Porphyria’s (Ex) Lover

I feel as though poetry is a bit underrated.

I don’t know, I just feel that more focus is generally placed on novels, especially seeing as there was only one poetry class offered at my school. I will concede that poetry is not always the most interesting subject, but for lit nerds like me, analyzing a poem is a great way to exercise those analytical skills, especially if the poem is long and complex.

One poem that I remember studying in college is “Porphyria’s Lover,” by Robert Browning. I wrote an analytical essay about it, and I remember writing about not only what the words are saying, but also what the poem’s form is contributing to the actual words. Form is always a complement to content. When analyzing a poem, it’s important to look at all aspects, including the title, the rhyme scheme, the rhythm, and the literal form it takes (some poems are actually organized into shapes or a picture – I feel like that has an actual name, but I can’t think of it). Everything contributes to meaning, and what the writer isn’t saying is just as important as what he/she is saying.

What I like about “Porphyria’s Lover” is that it’s unexpected. I mean, the tone is obviously dark and somewhat ominous, but the ending certainly takes a turn. Also, the poem is rife with juxtaposition, which, honestly, is one of my favorite literary techniques, and in this case, the juxtaposition of the nefarious content and the undulating rhyme scheme really adds to the speaker’s own inner demons, which he clearly has many of.

I actually still have the essay I wrote, and what follows comes from excerpts from that essay, as I was super proud of my analysis and would love to share it.

“‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is a deceptively jovial poem, intriguing the reader only to twist the original expectation into something much more morbid and macabre. The form of Robert Browning’s poem is quite apparently at odds with its content, the seemingly upbeat and rhythmic rhyme scheme juxtaposing with the dark events that take place toward the middle and end, enhancing and emphasizing the ghastly deed the speaker felt he was compelled to carry out. The contradictions not only stem from the actual form of the poem, but from the speaker’s mentality, as well, complementing the poem’s rhythmic undulation. Thus, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is a curious work, evoking various emotions through its stark transition from romantic story to a grim end.”

So, the above is the intro to the essay I wrote, and reading it over again after all this time, I actually still really like it and find it a pretty decent, brief look into what the poem is like. I mean, if you read the actual poem, it flows and bounces and is almost nursery-rhymeish in its way:

“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.”

So of course, the setting is a “dark and stormy night,” a little cliche, but seriously, it works. And yes, there’s a girl involved. But what’s most important about this stanza is that it introduces us to the setting and the object of the speaker’s twisted affection – Porphyria. She comes in out of the tempest occurring outside and instantly warms the cottage with her presence (as most women do). What I glean from this is that, well in all honesty, she could be a complete, well, you know, but the point is that the speaker obviously adores her, which is why she makes him feel warm, his heart all “fit to break” over the storm (which, in a sense, conveys his tremulous and fragile state, further alluding to a messy end). To someone else, she could be just as cold and hard as the storm. As I wrote in my paper, the poem begins with the speaker describing the weather, and as we all know, a stormy setting most often foreshadows something malicious about to happen. The above stanza juxtaposes that by describing the warmth and grace of Porphyria. So, not only is Porphyria a juxtaposition to the storm, but the stanza itself is actually a juxtaposition in the overall poem, as it is, essentially, not what the reader would expect after reading something negative that would indicate something bad about to happen.

“It is not until line 39 that the reader is drawn into the unthinkable, and unexpected, murder of Porphyria. The description of the storm seems as if it should have been placed directly before the speaker committed the murder, and after the pleasant and almost romantic and erotic description of Porphyria. Due to the descriptions’ irregular order, the reader is more unprepared for the strangling, thus enhancing the severity of the murder and evoking a more starkly ominous emotion.”

I’m not even kidding, I wrote about the stanza being a juxtaposition in and of itself before I found the above excerpt from my essay. I guess my analytical skills are still on point (yay!). Anywho, yes, what this unexpected placement serves to do is ensure that the reader is not prepared for Porphyria’s strangling, and therefore, the reader feels a much more pronounced and stark emotion. The poem evokes stark emotion in a few places (this is definitely not the first twist), and it exudes malice throughout. Right from the get-go, something feels off, and for the untrained reader who doesn’t pick up on or recognize the technique employed, it is difficult to pinpoint what is creating that feeling of unease and creating that macabre setting, which only adds to the air of mystery.

I also mentioned before the poem’s undulating rhythm. It has an ababb rhyme scheme and flows in almost a lyrical fashion, as I mentioned in my paper. This is yet another juxtaposition (I know, you’re probably tired of that word already), as, of course, because of the upbeat and almost merry feeling it conveys, the reader would never expect such a sinister and disturbing end. The succinct sentences and flowy nature of the rhyme function as a driver, quickly propelling the reader to the unexpected, and it almost lulls the reader into a false sense of security with its jovial nature. The deception is obviously on purpose. It is way more effective, if one wants to elicit pure emotion, to deceive the reader and then throw an intense curve-ball in his/her way to throw him/her off completely. The rhyme scheme enhances the morbidity and unexpectedness of Porphyria’s death. What I like that I wrote is that it induces a “precarious” feeling in the reader. I think that’s the perfect word to describe the feeling one gets reading this. It’s like, you knew something bad was going to happen, but you just didn’t know what or when, and you didn’t know how the poem was making you feel that way (until, of course, I break it down and analyze it like this). The abrupt transtition to murder, as I wrote, instills this precarious feeling you’re wondering how you developed (if you read the poem before my analysis, of course).

“Debatably, the most striking disparity within the poem is the emotional distance the form creates between the speaker’s manner and the violent murder. The speaker details the act with a disturbing tranquility, almost presenting the steps of the murder as a factual list.”

