Robert Browning

All 3 poems analysed.

My Last Duchess (Lines 1&2)

Lines 1-2

THAT’S my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. 

  • The speaker points out a lifelike portrait of his "last Duchess" that’s painted on the wall.
  • This tells us that the speaker is a Duke, that his wife is dead, and that someone is listening to him describe his late wife’s portrait, possibly in his private art gallery.
  • It also makes us wonder what makes her his "last" Duchess – for more thoughts on that phrase, check out our comments in the "What’s Up With the Title?" section.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 2-4)

Lines 2-4

I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 

  • The Duke tells his mysterious listener that the painting of the Duchess is impressively accurate.
  • The painter, Frà (or "Friar") Pandolf, worked hard to achieve a realistic effect.
  • Notice that the Duke’s comment "there she stands" suggests that this is a full-length portrait of the Duchess showing her entire body, not just a close-up of her face.
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My Last Duchess (Line 5)

Line 5

Will’t please you sit and look at her? 

  • The Duke asks his listener politely to sit down and examine the painting.
  • But the politeness is somewhat fake, and the question seems more like a command. Could the listener refuse to sit down and look and listen? We don’t think so.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 5-13)(Part 1)

Lines 5-13

I said 
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. 

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My Last Duchess (Lines 5-13)(Part 2)

  • The Duke explains to the listener why he brought up the painter, Frà Pandolf.
  • He says that he mentioned Pandolf on purpose, or "by design" (6) because strangers never examine the Duchess's portrait without looking like they want to ask the Duke how the painter put so much "depth and passion" (8) into the expression on the Duchess's face, or "countenance" (7).
  • They don’t actually ask, because they don’t dare, but the Duke thinks he can tell that they want to.
  • Parenthetically, the Duke mentions that he’s always the one there to answer this question because nobody else is allowed to draw back the curtain that hangs over the portrait.
  • Only the Duke is allowed to look at it or show it to anyone else. This is clearly his private gallery, and we’re a little afraid of what might happen to someone who broke the rules there.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 13-15)

Lines 13-15

Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: 

  • Addressing his still-unknown listener as "sir," the Duke goes into more detail about the expression on the Duchess's face in the painting.
  • He describes her cheek as having a "spot / Of joy" (14-15) in it, perhaps a slight blush of pleasure.
  • It wasn’t just "her husband’s presence" (14) that made her blush in this way, although the Duke seems to believe that it should have been the only thing that would.
  • The Duke doesn’t like the idea that anyone else might compliment his wife or do something sweet that would make her blush
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My Last Duchess (Lines 15-21)(Part 1)

Lines 15-21

Frà Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
For calling up that spot of joy. 

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My Last Duchess (Lines 15-21)(Part 2)

  • The Duke imagines some of the ways that Frà Pandolf might have caused the Duchess to get that "spot of joy" in her face.
  • He might have told her that her "mantle" (her shawl) covered her wrist too much, which is the Renaissance equivalent of saying, "man, that skirt’s way too long – maybe you should hike it up a little."
  • Or he might have complimented her on the becoming way that she flushes, telling her that "paint / Must never hope to reproduce" (17-18) the beautiful effect of her skin and coloring.
  • The Duke thinks the Duchess would have thought that comments like this, the normal flirtatious "courtesy" (20) that noblemen would pay to noblewomen, were "cause enough" (20) to blush.
  • Strangely, the Duke seems to believe that blushing in response to someone like Frà Pandolf was a decision, not an involuntary physical reaction. Notice that the Duke also seems to infuse his comments with a judgmental tone.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 21-24)

Lines 21-24

She had
A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad.
Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 

  • The Duke describes the Duchess as "too soon made glad" (22) and "too easily impressed" (23). This is his main problem with her: too many things make her happy.
  • Another way of looking at it is that she’s not serious enough. She doesn’t save her "spot of joy" for him alone. She’s not the discriminating snob that he wants her to be.
  • She likes everything she sees, and she sees everything.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 25-31) (Part 1)

Lines 25-31

Sir, ’twas all one! My favor at her breast, 
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace – all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least. 

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My Last Duchess (Lines 25-31) (Part 2)

  • The Duke elaborates further on the Duchess's tendency to see every pleasant thing as pretty much the same.
  • If he gives her a "favor" or mark of his esteem that she can wear, such as a corsage or piece of jewelry, she thanks him for it in the same way that she approves of a pretty sunset, a branch of cherries, or her white mule.
  • At first the Duke suggests that she speaks of all these things equally, but then he changes his claim and admits that sometimes she doesn’t say anything and just blushes in that special way.
  • And maybe she’s a little promiscuous – either in reality, or (more likely) in the Duke’s imagination.
  • Part of the problem is not just that she likes boughs of cherries – it’s that some "officious fool" (27) brings them to her.
  • (An "officious" person is someone who pokes their nose in and starts doing things when they’re not wanted – somebody self-important who thinks they’re the best person to do something, even when everyone else wishes they would just **** out.)
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My Last Duchess (Lines 31-34)

Lines 31-34

She thanked men, – good! but thanked
Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. 

