her head up as before,
     Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
     The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
     That all it scorned at once is fled,
     And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
     Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
     And all night long we have not stirred,
     And yet God has not said a word!

Footnotes

  1. The punctuation in this section convolutes the meaning a little. Essentially, readers should know that the comma after “prevail” and after “her” are setting off a different clause, or sentence. This clause is situated within the larger statement, which can be written “But passion sometimes would prevail … and all in vain.” Reading the line this way, we can see how Porphyria’s passion would take her to her lover “sometimes” but that these encounters were “all in vain”; that is, nothing real or meaningful came from them. This establishes the idea that the two lovers have met in such ways many times before, but they have failed to consummate, or act upon, their love. Since Browning finishes this line with a colon introducing Porphyria’s appearance on such a night, we are drawn into suspenseful anticipation to see what awaits these two lovers on this dark, stormy night.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Among other uses, the colon conveys emphasis for whatever follows. In this case, the speaker emphasizes the adverb “again” to signal that he opens her eyelids not once, but twice. Since the semicolon follows, the adverb “again” also acts on the following line, indicating that Porphyria’s eyes continue to laugh without stain.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. Porphyria acts with deliberate, strong agency when she comes into the room. The verb “to make” emphasizes power and agency. In a way, she makes the cottage warm through her forcible will. This verb repeats itself in other locations, each time conveying a similar effect.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Elm trees have a long history in mythology and literature and are symbolic of many things. Among those, elms have often been used to represent idyllic life, with the shade cast by their broad leaves as a place for coolness and peace. That the sullen wind rips down the elms portrays the tone and mood as menacing, heightening the tension regarding what’s to come.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Browning begins by setting the scene and foreshadowing events to come. First, his use of the adverb “early” indicates that there is something different about the night in question. Second, rain has many symbolic meanings in literature: from rebirth and cleansing, to tragedy and death. So, their combined use creates a tone of expectation and tension. As readers, we are prepared to experience some kind of event that will follow through on this premise.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Bees and flower buds have a mutually beneficial relationship: bees land on flowers to drink their nectar, collect pollen on their feet, and then spread that pollen to fertilize other flowers. A bud that would shut and trap a bee would forsake this relationship. Therefore, a shut bud might slowly open, or nervously open to make sure the bee was actually dead; if it were not, the bee might attack the bud. In using this metaphor, the speaker compares the manner in which he opens his murdered lover’s eyes to a bud opening after it had betrayed a bee. However, the speaker might be so careful not because he is worried about Porphyria attacking him, but because he is worried about what he will find in her eyes; perhaps a look of shock or anger over his betrayal, or the disfiguration that occurs when someone is strangled.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Porphyria’s murder can be seen as the speaker forcing a woman who defies the social restraints placed on her agency and sexual desire into the conventional role of a Victorian woman. In this way, Browning’s poem can be read as satirical. His speaker enforces the expectations placed on female sexuality in a shocking and horrifying way in order to reveal the shocking and horrifying nature of the rules themselves.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. The Victorian social code of conduct was heavily shaped by religious practices. Premarital sex, female agency, and desire were all condemned because they were seen as sinful actions through the eyes of the Christian church. In ending with a reference to God’s inaction, the poem mocks both religion and the social codes it creates. That “God has not said a word” suggests a type of approval of the speaker’s actions. Since the speaker enforced the Victorian moral code, he paints God as on his side. Browning uses this final line to satirically point to the hypocrisy of the church’s policing of female bodies.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. The verb “to scorn” means to mock, chide, or hold in contempt. It connotes an assumed intelligence, as if the scorner believes herself to be superior to what she scorns. While the speaker does not specify what Porphyria had “scorned,” this diction suggests that Porphyria was an intelligent person. However, the speaker dismisses this intelligence by portraying himself as a savior. In murdering her, he made this scorn, and the independence it symbolized, “flee” from her and replaced it with “I,” or love for him. The speaker conveys the idea that a woman only needs a man to make all of her other problems “flee,” a popular Victorian belief about love and marriage. In focusing on Porphyria’s “love” for him, the speaker can portray her as a conventional, innocent Victorian woman.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. In describing Porphyria as having a “smiling rosy little head,” the speaker infantilizes her: she is no longer the sexual being with agency that we saw at the beginning of the poem, but something “little” and “rosy.” These words connote innocence and simplicity. In murdering this woman, the speaker is able to force her into traditional gender roles and “restore” her innocence.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. Notice the satire behind this shocking murder. The speaker robs this seemingly independent and sexually liberated woman of her agency by murdering her. In murdering her he is able to regain his power and force her back into the submissive role Victorian women were supposed to inhabit. To be compliant with social roles, the speaker commits this terrible murder. In this way, the poet mocks the strict social rules that ruled Victorian society and the strict enforcement of these rules: they are just as suffocating as the woman’s long blonde hair.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Placing Porphyria’s head on his shoulder is another form of reversal. The speaker places her below him in this position of dependence. The woman with her head on the man’s shoulder symbolizes traditional gender roles: the woman relies on the man for protection and dotes on him in return. The power reversals after Porphyria’s death suggest that the speaker restored Victorian social norms with this murder.