Something else I wrote is that the speaker revels in his “possession” of Porphyria, which, I think, is a very apt adjective to describe what she is to the speaker – a possession. It’s as simple as that. Which also brings into question is love for her. Did he really love her? Or was it all ego? Did she validate him in some way, take away his insecurities and make him feel like more of a man? However, can we even assume that the speaker is a man? It may not be. There is no definitive clue as to the speaker’s gender, so we really can’t assume. But seeing as the speaker languishes over her and literally details the steps by which he strangled her, it is quite evident she is his/her possession – a thing, a commodity, and certainly not a person (and now, not a living person). I actually think this digression brings up an interesting feminist perspective that I didn’t think of before, but again, we don’t know if the speaker is male or female.

These “steps” were not previously mentioned and, thus, seem to suggest this was extemporaneously executed, though it seems to be quite constructed and diligently carried out. We can use our favorite word again – juxtaposition. Add to that the speaker’s (murderer’s) tranquility, and almost simplicity, with which he not only carried out the act, but also recounts the act, and you’ve got contradiction on top of contradiction, only stirring up more precarious emotion. The calmness the speaker projects is unnerving; how can he be so calm after having just committed a murder? It’s heinous. It almost frustrates the reader. Honestly, it made me feel as though he clearly has mental instabilities.

“Thus, the proposition that this was simply an act of passion is questionable, as the almost scheduled steps, the form, are blatantly at odds with an impromptu murder, the content.”

After a violent murder, the placidity following is ominous. It doesn’t make sense, as one certainly would be feeling some form of fatigue after the struggle. And the list of steps only adds to the strangeness. The preparedness of “steps” – not impromptu in my book.

Form at odds with content.

That is what this poem is. The form is continuously at odds with the content, creating the tension that jockeys the reader from one frame of thought to another. You can’t predict the ending, and as soon as you realize this, the writer has you right where he wants you. Disparity and dissonance drive this poem and make it work as it does.

We finally come to realize that the speaker has a very distorted view on love/possession. In death, Porphyria could never be with anyone else; she was his (assuming it’s a dude) in life, he kills her, she is his in death. Forever. Super creepy. Trying to control her in the grave. She unwillingly “relinquishes herself over to him forever” – almost transcendent, as I wrote in my paper. The speaker is clearly deranged, as he describes how she was “too weak” to, essentially, kill herself for him. So, of course, he had to do it for her. He has himself convinced that he granted her “darling one wish.” Obviously, this is not how one normally perceives romantic relationships; when someone wants to belong to someone else forever, clearly marriage is the best option, not killing yourself. So this is bizarre. Love and murder seem to be blended into one in the speaker’s mind, suicide being the “obvious” successor to falling so deeply in love with someone.

Something that I really, really, wish I had expounded on was the very ending of the poem, when the speaker unveils that he actually has been sitting next to his subject the whole time he’s been telling us of his dastardly deeds. He is simply raconteur to our intrigue. The poem was a recount of events that have already transpired, throwing one final, major curve ball to the reader, who can’t possibly maintain footing through this poem.

Although, it does clarify why the process of the murder was so neatly laid out for us and why he’s so calm now. It makes sense, but it’s so morbid, you just can’t shake the unease. I guess, in a way, that list, then, was a small hint at the fact that those steps had already been carried out. I mean, how could they have been listed so neatly if he didn’t know what he was going to do until he, well, did it?

In a way, this poem is exhausting; there is not one point in the poem when the reader is clued in on what is going to happen, or that nothing actually is happening. Everything happened already. We couldn’t do anything for poor Porphyria if we wanted to.

“Passion sometimes would prevail,” as Porphyria endured the wind and rain to see him. He looked at her and knew she “worshipped” him. What’s interesting here is that he says, “While I debated what to do…I found a thing to do, and all her hair…” he wound around her throat. He knew she loved him, and he loved her – so, naturally, he kills her…?

But, he’s “quite sure she felt no pain.” Ummm.

I think “worship” is an interesting term to use here, as it sort of intimates idealism: How could a human being be worshipped? I mean, don’t get me wrong, if I found someone I was truly in love with, I might say I “worship” him, too, but I just feel like that word is a bit, well, extreme. You worship a god. Which might suggest that she thought of him as her “god,” or so he perceived, and he, thus, played that role by choosing to take her life, for his own, and her, sake.

Everything the writer writes is there on purpose, so he specifically chose to employ that term in that context. I may be reading into it a bit much at this point, but it was just an interesting thought that came to mind.

And of course, he found no fault with his actions.

“And thus we sit together now/And all night long we have not stirred/And yet God has not said a word!”

So disturbing. Really. This poem is so well crafted. “God has not said a word.” He hasn’t been judged yet. That line actually plays into what I said before about how the speaker may perceive himself as her “god.” The fact that he makes note of the fact that God has not done anything yet may suggest he is justifying his actions, believing that, oh, well, God hasn’t smited me yet, so I guess we’re all good? Or, it may suggest that he is her god, so no other god would really have any say; God hasn’t spoken up because he wouldn’t have to. He’s not in charge here.

I don’t know, this poem can be taken in so many different directions, it’s fascinating.

So that’s “Porphyria’s Lover.” Definitely one of my favorites. It has so much to delve into. It’s almost reminiscent of Poe, if you ask me. It’s morbid, but a very interesting read, and a great poem to read if you want to exercise your decoding skills.

And yes, this is me, on a Saturday night, sitting on my laptop, watching college hockey and writing about poetry. Instead of going out and being a human.

I’m still cool though, I promise.




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