  • The Duke claims that, although it’s all well and good to thank people for doing things for you, the way the Duchess thanked people seemed to imply that she thought the little favors they did her were just as important as what the Duke himself did for her.
  • After all, the Duke gave her his "nine-hundred-years-old name" (33) – a connection to a longstanding aristocratic family with power and prestige.
  • The Duke’s family has been around for nearly a thousand years running things in Ferrara, and he thinks this makes him superior to the Duchess, who doesn’t have the same heritage.
  • He thinks the Duchess ought to value the social elevation of her marriage over the simple pleasures of life.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 34-35)

Lines 34-35

Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? 

  • The Duke asks his listener a rhetorical question: who would actually lower himself and bother to have an argument with the Duchess about her indiscriminate behavior?
  • He thinks the answer is "nobody."
  • We don’t think that there is much open and honest communication in this relationship!
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My Last Duchess (Lines 35-43)(Part 1)

Lines 35-43

Even had you skill 
In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark" – and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
– E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. 

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My Last Duchess (Lines 35-43) (Part 2)

  • The Duke lists all the obstacles that prevented him from talking to the Duchess directly about his problems with her behavior.
  • He claims that he doesn’t have the "skill / In speech" (35-36) to explain what he wants from her – but his skillful rhetoric in the rest of the poem suggests otherwise.
  • He also suggests that she might have resisted being "lessoned" (40), that is, taught a lesson by him, if she had "made excuse" (41) for her behavior instead.
  • But even if he were a skilled speaker, and even if she didn’t argue, he says he still wouldn’t talk to her about it.
  • Why? Because he thinks that bringing it up at all would be "stooping" to her level, and he refuses to do that.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 43-45)

Lines 43-45

Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? 

  • The Duke admits to his listener (who is this guy, anyway?) that the Duchess was sweet to him – she did smile at him whenever he passed by her.
  • But, he says, it’s not like that was special. She smiles at everyone in the same way.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 45-46)

Lines 45-46

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. 

  • The Duke claims that "This grew" (45) – that is, the Duchess's indiscriminate kindness and appreciation of everything got more extreme.
  • The Duke then "gave commands" (45) and as a result "All smiles stopped together" (46).
  • Our best guess is that he had her killed, but the poem is ambiguous on this point.
  • It’s possible that he had her shut up in a dungeon or a nunnery, and that she’s as good as dead.
  • She’s not his Duchess anymore – she’s his "last Duchess" – so she’s clearly not on the scene anymore.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 46-47)&(Lines 47-48)

Lines 46-47

There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? 

  • The Duke ends his story of the Duchess and her painting by gesturing toward the full-body portrait again, in which she stands "As if alive" (47).

Lines 47-48

We’ll meet
The company below, then. 

  • The Duke invites his listener to get up and go back downstairs to the rest of the "company."
  • As in line 5, this sounds like a polite invitation – but we can’t imagine anyone refusing.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 48-53)

Lines 48-53

I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence 
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. 

  • We finally learn why the Duke is talking to this guy: his listener is the servant of a Count, and the Duke is wooing the Count’s daughter.
  • The Duke tells the servant that he knows about the Count’s wealth and generosity, or "munificence" (49), so he expects to get any reasonable dowry he asks for.
  • But his main "object" (53) in the negotiations is the daughter herself, not more money.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 53-54)

Lines 53-54

Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. 

  • The Duke’s listener seems to try to get away from him (we would try, too).
  • The Duke stops him and insists that they stay together as they go back to meet everyone else downstairs.
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My Last Duchess (Lines 54-56)

Lines 54-56

Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! 

  • Before the Duke and his listener leave the gallery, the Duke points out one more of his art objects – a bronze statue of Neptune, the god of the sea, taming a sea-horse.
  • The Duke mentions the name of the artist who cast this statue, Claus of Innsbruck, who made it specifically for him.
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Theme 1

My Last Duchess Theme of Power

"My Last Duchess" is all about power: the political and social power wielded by the speaker (the Duke) and his attempt to control the domestic sphere (his marriage) in the same way that he rules his lands. He rules with an iron fist. The Duke views everything that he possesses and everyone with whom he interacts as an opportunity to expand his power base. Wives need to be dominated; servants need to understand his authority; and fancy objects in his art gallery display his influence to the world – if he decides to show them. Kindness, joy, and emotion are all threats to his tyrannical power.

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Theme 2

My Last Duchess Theme of Madness

In "My Last Duchess," a husband murders his wife because she blushes and smiles at other people – even though theses blushes are out of her control and probably entirely innocent. This is pretty much the textbook definition of an abusive, controlling husband. The Duke doesn’t even want his wife to thank people for gifts, because it makes him jealous. But we think this goes beyond abuse into the realm of madness: after all, trying to control someone is abuse; thinking that because someone blushes she must be having an affair, and that the only remedy is murder is just insane

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Theme 3

My Last Duchess Theme of Jealousy

The Duke in "My Last Duchess" is pretty much the green-eyed monster incarnate. He’s almost an allegorical figure for jealousy. He’s jealous of the attention his wife shows to other people – even if all she does is thank them for bringing her some cherries. He’s jealous of every smile and every blush that she bestows, intentionally or unintentionally, on someone else. He’s so jealous that he can’t even bring himself to talk to her about her behavior – murder is the only solution he can come up with. His jealousy isn’t just about romantic attention; it’s about any kind of attention.

