‘Porphyria’s Lover’: Status, Possession and Justification

In ‘Porphyria’s Lover,’ the status of the title character heavily influences her relationship with her lover. It appears that Porphyria has been unable to give herself to her lover and set her ‘struggling passion free | From pride’ (ll. 23-24).[1] Porphyria’s passion for her lover has been constrained by her high status. The use of the word ‘murmuring’ (l. 21) also demonstrates Porphyria’s inability to give herself to her lover, as she is not prepared to announce her love for him in society. Her declarations of love for him have been reduced to whispers, demonstrating the significance of her status, as it interferes with their relationship. However, Porphyria’s leaving of the ‘gay feast’ (l. 37) signifies a change in their relationship, as it appears that Porphyria has abandoned her family at a celebratory meal. This indicates that she has abandoned her status, and the constraints that came with her high rank, and is ready to fully give herself to her lover. This is indicated by the removal of her ‘cloak and shawl,’ (l. 11) which implies that she intends to stay with her lover awhile. Her overcoming of her status and eventual acceptance of him, as well as her love for him, leads to her death in the poem, as the narrator wishes to capture the moment in which Porphyria ‘worshipped’ (l. 33) him. Here the cycle of their relationship ends, as the narrator ends the life of Porphyria, holding her forever in a single moment. Browning may be using Porphyria’s story to comment on the negative effects of social mobility.

Porphyria is killed at the moment when her lover is in full possession of her, and when she fully commits to him. He notes that she was ‘mine, mine fair’ (l. 36). The repetition of ‘mine’ demonstrates the possessive and egotistical nature of the speaker, and this acts as his self-justification for killing her. His wish, to hold her in that moment of submission, as well as his possessive nature, leads to her death, as he strangles her with her own hair. He is invigorated by his actions, as implied by the ‘burning kiss’ (l. 48) he plants on her cheek. His possessive nature is symbolised by her corpse, which he happily sits ‘still’ (l. 51) with long after her death. He objectifies her by noting her ‘rosy little head’ (l. 52), reducing her to a doll like figure that he can fully dominate and possess. In this respect the poem comments on prominent themes in Browning’s work, ‘experiencing an infinite moment and seizing love’s chance in defiance of respectability and fear,’ as noted by Eggenschwiler.[2] Porphyria’s lover kills her in a moment of bliss, in the hope of retaining that moment and making it last forever.

Following Porphyria’s murder, the narrator goes on to justify himself and his actions, stating that in killing her he granted her ‘wish’ (l. 57). His self-justification can be seen through the narrators’ use of ‘I’ throughout the second half of the poem, as he takes control and animates his dead lover’s body. The delusion of the narrator prompts the reader to realise his mental instability, which is heightened with the ending exclamation of ‘And yet God has not said a word!’ (l. 60). The exclamation is a rarity in the poem, and initially appears jovial. However, the exclamation could be one of surprise, for it appears that God has not judged his actions. It raises further questions about the narrators’ state of mind, as it is unclear what emotion Browning is trying to convey with this exclamation. The fact that the narrator killed Porphyria in an attempt to grant, what he believed, was her wish, is especially disconcerting. This supports Eggenschwiler’s idea that the poem is a ‘psychologically complex dramatic monologue.’[3]

Thanks for reading!

[1] Robert Browning, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, 6th edn (London: Norton, 2018), pp. 1057-1058.

[2] D. Eggenschwiler, ‘Psychological Complexity in “Porphyria’s Lover”’, Victorian Poetry, 8(1) (1970), pp. 39-48, 40.

[3] Ibid., 39.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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