I think we can all agree that relationships are hard. We would also probably agree that, within relationships, some habits are healthier than others. Lastly, I am willing to venture we can all agree that the narrator in Porphyria’s Lover exhibits some less-than-healthy behaviors. There are various interpretations of the narrator’s actions in this poem, ranging from euthanasia to psychopathy. I suggest that a close reading of specific word choice within Porphyria’s Lover will conclude toxic masculinity is the driving force behind Porphyria’s murder.
Robert Browning often wrote about psychological dysfunction, which certainly includes the speaker of our dramatic monologue. He was writing at a time when women’s role in and out of the home was hotly debated in all corners of society. His own wife was an ardent supporter of women’s rights; often writing and speaking openly about her support of gender equality. By all accounts Robert Browning’s wife was the more widely recognized writer, bringing more money and recognition to the marriage than he did. Yet there is little question of his devotion to her and the happiness of their marriage. Which only leads me to the conclusion that it is no accident that so many of his poems deal with power struggles between men and women (that mostly end with the murder of the fairer sex).
I would be remiss if I ignored the softer interpretation of the text. Certainly, there is less textual evidence to support the idea that the speaker of the poem was acting benevolently when he strangled Porphyria to death, but the argument can be made nonetheless. Perhaps the opening of the poem finds our speaker waiting for the arrival of his lover, knowing tonight is their final meeting, and that is why his heart is breaking. One could claim that Porphyria is only able to glide into the cottage because she was at peace with what was to come. After all, it is she who calls to the speaker, and she who takes control of the situation upon arrival. She does not seem to be a woman afraid of an unstable lover. Porphyria is described as pale, weak and murmuring…not words one would associate with a healthy person. She is described as happy and smiling as he wraps her hair around her neck three times – and we are never told she struggled. On the contrary, we are told her eyes were laughing. And as if to solidify the argument, the poem ends with God not protesting the actions, but remaining silent. As though the silence is a symbolic thumbs up. A beautifully crafted poetic description of nineteenth-century euthanasia.
The more likely interpretation and the one with more contextual evidence is that the narrator is an irrational and unreliable historian. His retelling of the events of that night proves that his account is too subjective to take at face value. The first five lines of the poem betray the narrator’s credibility
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. (1-5)
The narrator personifies the wind as “sullen” and “spiteful,” and according to the narrator had an agenda against the lake. The speaker is either being hypersensitive about a gloomy day, or he hates nature with an unparalleled passion. Either way, his narrative is already unreliable.
The narrator’s inaction throughout the first half of the poem should be read as hostility rather than passivity. The line that gives away the narrator’s pity party comes just after Porphyria lets herself into the cottage. The reader is told Porphyria has skipped out on a “gay feast” to be with him on this night (27). She braves the cold storm, lets herself inside, builds a fire before she even takes off her wet coat, and then the narrator chides, “and, last, she sat down by my side” (14). The speaker appears to be pouting because she did not give him immediate attention. This suspicion is confirmed when he does not answer her greeting, and “when no voice replied, / She put my arm about her waist” (15-16). This level of entitlement is what points to toxic masculinity as the main culprit of this narrative. The speaker seems to earnestly believe he was owed attention he did not get. He blows past chivalry, skips past selfishness, and proves himself to be utterly narcissistic.
It is worth noting how much more action is attributed to Porphyria compared to the speaker, who remains passive throughout the first 39 lines. Porphyria glided, shut, kneeled, blazed, rose, withdrew, laid, and called; all the while the speaker only listened and sat (and presumably pouted). The most substantial piece of evidence I have for my theory of toxic masculinity is the specific action that triggered the speaker. After Porphyria sits down beside the speaker, we are told she
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 (17-20).
This is the action that immediately precedes the speaker’s spiral into violence. She offers her shoulder, which the speaker perceives as aggressive. The narrator’s unraveling seems to come directly after Porphyria spreads her hair over their two bodies. This misinterpretation of body language bolsters my next argument: the speaker sees Porphyria’s quirky but otherwise innocent affection as a display of dominance. He becomes overwhelmed at what he reads as porphyria’s assertion of power over him, and he behaves like a vulnerable and startled animal – he lashes out.
The speaker kills Porphyria using the very object he last felt threatened by, her hair. He apparently felt as though Porphyria’s hair was a weapon and he reacted exactly as irrationally as one might expect of a fella who is already exhibiting symptoms of disturbed mania. The most haunting, and telling, action of all comes just after the gruesome murder – the speaker “propped her head up as before, / Only, this time my shoulder bore, / Her head, which droops upon it still” (49-51). The language that is used after her death, “the vegetative imagery–the ‘shut bud,’ the ‘rosy’ head which, flower-like, ‘droops’–underlines her total subjection” (Walker). This scene gives me the creeps. It feels vindictive and smug. The speaker felt like his masculinity was at stake; Porphyria was too bold for his taste – and he killed her for it. Satisfied with the new power dynamic, he makes the effort to rest her lifeless head on his shoulder – in a position of submission.
The speaker’s final thought further still supports my argument that this is the crime of a misogynist. “And all night long we have not stirred, and yet God has not said a word” (59-60). It is possible the speaker means this as a sort of self-justification, as though God’s silence to his heinous crime proves it was a righteous act. Certainly, there is enough evidence of folks using the name of God to bless violent sexism to make a strong case for this interpretation. It could also be a little simpler, it is possible this was meant as a challenge to God – a cosmic taunt of sorts. That does not feel outside the wheelhouse of such a fragile chauvinist. Either interpretation leads to the same conclusion – the narrator of Porphyria’s Lover let toxic masculinity drive him into murderous madness.
Avedon, Richard. “Untitled.” The New Yorker, Conde Nast, 1995, p. 135.
Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” Longman Anthology of British Literature, by
David Damrosch, Fourth ed., vol. 2B, Longman Pub Co, 2013, pp. 1325–1326.
Walker, Steven C. ‘that Moment’ in ‘Porphyria’s Lover,’. , 2002.