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What’s Up With the Title?

The title of "My Last Duchess," like the first few lines of the poem, gives us quite a bit of information about the dramatic scenario in the text. The word "My" clues us in to the fact that the poem is going to be in the first-person – so, before the poem even begins, we know from the title that we’re going to be hearing the voice of a character, not just of a general poetic speaker. The title "Duchess" makes it clear that we’re dealing with European nobility, probably in a bygone age. And then there’s that adjective "last." We’ll go ahead and ask the obvious question for you: why is she the Duke’s last Duchess? Well, that implies that there will be another Duchess in the future – and that there might have been several Duchesses before her. But wait a minute, isn’t marriage forever? Not for this Duke, who seems to dispose of Duchesses pretty quickly. So the designation "last" implies that this Duchess is only one of a sequence, preparing us for the fact that the poem might consider some of the other women who end up in that sequence.

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The Laboratory Stanza 1 - 1

Line 1

Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,

  • We jump right into the action here, as the speaker is tying a mask onto her face. 
  • We can't tell much about what is going on yet, except that the speaker is talking to someone else, the person who owns the mask (she calls it "thy glass mask"). We can't even tell the speaker's gender yet. 
  • Somehow, though, this "I" seems important. A quick scan of the lines to come tells us that the whole poem is delivered in the first-person, as if the speaker was talking to someone else. We call that a dramatic monologue. It's a technique Browning used a lot. See our "Calling Card" and "Speaker" sections for more about that.
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The Laboratory Stanza 1 - 2

Line 2

May gaze thro' these faint smokes curling whitely, Here we find out that the speaker's wearing the glass mask so they can see through some faint white smoke. 

  • Think of the mask as being like the safety goggles you're supposed to wear in chem class, just more poetic.
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The Laboratory Stanza 1 - 3

Line 3

As thou pliest thy trade in this devil's-smithy— Okay, so the language in this poem takes a little getting used to. Instead of saying "as you do your job," our speaker says "as though pliest thy trade." 

  • Even to someone reading this when it first came out in 1844, that would have sounded old-fashioned. Browning is working hard to make this speaker's speech feel like it was spoken long ago. 
  • And that bit about the devil's smithy? Well, a smithy is where a black-smith works, but this guy is doing dirtier, more evil work than that—the kind of nastiness the devil himself might be involved with. Ruh-roh.
  • Our speaker is using a devil's workshop as a metaphor for this laboratory.
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The Laboratory Stanza 1 - 4

Line 4

Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?

  • The big reveal! Suddenly, Browning throws back the curtain, and we figure out what all this stuff with smoke and glass and the devil is really about. Poison! (Cue dramatic organ music.) 
  • Our speaker is looking to kill another woman, and asks the man they're talking to which poison would work the best. "Prithee," by the way, is an old fashioned word that basically means "please."
  • See how the three main words in the sentence all start with a P (poison, poison, prithee)? That spiffy poetic technique is called alliteration, and Browning uses it quite a bit in this poem. For more on this technique, click on over to "Sound Check.
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The Laboratory Stanza 2 - 5

Line 5

He is with her, and they know that I know

  • A great poet can boil down a lot of feelings to a few words. In this case "He is with her" tells you everything you need to know about this speaker's problem.
  • It would seem that the speaker is a woman. Her man is with another woman.
  • Think of her as Jennifer to their Brangelina—you know, if Jennifer Aniston was a scheming poisoner, hell-bent on deadly revenge. 
  • The fact that "they know that I know" makes it even worse—anyone who's ever been jealous knows that feeling.
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The Laboratory Stanza 2 - 6

Line 6

Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow 

  • She's watching her ex- and his new girlfriend. She's tracking their every move and every last thing they do, and she knows that they know it. 
  • They don't know everything though. They "believe" she's crying over the whole thing, but the truth looks like it could be way darker.
  • Also, even though it might not jump out at you right away, be sure to check out the meter of the poem. For the most part, it's made up of three beat units that go da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM. Like in this line: "Where they are, what they do." Hear that? For a full explanation of all this rhythmic excitement, be sure to check out the "Form and Meter" section.
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The Laboratory Stanza 2 - 7&8

Line 7-8

While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear 
Empty church, to pray God in, for them!—I am here. 

  • The speaker imagines the new couple laughing at her, making fun of the way she has run off to a "drear" (we would say "dreary") old church. 
  • She imagines that they think she's gone there to pray, but we already know she's got bigger, darker plans. 
  • Check out the way this line ends: "—I am here." We think there's something really confident and final about the way those words stand out. This lady knows exactly what she wants, and she plans to get it.
  • Now that we're at the end of the first two stanzas (that's like a poetic paragraph) we can figure out the rhyme scheme in this poem, too. Maybe you've noticed that the lines come in rhyming pairs. For example, line 7 ends with the word "drear" and line 8 ends with "here." That's called a rhyming couplet, and every stanza in this poem has two of them. For the full break-down on the rhyme, see our spiffy "Form and Meter" section.
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The Laboratory Stanza 3 - 9

Line 9

Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste, 

  • Now she describes what the poison-maker is doing. 
  • She urges him on, as he grinds and wets and mashes the evil "paste" he's making. 
  • We think it's too bad people don't talk this way any more. If you can work "mash up thy paste" into a conversation in the next week, let us know!
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The Laboratory Stanza 3 - 10

Line 10

Pound at thy powder,—I am not in haste!

