"Porphyria's Lover" is so rhythmic that it's easy to be drawn in. The poem seems designed to lull the reader into complacency: "It's just another love poem! Look, the lovers are snuggling by the fire when it's all stormy outside. How sweet! It's like they're the only two people in the world. Oh, the speaker finally realizes just how much Porphyria loves him, how nice! Oh, he's playing with her hair now. Come to think of it, he does seem a little bit obsessed with that "yellow hair"… but no matter! He must just like blondes. Wait – he did what with her hair? Did we read that wrong?"
Notice how the sound of the poem doesn't shift. The speaker literally doesn't miss a beat. He just keeps snuggling on the couch with his… corpse doll. This is just getting creepy. When are the cops going to burst in? What, they don't? What kind of poem is this, anyway?
We should really ask, "what's up with the titles?" since "Porphyria's Lover" has had several different names since its first publication in 1836. Originally, it was published in a magazine as "Porphyria." It wasn't until 1863 that Browning started calling the poem "Porphyria's Lover" the title we still use today. The first title makes the poem about the victim, Porphyria. The speaker of the poem isn't even alluded to in the original title. The final title, "Porphyria's Lover," makes the poem about the speaker, but he's only identified through his relationship to Porphyria – he is never named. Both of these make sense, given the poem's interest in the transfer of agency, or power, from Porphyria to the speaker. Who gets to speak in the poem? Whose interpretation of events do we get to hear? Who gets to make decisions? These are the questions the poem seems to ask, and the partial shift in focus of the titles from Porphyria to the speaker begins to answer those questions.
The poem takes place in a house near a lake, probably out in the country somewhere. There are trees around, and it's probably a pretty nice place to visit when the weather's good. Too bad the weather's so crummy on the night the poem takes place. It's raining and so windy that the speaker imagines that the wind is consciously trying to break down trees out of "spite" (line 3).
The speaker doesn't tell us much about what the inside of the house looks like. There's no fire in the "grate" until Porphyria arrives, so the house is probably pretty cold. If there's no fire, there must not be any servants (most middle class Victorians kept at least one servant), so the speaker might be relatively poor. After all, the house is described as a "cottage" (line 9). Porphyria sure does a lot to cheer up the inside of the house, though! The fire makes everything all cozy. It doesn't seem all that bad – a nice cozy cottage with a bright fire on a rainy night. Seems like the perfect time and place to curl up with your significant other and cuddle by the fire, right? Sure, until the speaker decides that it's also the perfect time and place to strangle Porphyria to death with her own hair.
The speaker of "Porphyria's Lover" sounds awfully straightforward. His tone is incredibly reasonable, which makes it even creepier considering he's describing horrific things (such as strangling his girlfriend and cuddling with the corpse). He even makes it sound as though he was doing her a favor – he calls it "her darling one wish" (line 57). It's hard to tell from the speaker's language that he's off his rocker, since he speaks very smoothly and matter-of-factly. The rhyme scheme remains steady, and the meter is pretty regular (except for a few places – check out "Form and Meter" for some telling exceptions). What kind of psychopathic murderer would be able to describe his crimes so calmly? Thus, the calm, smooth tone of the speaker adds to the effect of the poem. The speaker is kind of like the killer in the movie Seven: he doesn't think he's done anything wrong, and that's part of what makes him so terrifying.
The language isn't all that difficult in "Porphyria's Lover," and the speaker's matter-of-fact tone means short, simple sentences. Thematically, the poem gets a bit trickier – how are we supposed to approach a poem that describes a murder from the point of view of the unapologetic killer?
If you think that "Porphyria's Lover" is Browning's only dramatic monologue in which the psychopathic speaker murders a beautiful woman, think again: "My Last Duchess" covers similar ground. All of Browning's dramatic monologues are written from the point of view of a deeply disturbed speaker, but not all of them involve the kind of murderous objectification of women that you find in "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess."
The meter of "Porphyria's Lover" is fairly regular iambic tetrameter. Wait: before you zone out, let us explain. The meter refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the line. An iamb is an unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. So "iambic tetrameter" describes any poem with four (tetra=four) iambs per line: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. Check it out:
The rain set ear-ly in to-night,
The sul-len wind was soon a-wake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did bits worst to vex the lake:
Try reading those first four lines out loud – the stressed syllables fall on where we've made the text bold and italicized. See how even the rhythm is? But then it all goes out the window in the next line:
I list-ened with heart fit to break.
Whoa! The line starts out iambic, but then you have two unstressed syllables in a row, followed by two stressed ones in a row. What's up with that? Did Browning just mess up? Hardly: Browning establishes that regular iambic tetrameter in the first four lines in order to create the anticipation for a regular meter throughout. When that meter fails, it's always for a reason. In this line, the speaker refers to himself for the first time, and it's to say that his heart was breaking. So the regularity of the meter breaks, just like the speaker's heart! Oh, Browning, you sly dog. Keep an eye out for other spots in the poem where the meter breaks down, and see if you can figure out why Browning does it (hint: he's too clever a poet to do anything by accident!).
That covers the meter, so what about the rhyme? You've probably already noticed the rhyme scheme – it's pretty regular, and follows this pattern: ABABB, CDCDD, EFEFF, etc. The rhyme is regular, but it's asymmetrical. Each rhyming unit is backloaded: there are more "B" rhymes than "A," and more "D" than "C," etc. What's up with that? Well, some critics like to argue that the unbalanced rhyme scheme reflects the speaker's unbalanced mind. You might have a different impression – how does the asymmetry of the rhyme scheme impact your reading of the poem?
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Porphyria's yellow-blonde hair is one of the most memorable images in the poem, and the speaker refers to it frequently. Does the speaker have a hair fetish? Why does he choke her to death with her own hair? Why not use his hands? Or a pillow? Why is Browning making us think of alternative ways to kill Porphyria? That's really messed up.
The speaker of "Porphyria's Lover" opens by describing the storm outside. Oddly, he describes the storm with adjectives that suggest that the weather is conscious of what it's doing. A Victorian critic named John Ruskin scathingly ridiculed this literary move, in which the outside world is described in a way that reflects the inner mood of a character. He called it the "pathetic fallacy." After all, Ruskin pointed out, the weather isn't conscious of whether we're in a good mood or not. It's not like it starts raining just because we're heartbroken, or turns sunny and warm the moment we fall in love. Writing poems or novels in which the weather reflects the inner state of the characters, Ruskin argued, is just bad craftsmanship.
There's not a lot of talking in this poem. Porphyria doesn't get any direct dialogue, and the entire poem is the speaker's (possibly internal) monologue. Eyes do most of the talking in "Porphyria's Lover." Let's see what they say…
Porphyria and her lover spend most of the poem cuddling by the fire. Of course, she's dead for half of it, and their positions get reversed, but still: there's not a lot of movement in this poem. Let's take a look at how they're positioned…
Even though there's no graphic sex in this poem, we have to give it an "R" rating for the fetishism, the extra-marital affair, the murder, and the necrophilia. It's fair to say that those all add up to one thing: not appropriate for children.
Some critics believe that "Porphyria's Lover" was inspired by a murder that was described in gory detail by John Wilson in 1818, only eighteen years before Browning wrote this poem. The story, "Extracts from Gosschen's Diary," tells us about a murderer who stabs his lover to death, and describes her blonde hair and blue eyes in loving detail. Browning would have been familiar with this story, since his friend and fellow poet, Bryan Procter, based a poem on it, too.