My most loved poem – Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning

You may want to read the poem on Poetry Foundation before we jump in.

Let me summarise the poem in simple words – there’s a shock element to it that could catch you off guard. There’s a protagonist in the poem (which we hope is not Robert Browning himself) who resides in a cottage on the countryside. One night, a storm hits and he describes how cold and sullen it was for him to be alone in his cottage.

That’s when his lover slides in to his humble home. Porphyria comes through the storm to his home and makes it warm – literally by lighting up the fireplace, and figuratively by her presence. Then she puts away her gloves and hat, lets down her long hair and sits beside the protagonist, her lover. She calls his name but he doesn’t respond. So she draws her hair to one side and baring her shoulder, she puts his head on it and murmurs to him how much she loves him. The lover considers her a frail little thing, whose passion for him is too strong.

He says that she puts her vanity aside and comes to him, even amidst a storm, just because she yearns for his company. He knows that she worships him, that poor thing. He looks in her eye and feels extremely proud that she is his. But then, a realization dawns upon him that she is his at this moment. And this moment would pass, and he wouldn’t know what would come next.

And so, as if to make this fulfilling moment eternal, he draws her long hair in his hands and wounds its stretch around her neck three times. He strangles her and she dies in his arms – but the lover feels that she felt no pain at all. Now, he puts her head on his shoulder, re-opens her closed eyes (which he describes as bud holding a bee), undoes the hair from around her neck, and sits still. He says that her blue eyes look beautiful, her cheeks are blushed because he kissed them and she is the happiest because she has gained her lover. Everything she hated in this world is gone, it’s just them now.

All night, he sits still bearing her head on his shoulder. God doesn’t say a word.

Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ was published in 1836 and came as a shock to readers even back then. It was very unlike Robert Browning to create something so macabre. The first thing that sets the poem apart is the simplicity in the language – something quite rare for poetry of the time. In fact, that could have been a strategic move because there is a madness conveyed in that simplicity (also with the rhyme scheme) that is almost psychotic. The lover, arguably mad, does not care for exceptional language. He narrates with overt simplicity that his lover worshipped him, and he killed her.

This poem is outrageous for more than one reason. There is mention of sex out of wedlock (when she bares her shoulder for him) which was a major taboo in the Victorian era, when the poem was published. However, Browning almost ‘normalized’ sex out of wedlock in this poem – something no one had done before in his time.

The final claim that God is yet to say word is a mockery of the religious philosophy that the madman makes. It is a validation that he realizes the twisted nature of what he has done but feels no remorse; in fact it is the opposite. He coddles the corpse of his lover and describes how beautiful she is how at peace he assumes she is, now that he has rid her of her worldly hassles. The feeling that he has done her a favour by letting her ‘have only him’ keeps him from feeling any form of guilt.

Porphyria’s Lover is a poem that remains with you. There is a beauty in psychotic love that is brought out perfectly here. Is it madness, is it passion, or is it just pure sadism to take a life in mad love? How can such a gory tale be written with so much beauty? Is the woman now more eternal than she would have been if she had lived? Would she have traded her life for this, if she was given the choice? Is life bigger, or is legacy?

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