Porphyria’s Lover: Love, Sex, and Sin While it is easy to say that this poem is simply a frightening and perverse account of a man who cannot properly express his feelings for a woman, it is much more complex. Two major motifs in the poem, love and sin, create a sense of contradiction. Browning uses this contradiction to explore the relationship between art and morality. The title of the poem leads the reader to believe that the speaker and the woman have been in a relationship for some time.
It evokes the image of a woman secretly visiting her lover. Then, the speaker tells the reader that Porphyria “glides” into his house and “kneel’d and make the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm” (6-9). Only someone who had visited the man’s home many times before would feel comfortable enough to “glide” in and start a fire. This confirms that this relationship has been ongoing and that this is not the first time the two have met.
Throughout the poem, “love” is described in terms of a struggle for power, suggesting that the balance of power, dominance, and control in the relationship between this man and woman will never be equal; that one will always be vying for agency over the other and the relationship. In the beginning, Porphyria is “murmuring how she loved [the speaker]” (21). Women of the Victorian era were supposed to stifle their sexuality and ignore it altogether. The woman in this poem makes it clear that Browning did not agree with this view.
Although Porphyria has not been able to fully repress her desires, as evident in the fact that she even went to the man’s house, she is attempting to practice some restraint. Instead of shouting or even simply saying at a normal volume that she loves him, she only murmurs. The speaker acknowledges the power that she has over him by actively ignoring her advances: And, last, she sat down by my side And call’d me. When no voice replied, She put my arm around her waist, And made her smooth white shoulder bare, And all her yellow hair displaced, And, stooping, made my cheek lie there (14-19)
This addresses the view that the male should have control of the relationship. The idea of passivity in the poem sets the two characters up to switch places. While the woman at first has all command over what is going to happen between them, there is a sudden shift. The speaker “look’d up at her eyes/Happy and proud; as last [he] knew/Porphyria worshipp’d [him]” (31-33). Once he realizes that she is has the power, he strangles her and then does whatever he wants to do with her, making her more passive than he had been as well as making himself far more aggressive than she had been.
This suggests the idea of the male-dominated Victorian society and its inherit male chauvinism. In the beginning of the poem, she shows tremendous agency over the encounter and the speaker does not feel comfortable with this and he does not know how to respond to her. For him, the only way to overcome this and reverse their roles is to murder her, rendering her unable to exercise dominance over him. There are two types of sin in the poem. The first is the obvious murder; the second is the woman’s sin of sexuality and desire. Women during this time were supposed to remain pure and loyal to their virtue.
This meant ignoring their sexuality and pretending it did not exist. If a woman did give in to her desires or the desires of a man, she was a sinner. Whilst the idea of love in the poem is twisted and peculiar, the idea of a woman’s sin is very clear. Because acknowledging sexuality was a sin for women, the fact that the woman comes to the man “through wind and rain” (30) denotes sinning. When the woman enters the cottage, the speaker notices that her gloves are “soil’d” (13). This is the reader’s first indication that the woman’s virtue is stained.
After she starts the fire and makes herself comfortable, she makes “her smooth while shoulder bare” (17). White is generally thought of as the color of purity and Browning draws attention to this detail to illustrate the contrast of the woman’s supposed sin of having a lover and going to his home. While the reader’s inclination is to ascribe the sin of scandalous sex to the woman, Browning assigns her a different sin: that of pride. The poem says, “she/Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour/to set its struggling passion free/From pride” (22-24).
The speaker does not consider her presence there to be a sin; her offence is her pride, leading her to a reluctance to be with him “for ever” (25). To really drive home the point that the woman’s sin is really that of pride, the speaker says, “That moment she was mine, mine, fair/Perfectly pure and good” (36-37). Once he realizes that she “worships” him, he decides that she is no longer dedicated to the sin of pride and she becomes “pure and good” in his eyes. Browning touches on the idea of repressed female sexuality many times throughout the poem. This leads the reader to consider the relationship between art and morality.
Browning puts forth this question: how can society condemn admiring the female body as beautiful to be immoral while never questioning the honor and virtue in the sensuality of poetry’s language? It seems that Browning saw a problem with the way Victorian society damned one form of sensuality and sexuality while ignoring other forms. This poem is filled with sensual imagery, yet it is viewed as a work of great poetic achievement and art. Another question that arises after reading the poem is that regarding violence and sex as crimes and the value that Victorian society placed on these offenses.
Browning attributes the same value to the woman’s transgression as he does to her murder. This illustrates the point that society viewed outward expressions of female sexuality as incredibly sinful. According to Browning’s society, the fact that she goes to his house is bad enough and the sin of her murder is just as bad. At the end of the poem, after the speaker has spent all night with the corpse of a woman that he murdered, he notes “God has not said a word! ” (60). In the world of the poem, the murder is only as sinful as the woman’s display of sexuality.
Because so many women committed this sin, God does not waste his divine time on it by publicly condemning every woman, just as He seems to ignore the woman’s murder and her murderer. The poem leaves the reader wondering if the speaker is suffering from some kind of mental illness. On its own, the plot indicates a “yes”, but it is the rhythm of the poem that subconsciously adds to this idea. The meter is iambic tetrameter, but Browning deviates from the meter at certain points during the poem. The first of these times comes in line 5, “I listen’d with heart fit to break”.
This is the first time the poet talks about himself and the irregular meter draws attention to the fact that there is a 1st person speaker. Browning establishes a meter and then strays from it to draw attention to something in the poem. The rhyme scheme follows this same pattern. It is a regular rhyme scheme, ABABB, CDCDD, EFEFF, GHGHH, etcetera. While it does follow a certain pattern, the rhyme scheme is a bit unbalanced. It is heavy on the B rhymes, the D rhymes, and so on. This imbalance in rhyme adds to the thought of the speaker’s imbalance. The most striking thing about the poem’s form is that there is no hift in its sound at any point. While describing the tumultuous storm, he uses clear language. His tone does not change when the woman enters his house; he does not give the reader any indication that he is or is not happy that she is there. The reader expects some sort of change in language as the man murders the woman, but the poem remains in the same rhythmic pattern. All of these details seem small and may even be missed upon first reading the poem, but they add enormously to the thought that the speaker may be suffering from his own type of imbalance.