  • She lets the guy she's talking to know that he can take all the time he wants pounding at his concoction. By this, she means how the guy is mashing up his ingredients into a powder. 
  • This woman's not in any hurry. After all, you can't rush a good evil plot, can you?
  • Now by this point we bet you've caught onto all the alliteration in the poem: "Pound and "powder" are great examples of that. We also want you to be sure to check out the assonance.
  • That's the repetition of vowel sounds inside the word, like the "o" sounds in those same words: Pound and powder."
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The Laboratory Stanza 3 - 11&12

Lines 11-12

Better sit thus and observe thy strange things, 
Than go where men wait me and dance at the King's. 

  • She'd rather be here watching him make his weird potions than dancing with men at "the King's." 
  • That's an important little detail she drops in there. It lets us know she's used to being at the royal court, and to having men pay attention to her. 
  • She's either a young aristocrat or someone who hangs out with them. Either way, she spends a lot of time in the world of the wealthy and beautiful.
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The Laboratory Stanza 4 - 13

Line 13

That in the mortar—you call it a gum? 

  • In this chunk of the poem, she's basically looking around the laboratory, asking about things she sees. 
  • The first thing she notices is a bit of "gum" (this could be any kind of sticky substance) in the poison-maker's "mortar" (basically a little bowl you put things in to grind them up). 
  • We kind of feel bad for the guy making the poison. This sounds like trying to focus on something with your annoying little brother around ("What's that? How about that? Or that?"). 
  • On the other hand, these lines help us to see that the lady who's speaking is curious and maybe a little nervous, too.
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The Laboratory Stanza 4 - 14&15

Line 14

Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come! 

  • Apparently the "gum" she sees in the mortar comes from a tree. The gold-colored sap oozes out, and you collect it and use it to poison people. How nice.
  • This lady is obviously really into poison, so she compliments the poison tree by calling it "brave." (In this case that means something like "great" or "excellent.")

Line 15

And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,

  • Now she points to a bottle (a "phial"—nowadays we might say "vial") with blue stuff inside it. 
  • She calls the blue potion "soft " and "exquisite," which we think is a nice touch. It helps to give this whole laboratory scene a kind of strange beauty, with all these colorful gums and bottles lying around. 
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The Laboratory Stanza 4 - 16

Line 16

Sure to taste sweetly,—is that poison too? 

  • The color of the potion makes her think it would be likely to taste sweet. 
  • She wants to know if it's poison, too. 
  • In case you haven't noticed, our speaker is totally obsessed with poison, unable to think about anything else.
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The Laboratory Stanza 5 - 17&18

Line 17-18

Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures, 
What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures! 

  • All of a sudden, she takes off into a kind of daydream. She imagines herself owning all of these poisons ("treasures") and thinks about how much fun she would have using them to kill people. 
  • Not to jump to any conclusions, but we think she might be just a tad nuts.
  • To underline that point, Browning slips in words like "wild" to let us know that things are a little out of control. We're not dealing with a stable individual here.
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The Laboratory Stanza 5 - 19

Line 19

To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,

  • She dreams about being able to "carry pure death" around with her in ordinary objects. 
  • We think what this lady is really after is power—the ability to decide who lives and dies. 
  • There's also kind of a cool spy movie undertone here as she imagines things you could hide poison in, including a "casket" (a little box) and an earring (we don't quite see how that would work, but then again, we don't spend a lot of time hiding poison—honest!).
  • By the way, it's kind of hard to lug around pure death. Here the speaker describing the poison with something that it's closely associated with (death). That, Shmoopers, is called metonymy.
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The Laboratory Stanza 5 - 20

Line 20

A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!

  • Yay—more weird stuff to hide poison in! 
  • signet is a ring used to stamp a symbol into things, a fan mountis the solid center of a lady's fan, and a filigree basket is a little container made of delicate, carefully cut metal. 
  • What does all this stuff have in common? Well, they're all accessories that an elegant lady at court might carry around with her. Because they are such ordinary things, no one would ever guess that they carried "pure death."
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The Laboratory Stanza 6 - 21&22

Line 21-22

Soon, at the King's, a mere lozenge to give 
And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live! 

  • Our speaker keeps spinning out her weird little serial killer fantasy as she imagines being back in court with all her poisons. 
  • With one little pill ("lozenge") she could kill Pauline in 30 minutes. We're not sure who Pauline is, or why she deserves to die, but we feel sort of bad for anyone who has to hang out with our speaker.
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The Laboratory Stanza 6 - 23&24

Line 23-24

But to light a pastile, and Elise, with her head 
And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead! 

  • The fun continues! With Pauline out of the way, the speaker goes on to imagine killing a woman named Elise. 
  • This one she deals with by lighting a thing called a "pastile," a kind of herbal medicine that you would burn like incense. 
  • Our speaker goes on to list the individual parts of Elise's body that would be destroyed by this poison pastile. How sweet. It sounds to us like she's pretty intensely jealous of her.
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The Laboratory Stanza 7 - 25&26

Line 25

Quick—is it finished? The colour's too grim!