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. While at the beginning of the poem Porphyria has control over the speaker’s body, here the speaker has the power to manipulate her body. This demonstrates a reversal of the couple’s power dynamics: now that she is dead, he holds all the power in the relationship.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The enjambment here further highlights the speaker’s perception of his own God-like power. *Enjambment* is when a sentence extends beyond a poetic line without a break. It is often used to suggest two meanings of a line: the one that is read to the end of the line, and the one that is read to the end of the sentence. If one reads the entire sentence, the speaker’s surprise gives him a swelling feeling of love. If one reads to the end of the line, “surprise” takes on a conceited tone: Porphyria worships him and he is not surprised. This second reading of the line reveals the speaker’s growing confidence in his power and influence. Whereas at the beginning of the poem he was unresponsive and sitting alone in a dark room, now he sees himself as obviously deserving of Porphyria’s permanent affection.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. In his lover’s eyes, the speaker confirms his fears: she is no longer restrained by her pride. She is “happy and proud” to be with him; she is proud of the actions she has taken and the desire she feels. His interpretation of the look in her eyes confirms Porphyria’s deviance from “acceptable” female behavior.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. The imperative “be sure” is generally used to emphasize an invitation or convey an instruction or reminder. It suggests a conversation between two people and could be read here as the speaker talking directly to the audience. However, it could also be read as “to be sure.” The speaker looks up into his lover’s eyes in order to “be sure,” or confirm, everything that he has thought about her uncontrollable passion and sexual desire.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. Notice that paleness speaks back to the title of the poem and the woman’s name as well. Those infected with Porphyria are pale. This would suggest that the speaker is pale “for love of her,” and in this sense the woman has infected him with this lovesick disease. This reading makes her the predator in this relationship. However, pale skin is also a typical sign of an unsatiated mythological vampire, which would suggest that the speaker’s love has turned him into a predator with his desire for her.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Here, the speaker imagines Porphyria thinking of him at the feast: he is the “one so pale” who draws her away from the party. Notice that the speaker once again displaces himself from the narrative by calling himself “one,” a gender-neutral, impersonal pronoun. This disassociation shows a disconnection between the speaker’s self and the self he imagines Porphyria sees.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. It is important to recognize that the portrayal that we are given of Porphyria and her passion is filtered through this speaker’s perspective. We are never offered Porphyria’s side of the story or her own account of her feelings. This portrayal of the woman also suggests that the speaker is passing moral judgement on Porphyria’s character. Since the narrator has been unreliable up to this point, the reader might look at this description and wonder if Porphyria is as laden with passion and unrestrained by polite society as the speaker believes.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. Here, the speaker claims that although Porphyria resists her passion because vanity and pride restrict her, the adverb “sometimes” suggests that this situation has arisen multiple times before. Porphyria has come to the speaker despite her apprehension because of her passionate love for him.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. By “give herself to me for ever” the speaker means that the woman will give him her virginity. He characterizes her as “too weak” to resist her own passion. In Victorian society, extramarital sex was illicit and seen as a sign of moral corruption. The speaker sees his lover’s passion as something that makes her weak rather than a sign of her agency. This suggests that while she enacts more modern sexual liberty, he is still viewing their relationship through romantic, Victorian social structures.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. The use of the word “made” also connotes a type of force; the speaker seems to be conveying that the woman is acting contrary to his wishes. It also hints that he is the passive recipient in this relationship and that she holds the power. The pose of cheek-on-shoulder portrays the woman as a type of protective figure and the speaker as dependent on her.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. As his delusions develop, the speaker seems to step into a God-like role. In the seventh stanza, when he reflects that “at last I knew/Porphyria worshipped me,” he casts himself in a divine light. The verb “to worship,” after all, suggests an act of religious praise. The speaker uses this delusional, divine self-image to justify his murder of Porphyria. As he reflects in the final line, “And yet God has not said a word.” The speaker does not answer to a god because, in a sense, he believes himself to be one.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  26. Notice again that in focusing on the woman and her actions, the speaker removes himself from the center of the narrative. Readers might lose sight of the speaker and his odd, passive role because of this style of narration. The careful reader should take this narrative style as a warning that there is something being hidden from them.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. The use of the pronoun “it” dehumanizes Porphyria, as if in her death she is now a mere object. It is also intriguing that the speaker claims to know “its utmost will,” suggesting that Porphyria’s greatest wish was to be killed. Once again, Browning explores the theme of disconnection from reality. Feeding his ongoing fiction, the speaker misinterprets the dead Porphyria’s expression as gratitude.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  28. In this line, Porphyria is the actor; she actively manipulates the speaker’s body so that he responds to her the way that she wants him to. The woman’s ability to act on him almost as if he is an inanimate doll suggests that she has the power in this relationship.