Robert Browning (1812-1889) was a Victorian poet, who is particularly famous for his dramatic monologues in verse form. Browning was born in London, to a family who relished literature, and he grew up surrounded by books. He wrote his first book of poems before he was 12 – but destroyed them as an adult to make sure no-one could publish them! Browning devoted himself to poetry, and initially had to live at home and be supported by his parents to do so. He married another poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was rather more popular and successful than him. They were able to live together on her inherited wealth. Browning’s dramatic monologues are often narrated by very sinister characters, and the reader must piece together what the truth of the story is. My Last Duchess and Porphyria’s Lover both fall into this category. Porphyria’s Lover was the first short dramatic monologue that Browning wrote, and was one of the first of his poems to feature a character with psychosis. The woman in the poem is named after a disease called Porphyria. It is a rare type of disease, which can result in madness of some kind. This has led some people to interpret the poem as a metaphor for dealing with this disease. It was first identified a few years before the poem was written.
The poem is a narrative of a murder, told calmly and callously. On a stormy night the apparently depressed narrator is sitting alone in a cold and dark cottage. Out of the storm the girl he loves, Porphyria, arrives and makes up the fire. She sits beside him but he won’t speak. She tells him she loves him and rests her head on his shoulder, arranging his arm around her waist. He was "so pale/For love of her" and thought she didn’t love him. He is delighted to discover that she loves him. In that perfect moment he decides to kill her, strangling her with her own hair. When she is dead he props her up on his shoulder in the same position as before. There they sit for the whole night.
Form and structure
Porphyria’s Lover is a dramatic monologue written in the first person. The regular rhyme scheme follows an ABABB pattern throughout, and the poem is written in one long section. Some critics have suggested the regular rhyme scheme reflects a calm heartbeat. It has also been suggested that the asymmetrical rhyme scheme reflects the unbalanced character of the narrator. Certainly the complete regularity of it reflects the narrator’s calmness in his violence. There is a mirrored structure to the events in the poem. In the first half, Porphyria arranges the narrator’s physical form, putting his "arm about her waist". After he has killed her, he arranges her back in the position in which she had been sitting. This might reflect the paradox that he loves her but he kills her. Language and Imagery
The word "and" is used repeatedly throughout the poem, creating a sense of the events of the poem happening one after the other, almost as if they are inevitable once Porphyria has arrived. Imagery
The poem opens with a strong sense of pathetic fallacy: the personified "sullen wind" tearing down the trees, and the rain battering down. Initially it seems as if this reflects only the mood of the narrator, but later it may take on greater significance. When Porphyria arrives, she makes up the fire and warms the cottage, transforming the "cheerless grate", which seems as if it would reflect the love of the pair. Her arrival "shut the cold out"; this seems true on a literal and a metaphorical level – it is the storm and his unhappiness that she shuts out. Porphyria’s "yellow hair" is a recurring image in the poem, as she spreads it over the narrator’s shoulder as she sits next to him. In the first section of the poem her hair is mentioned three times in the space of eight lines, emphasising its importance to the poem’s narrator. It is hardly surprising when he uses it as "one long yellow string" to strangle her. It is a sensual...
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