The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

QOTD – June 4th – “Porphyria’s Lover”

I have always felt an odd connection to Robert Browning. He had this sardonic sense of humor to his pieces, and a truly dark way of looking at the world. There’s something so incredibly stark about his style of writing, where you never quite know how serious his speaker is supposed to be. “Porphyria’s Lover” fits his style perfectly. Read through the poem, and you’ll find the question just after the piece.

Robert Browning. 1812–1889
720. Porphyria’s Lover
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 listen’d with heart fit to break.          5
When glided in Porphyria; straight
  She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel’d and made the cheerless grate
  Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
  Which done, she rose, and from her form   10
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
  And laid her soil’d gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
  And, last, she sat down by my side
  And call’d me. When no voice replied,   15
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,   20
Murmuring how she loved me—she
  Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
  From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
  And give herself to me for ever.   25
But passion sometimes would prevail,
  Nor could to-night’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.   30
Be sure I look’d up at her eyes
  Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipp’d me; surprise
  Made my heart swell, and still it grew
  While I debated what to do.   35
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 I wound
  Three times her little throat around,   40
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
  I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
  I warily oped her lids: again
  Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain.   45
And I untighten’d next the tress
  About her neck; her cheek once more
Blush’d bright beneath my burning kiss:
  I propp’d her head up as before,
  Only, this time my shoulder bore   50
Her head, which droops upon it still:
  The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
  That all it scorn’d at once is fled,
  And I, its love, am gain’d instead!   55
Porphyria’s love: she guess’d not how
  Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
  And all night long we have not stirr’d,
  And yet God has not said a word!   60 

Question of the Day:

Does Porphyria’s lover actually kill her? If yes, how can you tell, and why does he do it? If no, how can you tell? 

About Christopher Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is also the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter.

3 comments on “QOTD – June 4th – “Porphyria’s Lover”

  1. The Running Son
    June 4, 2013

    “Of vampires and men”

  2. ssrae
    June 4, 2013

    I like to think of this piece as a metaphorical explanation of the way the speaker feels about himself, and that Porphyria is not real at all. I read that he thinks his life is a heartbreaking storm, unworthy of goodness, unworthy of love. When goodness and love bare themselves before him he won’t reach out and accept them. When they push on him and he finally cannot restrain himself… this is where my interpretation splits two different ways… either he feels so undeserving that he must destroy the good, or his heart is so full that he must preserve the love so it never has a chance to be any less than perfect.

  3. John Fugman
    June 11, 2013

    I choose to believe that Porphyria does not exist at all. Porphyria is a disease that causes intense hallucinations. It is also believed (by some people) to be the origin of the vampire myth because one of the enzymes in human blood is the main treatment in the disease. “Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain” shows that the “woman” in the piece was not strangled. Upon strangulation, the blood vessels of the eyes pop and bleed, thus creating “stains” upon the eye. Porphyria is said to have “glided” in. Gliding is a term we associate with ghosts and the like. Also, her cheek blushes upon being kissed. This can show both the brains responses shortly after bodily death and the fact that she is content, happy, and enjoyed the encounter with the speaker. Lastly, the last two lines of the poem suggest that God does not see a crime taking place and that is the reason why he has not interfered in the nights events. These types of images are all throughout the poem. The poem is written to be contemplated; to be argued about. For instance, “As a shut bud that holds a bee” describes a flower that closes around a bee. In nature, when this happens, the bee eventually suffocates. The flower, having no pain receptors, does not feel any pain when the bee is struggling for release. The speaker “props” her head up, describing Porphyria as no longer being able to control the movements of her own body. Porphyria seems to affect the physical world; she opens and shuts the door and creates a fire in the grate. These are traits of a physical being. However, the speaker could have hallucinated those things being done. So far, we have two theories. One, Porphyria does not exist and is part of the intense hallucination of the speaker, and two, Porphyria is real and she is strangled by the speaker. The third interpretation could be that Porphyria is real, a lover of the speaker, and they are engaging in consensual sexual relations. Many of the same pieces of evidence that were used for the disease argument can also be used for the sexual relations argument. “Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain” shows that Porphyria was not killed. The blushing of the skin also suggests this. The narrative suggests that Porphyria is a woman of means who leaves a feast and walks through an intense storm to see her true love whom she can never actually be with; besides the times when “…passion would prevail.” The speaker could have choked her with her long hair as part of a sexual fantasy and they both were content and happy together. Browning could be suggesting that God did not interfere because their relations were blessed by him and it is simply worldly problems keeping them apart. Browning could also be suggesting that God did not stir because their is no God to be stirr’d by the strangulation. Or, he could be suggesting that God did not stir because no strangulation took place because Porphyria never existed in the first place. As you can see, there are many different readings of this poem and many different pieces of evidence to support them. In my opinion, the speaker was suffering from the disease Porphyria and the woman never truly existed. He was hallucinating the entire thing alone in his cabin during the storm. It could have been brought on by fantasies he had for the lady of the manor or something he had seen, heard, or read. This poem can be read many different ways. Read it however you wish, just read it.

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