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GCSE poem analysis: Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning
April 27, 2017
What is it about?
The poem, Porphyria's, Lover introduces us to the character of an unnamed man who loved, and murdered, a woman called Porphyria. We meet this character through hearing him speaking in a dramatic monologue, relating how he was visited by Porphyria, who loved him, before killing her so that they could be together forever.
Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning
The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
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;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night's gay feast restrain<
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!
Robert Browning did not invent the dramatic monologue but he is the most famous user of the form. In fact he really became a household name to the Victorians for his book called Dramatic Monologues which included this and many other poems, each from the perspective of a different character, either invented, drawn from history or from literature.
His 'My Last Duchess' is another well-known example, which, like this poem, slowly reveals a twisted character in his own words. Some of these monologues imagine that the speaker is in conversation with the reader, who never has a chance to reply, and others are more isolated, as though the speaker is talking to himself, to God, or to nobody at all.
The speaker is plainly sociopathic: he is not disturbed by his own actions but observes them as if from a distance, amazed and amused that despite what he has been told, "god has not said a word" and he has not been smitten for his act of murder. Also, as soon as he realises that "she was mine, mine" he says that he "found a thing to do" as if an insignificant idea had suddenly suggested itself to him - but his actions do not seem impulsive.
While he says that Porphyria now has her "utmost will", he plainly delighted in killing her at the moment she belonged to him - at the moment he realises "at last... Prophyria worshipped me". Whatever their previous relationship was like, the speaker seems to think that he can stop time and keep things as they are, silent and still ("And all night long we have not stirred").
He seems happier in complete control, whereas previously he seems to have been jealous that Porphyria shared her affection for him with others: "she | Too weak..." to ignore the relationships he calls "vainer" and "give herself to me forever".
Porphyria is a mystery. She plainly had real affection for the speaker, visiting him in his lonely and rural dwelling, making the fire, initiating conversation and physical intimacy. Porphyria has left a "gay feast" (as in a joyful, or celebratory meal) to come and visit "one so pale | For love of her", so she plainly has pity or compassion for the lover, who seems to have been sulking in a cold and unlit room watching the rain.
She is a lady of some standing, used to wearing a cloak, shawl and gloves. Did she know how dangerous this man was? Was his passion for her really reciprocated, or was she simply showing pity on him? There is much unexplained at the end of the poem.
The speaker uses diminutives to describe Porphyria, showing that he views her as small and less powerful than himself. After winding her hair around "her little throat" and suffocating her, he props her up against his shoulder where her "smiling rosy little head" leans.
Porphyria's Lover is written in a continuous form, not separated into stanzas. A rhyme scheme works in five-line sections (cinquains), but abundant enjambement and the continuing monologue means that these sections rarely stand alone.
However, by repeating the rhyme of every fourth line into the fifth, Browning has created a form that includes regular couplets, which he can use for emphasis or rhythm. This rhyme pattern can be analysed as ABABB and the metre is a fairly regular iambic quadrameter throughout the poem.
In fact at times the regularity of the rhythm makes the speaker sound even more robotic and unemotional. For example, the line "The smiling rosy little head" has a sing-song, child-like quality that makes the description particularly shallow. The speaker compares her dead eye "As a shut bud that holds a bee", which slightly alters the rhythm to start with two weak beats, then two strong, before continuing with iambs. But this is really the limit of the variation: even when Porphyria's lover describes how he killed her, he continues mechanically on.
iambic - the rhythm of a weak, then a strong beat (like "Begin to sing a song for me!")
quadrameter - lines that use four strong beats
couplets - a pair of consecutive rhyming lines
cinquains - five lines of poetry that work together, either by rhyme scheme or rhythm
enjambement - When sentences or clauses 'overflow' over line breaks, rather than when a sentence or clause finishes at the line ending.
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For More GCSE poem analyses similar to Love's Philosophy: The Farmer's Bride, Love's Philosophy, Neutral Tones, The Yellow Palm, Medusa, and Praise Song for My Mother.