  • Now our speaker snaps out of her weird little revenge fantasy and wonders if the poison is done.
  • Apparently, she's also a little bit picky. She checks on the poison-maker's progress and decides she doesn't like the color. It's too "grim," according to her. 

Line 26

Why not soft like the phial's, enticing and dim? 

  • She decides that she'd like her custom-made poison to look more like the "enticing" (inviting) one in the phial (15).  It's kind of like choosing the right paint color for your bedroom—except with murder. The speaker's fantasies of murder are pretty specific, right down to the color of the poison itself.
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The Laboratory Stanza 7 - 27&28

Line 27-28

Let it brighten her drink, let her turn it and stir, 
And try it and taste, ere she fix and prefer! 

  • Now her ghoulish imagination is back at work. 
  • She thinks about slipping the poison in her rival's drink, and watching her enjoy how bright it looks. She imagines the poor woman stirring and tasting her poison drink, totally unaware that she's about to die.
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The Laboratory Stanza 8 - 29

Line 29

What a drop! She's not little, no minion like me— 

  • In this stanza, she worries about there not being enough poison to do the job. She calls the potion that this chemist has mixed up a "drop," and reminds him that the intended victim isn't nearly as dainty as she is (there's that catty jealousy again). 
  • Basically, she's letting him know she thinks it'll take a lot of poison to kill her boyfriend's fat new girlfriend. Double-ouch.
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The Laboratory Stanza 8 - 30&31

Line 30-31

That's why she ensnared him: this never will free
The soul from those masculine eyes,—say, "no!" 

  • Not only is the new girl heavy, but our speaker thinks she looks like a man too, with "masculine eyes." It sounds odd to us, but apparently that's the only way she could trap ("ensnare") her guy. 
  • Again, our speaker wants to up the dosage on the poison, to make sure this woman's soul and body are separated for good.
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The Laboratory Stanza 8 - 32

Line 32

To that pulse's magnificent come-and-go. 

  • Even though the subject matter is disturbing, Browning makes it all sound kind of pretty. All our speaker wants to do is stop this other lady's heart, but she phrases it in a beautiful, dramatic kind of sing-song. She wants to "say, no!" to the "magnificent come and go" of this lady's pulse.
  • Just like with the blue and gold poisons (14-15), this makes all this dirty work sound appealing.
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The Laboratory Stanza 9 - 33&34

Line 33-34

For only last night, as they whispered, I brought 
My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought

  • Suddenly her mind races back to the night before, when she watched her lover whisper with his new girlfriend. She remembers staring at this other woman. 
  • Now, she's clearly over the top, but we'd bet that anyone who's ever been dumped for someone else knows this feeling of watching your ex at a party talking to the new person. Now, we wouldn't go so far as to poison anyone, but we can understand why it might sting.
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The Laboratory Stanza 9 - 35

Line 35

Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall,

  • She remembers that she glared at this other woman so hard that she thought she could kill her in thirty seconds, just with a stare. That's some powerful hate, folks.
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The Laboratory Stanza 9 - 36

Line 36

Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all! 

  • Huh. Seems like this death-by-staring thing didn't actually work. It didn't shrivel up the lady's rival in half a minute. The good news (for her) is: she's pretty sure this poison will do the trick.
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The Laboratory Stanza 10 - 37&38

Line 37-38

Not that I bid you spare her the pain! 
Let death be felt and the proof remain; 

  • Even though she wants to make sure the poison works, she isn't going to let this other lady die easily. 
  • She wants her to feel it when she dies, and she wants everyone to be able to see the "proof" of that painful death when she's gone. (Ugh! Pretty intense, isn't it?)
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The Laboratory Stanza 10 - 39-40

Line 39-40

Brand, burn up, bite into its grace— 
He is sure to remember her dying face!

  • She wants this painful, terrible death to burn and scar and chew on this woman's face, to destroy all her "grace." Not only because she wants to hurt her, but because she wants her former lover to remember his new girlfriend's agonized "dying face." 
  • Just for the record, we're scared of this lady.
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The Laboratory Stanza 11 - 41

Line 41

Is it done? Take my mask off! Nay, be not morose; 

  • She wonders again if the poison is done, and asks him to take off the glass mask. 
  • She tells the poison-maker to cheer up, to not be "morose," or sad. 
  • Sorry, but after hearing about how this woman wanted the horrible pain of death to eat another lady's face, we might feel a little "morose" too.
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The Laboratory Stanza 11 - 42

Line 42

It kills her, and this prevents seeing it close: 

  • The mask bugs her because she can't get a close look at the poison that's going to kill her rival.
  • She also reminds us that this woman's death is something she's really excited about.
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The Laboratory Stanza 11 - 43&44

Line 43-44

The delicate droplet, my whole fortune's fee— 
If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me? 

