"Porphyria's Lover" by Robert Browning is a poem that narrates the shift of power in a relationship, as the initially passive Lover suddenly strangles Porphyria with her own hair so that "her darling one wish would be heard" — that is, her desire to "give herself to me [the Lover] forever." The poem begins with the Lover sitting around in his cottage listening to a storm outside, perhaps in self-pity. He seems to be rather helpless, as he does nothing as Porphyria enters, makes a fire in the hearth, and subsequently goes to his side and confesses her affections:

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.

The Lover did not reply to Porphyria when she spoke to him, nor did he make any effort to get closer to her; Porphyria had to put her arm around him and "stoop" to place his head on her shoulder, perhaps indicating that he will not or can not return her advances (perhaps due to either an inhibiting mental issue, or a physical disability). Porphyria's confession of love then seems to indicate that, although she does truly love him, she cannot remove herself from some other ties in her life, and thus cannot be with him.

At this point, the Lover is overwhelmed to know that she loves him, and greedily tries to think of what to do to preserve the moment — "That moment she was mine, mine." The action suddenly shifts to the previously inactive lover, as he wraps Porphyria's hair around her neck and strangles her. Now, he has fulfilled her wish and placed himself in the more powerful position in the relationship, telling us:

I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore.

Questions

1. What is the significance of the Lover's initially unreliabile statements in his subsequent strangling of Porphyria?

2. Does the Lover simply have some sort of psychotic disorder, or does he have a legitimate physical handicap as well?

3. What kind of relationship does Porphyria have with the Lover prior to the events of the poem — is she some sort of caretaker?

4. Are there social forces preventing a serious romantic relationship between Porphyria and her Lover, as perhaps indicated by "pride" and "vainer ties?"


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 28 January 2009