[In September 2011 a reader wrote into provide evidence that contradicts this interpretation.]

decorated initial 'R' obert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" was initially entitled "Porphyria" when in 1836 it first appeared within the Monthly Repository. It had great appeal to its later Victorian audience who was shocked by the description of Porphyria's death. However, from its onset, the interpretation of the poem began to suffer from obfuscation and misinterpretation as the reason for Porphyria's death became more and more controversial.

As is often the case, discourse can surround a work that is misunderstood. That is not to say the literature itself is not enjoyed, for such is not the case. In fact the story about Porphyria's Lover is a highly entertaining read regardless of the motive assigned to the cause of her death. The use of her own golden hair to snuff out her life has been assigned to wanton acts of depravity that range from murder by a selfish madman to a depraved sexuality.

I respectfully submit that, early on, a link in the chain of reasoning was somehow missed and the path leading to a proper conclusion regarding that strangulation went undiscovered. Consequently, a commonly accepted analysis regarding the motive behind Porphyria's death has labored under a false image for well over a century.

Hopefully, all that will change following this interpretation because there does exist within the poem a detectable truth regarding why "Porphyria's Lover" killed her, a reason that, until now, has gone completely unnoticed. That said, other subtleties of the poem have been, and will always remain subject to a gamut of interpretations ranging from deeply religious connotations that emanate from the last line of the poem to the absurd such as erotic sexual strangulation offered by those who see what they want to see or conceived by the publicity seeker for the popularity that can be gained from the bizarre.

How can I be so certain that my take on this great literary work is correct to the extent that nearly two centuries of readers, both expert and layman alike, are wrong as having missed the mark. Well, you be the judge as you follow my logic. First we present the poem itself.

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.
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 endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
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.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last l knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While l 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 l wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
l am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
l warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And l untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
l 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 l, 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 aword!

The first six lines tell of a dark and stormy night, which is helpful to the extent that it sets the stage for a dismal human mood. The next seven lines tell us Porphyria has been to the cottage many times before and is comfortable building up the existing fire within the fireplace. That is significant because it demonstrates a relationship of some duration.

The reason for her forthcoming death first begins to reveal itself within the following three lines,

And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist.

That the speaker is in a solemn mood is made apparent when Porphyria speaks to him but he says nothing in reply. So she sits by his side, reaches for his arm and places it around her waist. Speaking is something he cannot or is not willing to do because his mind is preoccupied with what he is about to do.

We are next told that he takes sensitive pleasure in bending over to lay and rub his cheek upon her yellow hair,

And, stopping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,

The mental image is powerful proof of his romantic affection for Porphyria. He is doing more than running his cheek upon her yellow hair; he is literally bathing in her presence. This scene alone does not portend of madness.

The logic behind Porphyria's death first begins to reveal itself within line twenty-two where it is stated:

Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,

To set its struggling passion free

The speaker is letting the reader know that there is something wrong with Porphyria. She loves the speaker and wants to be sexually involved, "to set [her] heart's struggling passion free," but she is too weak to do so.That Porphyria's weakness is of some duration is evident from the fact that, notwithstanding her condition, she still sometimes gave herself to the speaker anyway. This we know from the phrase — "But passion sometimes would prevail" — It is evident that her weakness is caused by an illness because the speaker is jolted to reality with a"A sudden thought of one so pale." That she is "pale" is a fundamental diagnosis regarding an underlying medical condition.

The speaker then mentions of his awareness regarding just how much Porphyria loves and worship's him and how the strength of that affection made his love deepen.

For love of her, and all in vain:

The "love" referred to in this line obviously belongs to the speaker, but why is it "all in vain"? What reason other than Porphyria's failing health could render his love to be "all in vain"?

Timing is everything and the fact that it was during this "all in vein" perception that the speaker was debating what to do, is telling.

Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.

It was during that moment of awareness that he spontaneously conceived the manner of her death, which is described as:

I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,

The fact that he just "found" a thing to do attests to the spontaneity of the act, which ended his debate. He had discovered the means to take her life were at hand; it was obviously an answer for which he had been searching. The word "found" also shouts loudly for the fact that her forthcoming death had, not only been under consideration, it was a foregone conclusion with only the means left remaining to be decided upon. The aftermath corroborates the fact that the taking of Porphyria's life was not done with hate, anger or revenge in mind.

