While it is easy to say that this poem is simply a frightening and perverse account of a man who cannot properly express his feelings for a woman, it is much more complex. Two major motifs in the poem, love and sin, create a sense of contradiction. Browning uses this contradiction to explore the relationship between art and morality.
The title of the poem leads the reader to believe that the speaker and the woman have been in a relationship for some time. It evokes the image of a woman secretly visiting her lover. Then, the speaker tells the reader that Porphyria “glides” into his house and “kneel’d and make the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm” (6-9). Only someone who had visited the man’s home many times before would feel comfortable enough to “glide” in and start a fire. This confirms that this relationship has been ongoing and that this is not the first time the two have met. Throughout the poem, “love” is described in terms of a struggle for power, suggesting that the balance of power, dominance, and control in the relationship between this man and woman will never be equal; that one will always be vying for agency over the other and the relationship. In the beginning, Porphyria is “murmuring how she loved [the speaker]” (21). Women of the Victorian era were supposed to stifle their sexuality and ignore it altogether. The woman in this poem makes it clear that Browning did not agree with this view. Although Porphyria has not been able to fully repress her desires, as evident in the fact that she even went to the man’s house, she is attempting to practice some restraint. Instead of shouting or even simply saying at a normal volume that she loves him, she only murmurs. The speaker acknowledges the power that she has over him by actively ignoring her advances:
And, last, she sat down by my side
And call’d me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm around her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder