"Porphyria's Lover" is one of the earliest of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues. It was originally published in 1836 in a magazine called the Monthly Repository under the title "Porphyria," and then republished in 1842 in a book called Dramatic Lyrics alongside another of Browning's poems, "Johannes Agricola in Meditation." The 1842 publication titled the two poems, collectively, "Madhouse Cells." It wasn't until 1863 that the poem was given the title that we now use, "Porphyria's Lover."
The 1842 title "Madhouse Cells" underlines the abnormal psychology of the speakers of Browning's poems. Actually, to say "abnormal psychology" is putting it pretty mildly: the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover" murders his girlfriend by strangling her with her hair, and then sits and admires the corpse for the rest of the night. So "psychotic" might be a better way of describing the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover."
Now might be a good time to point out that the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover," like the speakers of any of Browning's monologues, is a dramatic character – it's not Robert Browning himself! The poem is entirely from the point of view of a psychotic killer, which puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of reading the thoughts – or, if you're reading the poem out loud, of giving voice to the thoughts – of a madman. This is just one reason that Browning's monologues have received so much critical attention in recent decades.
Unfortunately for Robert Browning, though, most of his poetry was ignored during his life – his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was much more successful commercially. Ever heard of the sonnet "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…"? That's Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing about her love for her husband, Robert. During the Victorian period (i.e., during the reign of Queen Victoria in Great Britain, or 1837-1901), readers preferred poems like Barrett Browning's – poems about love and beauty – rather than poems like Robert Browning's, which probe the psychological depths of criminals and murderers.
Why Should I Care?
You might usually hit the snooze button as soon as you hear the words "Victorian" and "poem" uttered in the same breath. But "Porphyria's Lover" isn't your typical Victorian poem. This is one of the creepiest poems you'll ever read: it's from the point of view of a psychotic murderer, and explores the complex madness of the speaker, but without offering any definitive answer as to his ultimate motivation. Where does the madness come from? Why does he murder his lover? And why, in the final lines, does he gloat that "God has not said a word"? Does that mean that he gets away with it? "Porphyria's Lover" ends with the kind of ambiguity that modern audiences love in horror movies. So even if you're not usually a fan of Victorian poetry, give this one a chance. "Porphyria's Lover" is full of surprises.