  • She's giving up all her money in return for one little bit of poison, one "delicate droplet." 
  • She's not scared of this deadly stuff either. 
  • She can't imagine how anything that would kill the woman she hates most could ever be bad for her.
  • There's some pretty great alliteration here, too. See that? "Delicate droplet" and "fortune's fee" both repeat the same initial sounds.
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The Laboratory Stanza 12 - 45

Line 45

Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,

  • Finally, she offers the poison-maker all of her jewels. 
  • She tells him to get his fill of gold, too. 
  • Clearly they made a deal where she would give him a fortune in return for this poison.
  • We also want to point out that Browning pulls off the poetic version of a double axel ice skating move here. The words "gorge gold" have both alliteration (the two "g" sounds) and assonance(the repeated "o" sounds) in them. We think that's awesome, but you already knew that we're giant poetry nerds.
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The Laboratory Stanza 12 - 46

Line 46

You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will! 

  • But that's not all. She's willing to let this old guy kiss her on the mouth, too. 
  • It's just one more kind of weird and creepy twist in an already weird and creepy scene. 
  • This woman is willing to give anything to accomplish her awful goal.
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The Laboratory Stanza 12 - 47&48

Line 47-48

But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings 
Ere I know it—next moment I dance at the King's!

  • Now she just needs to brush off the dust and dirt of the laboratory, which she worries will horrify the beautiful people who hang out at the court. 
  • Because that's where she's headed, to finish the job and kill her rival.
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Theme 4

The Laboratory Theme of Revenge

If jealousy is what motivates the speaker in "The Laboratory," revenge is what she's after. Big time. This whole poem is about plotting revenge and taking steps to get it. She doesn't just want to bump off her rival, she wants everyone involved to know that she's not someone to mess with. She wants everyone to see the kind of painful, terrible death she can inflict if anyone crosses her. That's ********. Again, Browning is painting a grim portrait of just how terrible the effects of romantic betrayal can be, and how low the human imagination can sink as a result. Real low. Think ocean floor, then start digging.

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Theme 5

The Laboratory Theme of Death

Maybe you've already noticed how much of "The Laboratory" is about death—not just the idea of death, or some poetic thoughts about mortality, but the dirty, violent reality of poison and murder. Our speaker has fantasies about killing not just one person, but a bunch of people. And when she dwells on all the nitty-gritty details, you can tell that she's excited by the idea of deciding when other people live and die. Murder isn't just a way to get what she wants; it's something that she actually enjoys. She's an enthusiast about killing people in the same way some people enjoy collecting stamps, or raising ferrets. And that makes the poem all the more disturbing.

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Theme 6

The Laboratory Theme of Jealousy

This theme is at the core of "The Laboratory." It's the feeling that drives our speaker on her bloody quest. Basically, if she wasn't crazy jealous of her ex-lover and his new girlfriend, there wouldn't be a reason for this poem to exist. We get all kinds of hints throughout the poem that our speaker feels insanely jealous of other women, and would do almost anything to triumph over them. In that way, then, this poem can be seen as a kind of warning to readers about just how bad the times can be if jealously is allowed to fester unchecked.

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Analysis 2

What’s Up With the Title?

The title, "The Laboratory," may not seem like much, but it does a few different things in this poem. On the most basic level, it sets the scene. Even though the speaker of the poem never says it, we know from the beginning that this all takes place in a laboratory. On a broader level, we think it also helps Browning build up the mysterious, sinister mood of this poem.

We all know from famous books like Frankenstein that creepy stuff can happen in labs. It's not a spot for love and softness and tenderness, but for obsession and scheming. Sure enough, this lab has enough poison and smoke and dust and creepy old guys to be right at home in any horror movie. The title does its work by getting us ready for that.

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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 1-5)

Lines 1-5

The rain set early in tonight,
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.

  • It's a dark and stormy night. Isn't that the way all thrillers are supposed to start?
  • Browning introduces a bit of a twist, though: he uses words like "sullen" and "spite" to describe the weather, so that it seems as though the weather is bad on purpose, just to be mean or "spiteful."
  • The first four lines just describe the weather, not the speaker.
  • The unnamed speaker of the poem isn't introduced at all until line 5: "I listened with heart fit to break."
  • This is the first hint that the speaker might not be mentally stable: why should a storm make him feel heartbroken? Or is something else wrong?
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 6-9)

Lines 6-9

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;

  • Porphyria enters the house and starts a fire in the fireplace, to make the place more cheery and warm.
  • She is neither introduced nor described as she enters – Porphyria just walks into the poem without any explanation.
  • She doesn't walk in, actually – she "glides" in, like a ghost. Do her feet not touch the ground?
  • And the way the speaker describes her making the fire is strange, too. He skips steps, like putting wood into the grate and lighting a match, even though he details her other movements in the poem. Porphyria is somehow able to "ma[k]e the cheerless grate/ Blaze up" without taking all those necessary preliminary steps. Is she magic? Or does she just seem magical to the speaker?
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 10-13)

Lines 10-13

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,

  • After setting the fire, Porphyria takes off her wet "cloak" and "gloves," and lets her wet hair down.
  • OK, so sounds like she's probably not some kind of magical fairy-lady. She might be handy with fireplaces, but if she were magical, she wouldn't have gotten wet in the rainstorm.
  • She's done all this – walked in, made a fire in the fireplace, taken off her coat and hat – all without saying anything? What's the speaker doing this whole time?
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 14-15)

Lines 14-15

And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,

  • After taking care of all the preliminaries, like setting a fire and taking off her coat, Porphyria sits down next to the speaker and addresses him.
  • We don't get to hear what she said, though.
  • We don't get to hear what the speaker said in response, either. In fact, he didn't respond to her at all.
  • He phrases it passively, too: instead of saying "I didn't reply," he says, "When no voice replied." This makes him seem very distant from Porphyria and from what's going on around him.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 16-20)

Lines 16-20

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,

  • Porphyria's not one to be discouraged, though. Her boyfriend might be giving her the cold shoulder, but she snuggles up to him anyway.
  • She takes his arm and pulls it around her waist, uncovers her shoulder, and pulls his head down to rest on her bare shoulder.
  • Is he made out of silly putty? Is he a Ken doll that she's playing with? She just moves his arms and head around and arranges him as she likes.
  • After pulling his head down to rest on her shoulder, she spreads her "yellow hair" across them both.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 21-25) (Part 1)

Lines 21-25

Murmuring how she loved me – she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.

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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 21-25) (Part 2)

  • Porphyria "murmur[s]" that she loves him. Is she "murmuring" because she's hesitant? Or because she's shy? Or is she whispering in a flirtatious manner? It's not clear.
  • Porphyria tells the speaker that she loves him, but he cuts her off with a dash to criticize her for being "too weak" to cut herself off from "vainer ties" to be with him. Of course, he doesn't say any of that out loud, it's all part of his monologue.
  • We're not sure what those "vainer ties" are. Some critics speculate that Porphyria is richer than the speaker, and so those "vainer ties" are her ties to her rich family. Or maybe she has a rich fiancé who she's reluctant to break up with for the speaker. Or maybe she's been hesitating about whether or not to sleep with the speaker, and she's too "vain" to go against Victorian social and sexual codes to have sex before marriage.
  • In any case, the speaker seems unimpressed when she tells him that she loves him. After all, she hasn't been willing to break, or "dissever," whatever those "vainer ties" are.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 26-30)

Lines 26-30

But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight'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.

  • Then again, though, the speaker recalls that Porphyria's passion for him was great enough for her to skip out on a fancy party ("gay feast") and to come through the storm just to be with him.
  • Just the thought of him, he figures, sitting by himself, all lonely and in love with her, was enough to bring her "through wind and rain."
  • She must really love him!
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 31-35)

Lines 31-35

Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.

  • At line 31, the speaker finally does something: he "look[s] up" at Porphyria.
  • Up until now, the speaker has been passive, allowing Porphyria to make the fire and to rearrange his arms and head. Finally, he does something, even if it's only to look at her.
  • It's not clear whether Porphyria's "eye[s]" are "happy and proud," or whether "happy and proud" describes the speaker. It could work either way, but if they describe Porphyria, it's important to remember that it's from the speaker's point of view only.
  • He's delighted to realize how much she loves him, and he's "surprise[d]" by it.
  • It takes him a few minutes to decide "what to do."
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 31-35)

Lines 31-35

Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.

  • At line 31, the speaker finally does something: he "look[s] up" at Porphyria.
  • Up until now, the speaker has been passive, allowing Porphyria to make the fire and to rearrange his arms and head. Finally, he does something, even if it's only to look at her.
  • It's not clear whether Porphyria's "eye[s]" are "happy and proud," or whether "happy and proud" describes the speaker. It could work either way, but if they describe Porphyria, it's important to remember that it's from the speaker's point of view only.
  • He's delighted to realize how much she loves him, and he's "surprise[d]" by it.
  • It takes him a few minutes to decide "what to do."
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 36-37)

Lines 36-37

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: […]

  • In this moment when he looks up at her eyes and realizes that "Porphyria worshipped" him, the speaker decides that she's completely his.
  • He repeats the word "mine" twice, in fact, to emphasize his feeling of possession.
  • Everything about her, and about this moment, is "perfect."
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 37-41)

Lines 37-41

[…] 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. […]

  • What do you do with a moment that's so "perfect"? Soak it up and enjoy it so that you'll remember it forever? Take a photo? Not if you're the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover."
  • He figures out what to do – he takes her hair and twists it into one "long yellow string."
  • He then wraps the "string" around her throat and strangles her.
  • Wait, what? Did we just read that right? But the poem sounds so musical and light! He wraps it "three times" around her throat. It sounds almost like a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme. What's up with this guy?
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 41-45)(Part 1)

Lines 41-45

[…] 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.

