A Much-Less-Eloquent Case Study of Porphyria’s Lover
Robert Browning gives us plenty to chew on by way of subtext in Porphyria’s Lover, even for such a short poem. Of course we appreciate the language itself: as pretty and intricate as gold spun from Porphyria’s own pretty, yellow hair, but Browning wants us to dig deeper, to understand the implications of Porphyria’s lover’s actions and their motives. Like some of Browning’s other pieces and some other popular Victorian poetry, Porphyria’s Lover is a dramatic monologue that doubles as a short little character study—seemingly about our specific loverboy, but actually more about the Victorian male persona—in order to figuratively give a big, over-exaggerated eye-roll to lame societal norms.
When we read this poem, we often assume that Porphyria’s lover—we’ll call him “Mr. Porphyria” because, let’s be honest, that’s how this relationship works—is not entirely in a healthy mental mindset, because why on Earth would he kill his beautiful lover? However, evidence seems to point us toward the conclusion that this murder was meticulously performed in a cool, calm, collected state of mind.
The best place to start is Mr. Porphyria himself, and his situation. He is subject to Porphyria’s whim, schedule, and desires because she is not his to command; she “belongs” to another man, and therefore has no obligations to Mr. Porphyria, marital or otherwise, to fulfill. This poem plays with Victorian gender roles, with Mr. Porphyria playing the part of the woman, and Porphyria herself assuming the role of the man (hence, Mr. Porphyria taking on the name of the partner with all the power). Of course, this is a big Victorian no-no, so Browning cleverly manipulates the poem to resume normal gender roles, but in such a dramatic manner that the reader can’t help but notice his distaste for the norm. This is what points toward the idea that Mr. Porphyria does not kill Porphyria out of a stroke of manic passion, but instead out of “the male anxiety about woman’s independence;” he must take back his masculinity (Maxwell 27).
We can see further evidence of Mr. Porphyria’s sanity in Browning’s other works, specifically My Last Duchess. In this poem, it is obvious that the duke had made the calculated decision to have his last duchess killed, and for the same reason mentioned above, which is consistent with Porphyria’s Lover, and with our knowledge of Browning’s motives behind these poems. Both men found themselves in a power struggle with their respective lovers, leading them to take action to restore their manhood, because what’s more manly than killing?
However, the joke continues as we realize that they don’t seem particularly guilty or upset about having murdered another human being, not because either man is crazy and incapable of realizing the severity of what was done, but rather that, as per Victorian male standards, they don’t hold women in the same esteem as men, or equate “female” to “human.” Women are viewed more as objects to be possessed rather than people, therefore their deaths—at least according to these poems— don’t hold the same implications as those of men. This, coupled with the knowledge that these two poems, particularly Porphyria’s Lover, were written in a non-literal sense, gives us another reason to believe that Mr. Porphyria was acting out of malice rather than out of insanity.
What ties together all these points—as well as the poem itself—is Browning’s overarching purpose of critiquing gender roles and identity (specifically men’s) in modern society and in popular Romantic poetry. As Catherine Maxwell states in her article Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover,’ Browning ironically exaggerates “romantic egotism” by portraying Porphyria’s death as “but a formalization of the romantic male speaker’s desire to fix and possess the female beloved” (Maxwell 27). In simple terms, Browning thinks the way that love and men’s role in it is stereotyped in Romantic poetry is pretty ridiculous, and the influence that this has had over real life relationships and society is even more ridiculous. So, since we know Browning is trying to point out all this ridiculousness in a way that will stick with people long after they’ve finished reading the poem—a girl strangled by her own hair? Not likely to be easily forgotten—it seems more prudent for him to use more relatable characters. Now, hopefully no one is truly relating to Mr. Porphyria, because that could be a problem, but if Browning portrayed him as a total nutcase, and therefore as a societal outlier, this poem would not accomplish what it was intended to. To crush the stereotypes in popular culture and literature, Browning needed your average, every day man to do the job, which is to show that the way that men see women, themselves, and the concepts of love and possession is twisted and dangerous to all involved.
Since, of course, we can’t ask Robert Browning himself whether Mr. Porphyria was meant to be a head case, or just an idiot, we’re left only with our context clues, many of which, when you dig deep, bring us to the conclusion that “idiot” is the more accurate description. Furthermore, among all the other things—Mr. Porphyria’s feeling of being emasculated, the implications of My Last Duchess, and Browning’s knocking Romantic poetry—this poem is much more critical and effective if read from Mr. Porphyria’s perspective as if he is just your average insecure man facing a self-respecting woman.
Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 2B. New York: Pearson 2010. 1325-1326.
Maxwell, Catherine. Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover.” Explicator, Fall 1993, Vol. 52 Issue 1, p27
Crabapple, Molly. Porphyria’s Lover. http://spiralplanes.blogspot.com/2012/05/in-love-with-porphyrias-lover.html