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In Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "Porphyria's Lover," he introduces the persona, a twisted and abnormally possessive lover whose dealings are influenced by the perceived deliberation of others actions. As the monologue begins, a terrible, almost intentional storm sets upon the persona, who awaits his love, Porphyria. His lover "glide[s] in" (l 6) from a "gay feast" (l 27) and attempts to calm her angry love. This leads to a disastrous end, either for spite or fulfillment of a figurative wish that "would [now] be heard" (l 57). Browning suggests one must be cautious of what one wishes for, especially in dealings with love, where one focuses on the heart rather than material consequences.
Romantic poems, plays and stories from the Victorian period in England dealt primarily with forbidden love. A class system set strongly in Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," or an aged bitterness between two families in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," both prevented lovers from living "happily ever after." In literature it can be argued that there are two ways to come together with a lover. The first is death, as seen in Shakespeare's dramatic plays and poetry, and the second is sexual. "Porphyria's Lover" is a reflection of both.
Shakespeare's story of "star-cross'd lovers" begins with a prologue summarizing what events lead to the death "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes" (Hylton). Here the "ancient grudge [that] break[s] to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean" leads to the foes' "children's end" (Hylton). In "Porphyria's Lover," the parallel of nature's tremendous storm, and the persona's own thoughts elude to his plans: "The rain set early in tonight, / The sullen wind was soon awake" (l 1-2), his thoughts began to mold into a scheme, while his rage corresponds with the storm as "It tore the elm-tops down for spite, / And it did its worst to vex the lake"(l 3-4). The aforementioned sentence foreshadows the events to come.
Porphyria enters from the storm into her lover's home, "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" (l 6-9), permitting the persona to feel safe in within himself and his surroundings. She sat by his side "And called [him]. When no voice replied, / She put [his] arm about her waist, / And made her smooth white shoulder bare, / And all her yellow hair displaced" (l 15-18).
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A rigid social class that presents difficulty within the relationship separates the speaker and Porphyria. Porphyria's name suggests purple. "Purple" comes from the Greek word porphura, which is a species of shellfish that yielded a dye called Tyrian Purple (Funderburk). The process of making the dye is expensive and normally used for
clothing belonging to royalty. This draws a parallel to Porphyria, not only in name, but also in reference to the "gay feast"(l 27), and her "struggling passion free / From pride,
and vainer ties dissever" (l 23-24) suggesting an upper class lifestyle. Porphyria's social class, although advantageous, will ultimately lead to her demise.
The narrator could not deal with Porphyria's social class. Once he knew "Porphyria worshiped [him]; surprise / Made [his] heart swell, and still it grew / While [he] debated what to do" (l 33-35). This debate, over continuing to live in an un-enjoyable manner, or to murder Porphyria as a means of finally being together, was resolved in his choice of murdering Porphyria. This is evident in the quote: "In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her" (l 39-41). Aware of his actions, the speaker awaits the repercussions, but to no avail, for "God has not said a word!" (l 60).
The mighty wrath of the Lord at this time period is evident through Browning's "Porphyria's Lover." This fear is also illustrated in Shakespeare's "Othello." Before Desdemona is murdered, she is asked, "Have you pray'd to-night, Desdemona?" (Hylton), and is there advised to "do it, and be brief; I will walk by: / I would not kill thy unprepared spirit; / No; heaven forfend! I would not kill thy soul" (Hylton) by her Lord, Othello. This demonstrates the apprehension Othello has for such a horrific action committed by his own hands. Unlike Othello, the narrator in "Porphyria's Lover" does feel this hesitation but only after his crime of passion has taken place.
Unable to live with the knowledge of never freely being with his lover, the persona decides to end Porphyria's life. He waits to be punished for his act, but this
punishment is unrequited, like his love for Porphyria. Browning advises those to be careful of what they wish for, for sometimes a wish can be something not wished at all.
Browning, Robert. "Porphyria's Lover." Poetry: A Longman Pocket Anthology. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. 2nd ed. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 1998. 128-130.
Funderburk, Laura E. "A Palette of Colorful Expression." Color Perception. http://www.insteam.com/LauraFunderburk (27 Mar. 2001).
Hylton, Jeremy. "Romeo and Juliet." The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. 1993. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/romeo_juliet/index.html (27 Mar. 2001).
Hylton, Jeremy. "Othello, the Moore of Venice." The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. 1993. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/othello/index.html (27 Mar. 2001).