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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 41-45)(Part 2)

  • Don't worry, though: the speaker assures us that Porphyria didn't feel any pain. He's certain of it.
  • The speaker then carefully opens ("oped") Porphyria's eyelids.
  • He compares this to opening a flower bud that might enclose a bee. (Go to "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" for more on that weird metaphor.)
  • Once he gets her eyes open again, Porphyria's pretty blue peepers "laugh" again.
  • Creepy! How can a dead woman's eyes "laugh"? Obviously the speaker is out of his gourd. And if he's assuming he can tell that her eyes are "laugh[ing]" now, should we believe what he said earlier, about Porphyria's eyes looking "happy and proud" (line 32)? Do we need to rethink everything the speaker has told us?
  • He also says that her eyes are now "without a stain." What's that about? Is he referring to a metaphorical "stain" on her honor? Or does the metaphor of the "stain" refer to her unwillingness to be with him exclusively? It's not clear. But somehow, now that she's dead, there's no more stain.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 46-48)

Lines 46-48

And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:

  • Now the speaker unwraps Porphyria's hair from around her neck.
  • He says that her face is still rosy as he plants a wet one on her cheek.
  • We can't claim to be experts (fortunately), but our many hours of watching CSI suggest to us that a strangled woman's face would be unattractively blotchy, rather than pretty and rosy. So, either the speaker is lying, or he's totally delusional. It could easily be either.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 49-51)

Lines 49-51

I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:

  • Now the speaker "prop[s]" Porphyria's head up on his shoulder. This action is a reversal of their positions earlier in the poem, when she moves his head onto her shoulder (check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" for more on that reversal).
  • He's the active one, now, and Porphyria (who's dead, after all) is the passive one.
  • Line 51 ends with a weird and unexpected word: "still." What does he mean, "still"? Is her head "still" on his shoulder? Like, as he was writing this? This word introduces a whole new level of creepiness.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 52-55) (Part 1)

Lines 52-55

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!

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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 52-55) (Part 2)

  • The speaker didn't mind assuming things about Porphyria's emotions and desires when she was alive, so why should he stop now?
  • Porphyria isn't even mentioned by name here: she's just a "smiling rosy little head." She's been reduced to a mere object.
  • Calling her head "little" is also a way of infantilizing her, or treating her like a child.
  • He says that Porphyria is "glad" that her "utmost will," or greatest desire, has been attained: everything she "scorned," or didn't like, is gone ("fled"), and she gets to be with her lover! Forever!
  • Notice that the speaker says "it" instead of "she" in line 54 and "its love" instead of "her love" in line 55. He uses the pronoun "it" to replace "head," treating Porphyria as though isn't even a person anymore. She's an object.
  • As an object, she can no longer argue with the speaker's interpretations of her desires and emotions. He can project anything he wants onto her, and imagine what he likes. She'll never complain.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 56-57)

Lines 56-57

Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.

  • The speaker finally refers to her by name again, but it's to refer to himself – he is "Porphyria's love."
  • He says that Porphyria could never have guessed how her wish (to be with him forever) would be fulfilled. That's probably the truest thing he's said this whole poem.
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Porphyria's Lover (Lines 58-60)

Lines 58-60

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

  • The speaker has been sitting with Porphyria all night now, and he hasn't heard any objections from anyone.
  • The speaker switches to the present tense in line 58 – "we sit together now." So the whole poem is what the speaker was thinking as he reclined on the couch, snuggled up to his murdered girlfriend? Wow, just reading it makes us feel gross.
  • The final line of the poem sounds triumphant: was the speaker expecting divine intervention? Was he expecting a thunderbolt from the sky to strike him down for murdering his lover? Or is he teasing the reader, who was expecting some kind of retribution at the end of the poem? Or is it Browning himself who's teasing the reader at this point?
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Theme 7

Porphyria's Lover Theme of Love

Sure, the speaker ends up killing Porphyria, but the poem includes "lover" in the title, so you have to figure that "love" is going to play some kind of role. You're right, though what passes for "love" in the world of this poem isn't going to win you any prom dates. After reading this poem, you'll likely feel that the speaker has earned a one-way trip to a federal prison. Or to a mental hospital.

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Theme 8

Porphyria's Lover Theme of Power

The "love" between the speaker and Porphyria turns pretty quickly into a power play. Porphyria seems to be the one who's in control at the beginning of the poem, then the speaker completely reverses things. He seems to want to possess Porphyria, so he reduces her to an object (a corpse, instead of an independently-thinking individual)

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Theme 9

Porphyria's Lover Theme of Sin

There's some pretty obvious sinning going on in "Porphyria's Lover" – after all, the speaker describes how he strangled his lover. But there's some less obvious sin here, too. Victorian moralists were all about repressing female sexuality and pretending that it didn't exist. For a woman to acknowledge that she even had sexual desires was considered sinful, and actually acting on those desires was borderline criminal. So for Porphyria to "come through wind and rain" to be with her lover was seriously risqué (line 30).

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Analysis 3

What’s Up With the Title?

We should really ask, "what's up with the titles?" since "Porphyria's Lover" has had several different names since its first publication in 1836. Originally, it was published in a magazine as "Porphyria." It wasn't until 1863 that Browning started calling the poem "Porphyria's Lover" the title we still use today. The first title makes the poem about the victim, Porphyria. The speaker of the poem isn't even alluded to in the original title. The final title, "Porphyria's Lover," makes the poem about the speaker, but he's only identified through his relationship to Porphyria – he is never named. Both of these make sense, given the poem's interest in the transfer of agency, or power, from Porphyria to the speaker. Who gets to speak in the poem? Whose interpretation of events do we get to hear? Who gets to make decisions? These are the questions the poem seems to ask, and the partial shift in focus of the titles from Porphyria to the speaker begins to answer those question

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