No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.

The speaker has convinced himself that she felt no pain; it was a rationalization that he must make inasmuch as he so deeply loved the woman he just killed that he could not possibly admit to her having suffered.

The tragedy continues to build within the aftermath because following her death by virtue of his deeds he has serious trouble letting go,

I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.

He "warily" opened her eyes, they were beautiful blue eyes, beautiful because he still saw the woman he loved and they were "laughing" because they were content with the events that had just transpired. The happiness concept is reinforced because the "eyes" [are] without stain, which means that within the last look cast upon her murderer, her eyes saw no blame.

Quite notably the "laughing eyes" are revealed before he releases the tress from around her neck, which is a profoundly significant fact. Important because with the final seconds of her life Porphyria recognized her death was in the making and used her last act of will to put a smile on her face. That can only be because she is pleased about death being on its way. What else could the head of a murder victim be smiling about other than the act of her death being of her own wanting? We all know of the horror seen and said to be on the faces of victims whose peril is at the hands of an evildoer.

Thus the smile is telling because the face of fear is far less likely to accompany one meeting a desired end. Remember Porphyria "worshipped" the speaker. If he were a madman, like most suggest, then why would there be a smile upon her face instead of shock or horror? Within the last few seconds of life, which facial expression would more likely erupt from the spontaneous act of being strangled by someone you worship? Shock, of course, certainly not a "smiling rosy little head".

Then the speaker kisses her cheek again, a kiss that contains all the love a kiss can possibly possess because it is said to be a "burning kiss". Then he sits for a while with her "smiling rosy little headÓ resting upon his shoulder. This behavior does not portray that of a madman.

Not only is the pretty little head smiling, which bespeaks of the final thoughts within Porphyria's mind but the speaker also knows and tells us he knows why the smile when he states,

The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,

It has its "utmost will"! The head that contains the brain that controls the dying image upon the face reflects having "its utmost will". What can the word "will" possibly be referring to here other than Porphyria's will to die?

That Porphyria's death is the result of euthanasia is further manifest from the following lines near the poem's end and which, quite literally, makes my case,

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

It was her "darling one wish" that she die. It was also her wish that she not know how that wish would be fulfilled. The word "darling" punctuates the wish, and renders it a very special wish indeed, a one of a kind type of wish. And since "she" guessed not how, the speaker tells us that it was also her desire to not know when her one wish would be fulfilled. The desire not to know relates back to, and makes sense of, the spontaneity of the act.

The speaker's true and massive love for Porphyria is exampled by him sitting with her in his arms,

And all night long we have not stirred.

He loves her so much that he cannot release her from his grasp. He must and has indeed chosen to sit within the realm of the painful emotion that his act of granting her last wish burdened him with.

The last line gives us the speaker's perception that the propriety of the act of killing Porphyria was such a right thing to do that "God has not said a word! The word "God" has been touted by many as a means to attach some religious significant to the poem, which I suggest is not at all the case. The "God" referred to is that of a rhetorical God to emphasize that what the speaker had to do was so morally correct that a God of any sort from any religious denomination would not be critical.

Finally, those who disagree with my interpretation rely heavily upon the fact that "Porphyria's Lover" was first published as one of two "Madhouse Cells" which fact is used to postulate that Porphyria's lover was a madman. Such is not the case inasmuch as it was Browning that gave Porphyria her name, thus it is from her that the "madman" concept emanates and, as such, provides the final nail in the coffin of the "madman" argument and here is why: Porphyria is an incurable blood disease that disables and kills thousands every year. Its discovery dates back to the mid-1700s, well before Browning wrote "Porphyria's Lover." It is often referred to as mental illness or the Royal Disease, which, given Porphyria's tidy golden hair, means Porphyria could have been royalty inasmuch as that description would not likely be associated with Victorian lower class. Symptoms of Porphyria's disease are repeatedly described within the poem by Browning, e.g. blood loss ("gone so pale"), muscle weakness ("too weak to set her passion free") and light sensitivity which explains why she arrived at night ("rain set in early tonight") — and so on. Victims of Porphyria's disease suffer a horrible death, thus Porphyria's lover committed the highest act of love; he set his lover free from a grisly death.

A reader responds

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Last modified 8 June 2007