“Porphyria’s Lover,” which first appeared in 1836, is one of the earliest and most shocking of Browning’s dramatic monologues. The speaker lives in a cottage in the countryside. His lover, a blooming young woman named Porphyria, comes in out of a storm and proceeds to make a fire and bring cheer to the cottage. She embraces the speaker, offering him her bare shoulder. He tells us that he does not speak to her. Instead, he says, she begins to tell him how she has momentarily overcome societal strictures to be with him. He realizes that she “worship[s]” him at this instant. Realizing that she will eventually give in to society’s pressures, and wanting to preserve the moment, he wraps her hair around her neck and strangles her. He then toys with her corpse, opening the eyes and propping the body up against his side. He sits with her body this way the entire night, the speaker remarking that God has not yet moved to punish him.
“Porphyria’s Lover,” while natural in its language, does not display the colloquialisms or dialectical markers of some of Browning’s later poems. Moreover, while the cadence of the poem mimics natural speech, it actually takes the form of highly patterned verse, rhyming ABABB. The intensity and asymmetry of the pattern suggests the madness concealed within the speaker’s reasoned self-presentation.
This poem is a dramatic monologue—a fictional speech presented as the musings of a speaker who is separate from the poet. Like most of Browning’s other dramatic monologues, this one captures a moment after a main event or action. Porphyria already lies dead when the speaker begins. Just as the nameless speaker seeks to stop time by killing her, so too does this kind of poem seek to freeze the consciousness of an instant.
“Porphyria’s Lover” opens with a scene taken straight from the Romantic poetry of the earlier nineteenth century. While a storm rages outdoors, giving a demonstration of nature at its most sublime, the…