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  29. The description of Porphyria as having a “rosy little head” once again shows the distance between the reality of the story and the speaker’s delusions. To the speaker, her head is “rosy”: a pleasant, flowery image. In reality, her head is flushed from having been recently strangled. The character’s name, Porphyria, fits with this latter image. Porphyria comes from the Greek word for “purple,” the color of her face.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  30. In this line, the poem pivots from past to present tense, with Porphyria’s head upon the shoulder serving as the pivot point. It becomes clear that the poem serves as the speaker’s reflection on the murder, as recounted directly after the fact. The speaker coldly murders Porphyria and then invents a story in which the murder was a loving fulfillment of her deepest wishes.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  31. Browning makes heavy use of alliteration in this line. Four of the six words here begin with *b*. This use of abundant alliteration within such a rhythmic line was a central feature in [Anglo-Saxon verse](https://www.owleyes.org/text/beowulf) and served as the equivalent of rhyme. Here the use of rich alliteration—along with the repetition of the liquid consonants *r* and *l*—conveys the rush of blood to Porphyria’s face as well as the violence of the moment.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  32. The word “tress” refers to a braid of the woman’s hair. The use of this word here is interesting in that it draws attention to the beauty and delicacy of Porphyria’s hair. This is a sharp contrast from the ugly truth that the very same tress was used to kill her.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  33. When Porphyria arrives, her lover is sitting in a dark, cold room as a storm rages outside. He is unresponsive even to his own name. This should strike the audience as odd. However, because of the romantic imagery and focus the speaker places on his lover rather than his feelings, the reader may not notice his behavior is odd the first time they encounter these lines. The careful reader will see that there is something peculiar about this speaker.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  34. The speaker’s repetition of “mine” suggests his excitement and feeling of intense possessiveness. The word also provides some insight into the character’s coming actions. The speaker wishes to hold onto “that moment she was mine” and will go to extreme measures to hold onto that moment.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  35. The image of the speaker’s heart swelling and growing may be a veiled metaphor for his sexual arousal. While the use of “heart” suggests a rising feeling of love, the scene carries carnal connotations, particularly in the previous mentions of “passion” and “feast.” The speaker’s next choice of action underscores the thematic connection between violence and sexual desire, both expressions of power.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  36. The word “dissever” is an archaic synonym of “sever,” which means “to cut.” As with many of the poem’s passages, it is important to separate the speaker’s false interpretation of the world from the underlying reality. According to the speaker, Porphyria only holds back her “struggling passion” because of pride and other “vainer ties.” The speaker does not consider the possibility that Porphyria does not actually feel an overwhelming passion for him.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  37. The image of Porphyria’s “yellow hair displaced” carries sensual undertones. In Western folklore and mythology, long unrestrained hair often symbolizes sexuality and a connection to nature. Considering the context of the previous line, with its image of the “white shoulder bare,” the scene is full of sexual tension.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  38. In naming the woman of this poem “Porphyria,” Browning implies a connection between this relationship and savage monsters. If one of the lovers in the relationship is a “vampire,” then someone is a predator and someone is its prey. This comparison casts an ominous tone over the poem and foreshadows a dark turn.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  39. Browning wrote “Porphyria’s Lover” in a crisp iambic tetrameter. The four-beat meter gives the poem a jaunty, ballad-like feel. The iambs in their relentless, monotonous march give the speaker’s voice an unnatural quality to match his loose grip on reality.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  40. Porphyria is the name of the speaker’s lover, the woman who has just entered the room. The word “porphyria” also denotes a particular blood disorder. Porphyria is known as the vampire’s disease because the symptoms are similar to those manifested by historical, mythological vampires. Caused by the improper creation of hemoglobin in the blood, this genetic disease can cause sensitivity to the sun, including a burning sensation when exposed to direct sunlight, insomnia, paranoia, blistering, frail skin, and scars.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  41. The speaker conjures a romantic image here with the sublimely malevolent storm raging outside his cozy cabin and the effect this storm appears to have on his nerves. The poem begins situated in romantic tropes and imagery that lead the reader to believe the poem will involve romantic themes such as individualism, imagination, and the idealization of love and nature.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  42. Browning used a somewhat unusual stanza structure and rhyme scheme in this poem. The poem is constructed of quintains—five-line stanzas—each with an ABABB rhyme pattern. The result is musical but strange to the ear, with the final line in each stanza subverting the natural ABAB form. Perhaps Browning chose this unsettling form to better express the poem’s eerie tone.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  43. Much like Browning’s famous poem [The Last Duchess](https://www.owleyes.org/text/last-duchess/read/text-poem/root-21100-1), “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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  44. The verb “to vex” means to trouble, afflict, or harass aggressively in order to interfere with peace and quiet. The storm the speaker describes seems sadistically violent. One might read this description as an expression of the speaker’s own feelings: either he sympathizes with the wind and feels vengeful, or he sympathizes with the lake and feels persecuted. In either reading, the speaker seems to be in an emotionally unstable state.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  45. In using the adjective “sullen,” which means gloomy, ill-humored, or moody, the speaker personifies the wind. Personification generally indicates a character or speaker’s attempt to understand or identify with an inanimate object or force. Here, the speaker seems to project his own mood onto the landscape and see himself as the storm raging outside.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor