Porphyria's Lover Summary
The unnamed speaker of the poem sits by himself in his house on a stormy night. Porphyria, his lover, arrives out of the rain, starts a fire in the fireplace, and takes off her dripping coat and gloves. She sits down to snuggle with the speaker in front of the fire and pulls his head down to rest against her shoulder. The speaker realizes for the first time how much Porphyria loves him. So…he strangles her with her hair. Then he opens her eyes, unwraps the hair from her neck, and spends the rest of the night cuddling with her corpse.
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.
- It's a dark and stormy night. Isn't that the way all thrillers are supposed to start?
- Browning introduces a bit of a twist, though: he uses words like "sullen" and "spite" to describe the weather, so that it seems as though the weather is bad on purpose, just to be mean or "spiteful."
- The first four lines just describe the weather, not the speaker.
- The unnamed speaker of the poem isn't introduced at all until line 5: "I listened with heart fit to break."
- This is the first hint that the speaker might not be mentally stable: why should a storm make him feel heartbroken? Or is something else wrong?
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;
- Porphyria enters the house and starts a fire in the fireplace, to make the place more cheery and warm.
- She is neither introduced nor described as she enters – Porphyria just walks into the poem without any explanation.
- She doesn't walk in, actually – she "glides" in, like a ghost. Do her feet not touch the ground?
- And the way the speaker describes her making the fire is strange, too. He skips steps, like putting wood into the grate and lighting a match, even though he details her other movements in the poem. Porphyria is somehow able to "ma[k]e the cheerless grate/ Blaze up" without taking all those necessary preliminary steps. Is she magic? Or does she just seem magical to the speaker?
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,
- After setting the fire, Porphyria takes off her wet "cloak" and "gloves," and lets her wet hair down.
- OK, so sounds like she's probably not some kind of magical fairy-lady. She might be handy with fireplaces, but if she were magical, she wouldn't have gotten wet in the rainstorm.
- She's done all this – walked in, made a fire in the fireplace, taken off her coat and hat – all without saying anything? What's the speaker doing this whole time?
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
- After taking care of all the preliminaries, like setting a fire and taking off her coat, Porphyria sits down next to the speaker and addresses him.
- We don't get to hear what she said, though.
- We don't get to hear what the speaker said in response, either. In fact, he didn't respond to her at all.
- He phrases it passively, too: instead of saying "I didn't reply," he says, "When no voice replied." This makes him seem very distant from Porphyria and from what's going on around him.
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,
- Porphyria's not one to be discouraged, though. Her boyfriend might be giving her the cold shoulder, but she snuggles up to him anyway.
- She takes his arm and pulls it around her waist, uncovers her shoulder, and pulls his head down to rest on her bare shoulder.
- Is he made out of silly putty? Is he a Ken doll that she's playing with? She just moves his arms and head around and arranges him as she likes.
- After pulling his head down to rest on her shoulder, she spreads her "yellow hair" across them both.
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.
- Porphyria "murmur[s]" that she loves him. Is she "murmuring" because she's hesitant? Or because she's shy? Or is she whispering in a flirtatious manner? It's not clear.
- Porphyria tells the speaker that she loves him, but he cuts her off with a dash to criticize her for being "too weak" to cut herself off from "vainer ties" to be with him. Of course, he doesn't say any of that out loud, it's all part of his monologue.
- We're not sure what those "vainer ties" are. Some critics speculate that Porphyria is richer than the speaker, and so those "vainer ties" are her ties to her rich family. Or maybe she has a rich fiancé who she's reluctant to break up with for the speaker. Or maybe she's been hesitating about whether or not to sleep with the speaker, and she's too "vain" to go against Victorian social and sexual codes to have sex before marriage.
- In any case, the speaker seems unimpressed when she tells him that she loves him. After all, she hasn't been willing to break, or "dissever," whatever those "vainer ties" are.
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.
- Then again, though, the speaker recalls that Porphyria's passion for him was great enough for her to skip out on a fancy party ("gay feast") and to come through the storm just to be with him.
- Just the thought of him, he figures, sitting by himself, all lonely and in love with her, was enough to bring her "through wind and rain."
- She must really love him!
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
- At line 31, the speaker finally does something: he "look[s] up" at Porphyria.
- Up until now, the speaker has been passive, allowing Porphyria to make the fire and to rearrange his arms and head. Finally, he does something, even if it's only to look at her.
- It's not clear whether Porphyria's "eye[s]" are "happy and proud," or whether "happy and proud" describes the speaker. It could work either way, but if they describe Porphyria, it's important to remember that it's from the speaker's point of view only.
- He's delighted to realize how much she loves him, and he's "surprise[d]" by it.
- It takes him a few minutes to decide "what to do."
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: […]
- In this moment when he looks up at her eyes and realizes that "Porphyria worshipped" him, the speaker decides that she's completely his.
- He repeats the word "mine" twice, in fact, to emphasize his feeling of possession.
- Everything about her, and about this moment, is "perfect."
[…] I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. […]
- What do you do with a moment that's so "perfect"? Soak it up and enjoy it so that you'll remember it forever? Take a photo? Not if you're the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover."
- He figures out what to do – he takes her hair and twists it into one "long yellow string."
- He then wraps the "string" around her throat and strangles her.
- Wait, what? Did we just read that right? But the poem sounds so musical and light! He wraps it "three times" around her throat. It sounds almost like a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme. What's up with this guy?
[…] 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
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
- Don't worry, though: the speaker assures us that Porphyria didn't feel any pain. He's certain of it.
- The speaker then carefully opens ("oped") Porphyria's eyelids.
- He compares this to opening a flower bud that might enclose a bee. (Go to "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" for more on that weird metaphor.)
- Once he gets her eyes open again, Porphyria's pretty blue peepers "laugh" again.
- Creepy! How can a dead woman's eyes "laugh"? Obviously the speaker is out of his gourd. And if he's assuming he can tell that her eyes are "laugh[ing]" now, should we believe what he said earlier, about Porphyria's eyes looking "happy and proud" (line 32)? Do we need to rethink everything the speaker has told us?
- He also says that her eyes are now "without a stain." What's that about? Is he referring to a metaphorical "stain" on her honor? Or does the metaphor of the "stain" refer to her unwillingness to be with him exclusively? It's not clear. But somehow, now that she's dead, there's no more stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
- Now the speaker unwraps Porphyria's hair from around her neck.
- He says that her face is still rosy as he plants a wet one on her cheek.
- We can't claim to be experts (fortunately), but our many hours of watching CSI suggest to us that a strangled woman's face would be unattractively blotchy, rather than pretty and rosy. So, either the speaker is lying, or he's totally delusional. It could easily be either.
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
- Now the speaker "prop[s]" Porphyria's head up on his shoulder. This action is a reversal of their positions earlier in the poem, when she moves his head onto her shoulder (check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" for more on that reversal).
- He's the active one, now, and Porphyria (who's dead, after all) is the passive one.
- Line 51 ends with a weird and unexpected word: "still." What does he mean, "still"? Is her head "still" on his shoulder? Like, as he was writing this? This word introduces a whole new level of creepiness.
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
- The speaker didn't mind assuming things about Porphyria's emotions and desires when she was alive, so why should he stop now?
- Porphyria isn't even mentioned by name here: she's just a "smiling rosy little head." She's been reduced to a mere object.
- Calling her head "little" is also a way of infantilizing her, or treating her like a child.
- He says that Porphyria is "glad" that her "utmost will," or greatest desire, has been attained: everything she "scorned," or didn't like, is gone ("fled"), and she gets to be with her lover! Forever!
- Notice that the speaker says "it" instead of "she" in line 54 and "its love" instead of "her love" in line 55. He uses the pronoun "it" to replace "head," treating Porphyria as though isn't even a person anymore. She's an object.
- As an object, she can no longer argue with the speaker's interpretations of her desires and emotions. He can project anything he wants onto her, and imagine what he likes. She'll never complain.
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
- The speaker finally refers to her by name again, but it's to refer to himself – he is "Porphyria's love."
- He says that Porphyria could never have guessed how her wish (to be with him forever) would be fulfilled. That's probably the truest thing he's said this whole poem.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!
- The speaker has been sitting with Porphyria all night now, and he hasn't heard any objections from anyone.
- The speaker switches to the present tense in line 58 – "we sit together now." So the whole poem is what the speaker was thinking as he reclined on the couch, snuggled up to his murdered girlfriend? Wow, just reading it makes us feel gross.
- The final line of the poem sounds triumphant: was the speaker expecting divine intervention? Was he expecting a thunderbolt from the sky to strike him down for murdering his lover? Or is he teasing the reader, who was expecting some kind of retribution at the end of the poem? Or is it Browning himself who's teasing the reader at this point?