Nov 4, 2016

Robert Browning's "Porphyria’s Lover": As a Dramatic Monologue

The poetry of Robert Browning exemplifies a dominant and perhaps the most original tendency of the Victorian times: the craving for analysis and moral criticism. It is a deep rooted intellectual curiosity which merges into a systematic quest of truth. Browning’s principal object was to
illuminate various realms of human experience; to attain this, he converged his poetic genius to the unique form of the dramatic monologue. “He told his experience,” observes C.H.Herford, “…as he uttered his own convictions, most easily and effectively, through alien lips.”

In “Porphyria’s Lover”, as in all other monologues by him, Browning pursues his impulse to explore the uncharted territory of the human psyche. He was the self confessed poet of human soul. “My stress”, as he always said, “lay on the incidents in the development of the soul, little else is worth study.” In each of his dramatic monologues, as distinctly felt in this poem, there is a “moment”, almost frozen. With the background of that chosen moment, the central character is set off to reminisce, to express himself, his ambitions and frustrations and finally, his real self.

In “Porphyria’s Lover”, the lover is placed in such a moment which is of utmost significance to him. It is a moment for which he longed throughout his life. It is a moment containing a lifetime of desire, of intense passion and surge of happiness. With his lady-love in his arms, he could desire nothing else. With an almost explosive passion he exclaims:
"That moment she was mine, mine, fair
Perfectly pure and good."
He saw his beloved purified and sublimated by his triumphant love.

From the beginning, Porphyria is shown to be a reassuring presence. The lover was vexed by a fierce storm before she brought in a sense of calm:
"She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled, and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up."
She brought with her warmth which melted her lover’s heart, making him warm, both literally and figuratively. It was the ultimate gift for his tormented soul, which was full of insecurity. It was this moment which he desired to eternize. He was genuinely afraid of the transience of that moment of wish fulfillment. Within a flashing moment he not only decides to kill his beloved but also commits the crime. Furthermore, he goes on to find justification in divine silence as well:
“And God has not said word.”
(Not that he expected a punishment at all, he was rather certain of divine approval.)

Within a span of sixty lines, Browning presents not only the character of the lover but of Porphyria as well. True to the spirit of the monologue, she is presented as the ever silent listener. Her silence continues even to that moment of death: “No pain felt she/I am quite sure she felt no pain”.  Her silence was possibly a result of her inability to revolt against established conventions of society as well as the murdering lover. Yet she remains true to her commitment which is admitted by her lover: “Porphyria worshiped me.”

The portrayal of the lover is so fine that his crime, instead of creating outright horror and disgust, arrests the reader’s attention by virtue of its complexity. The entire poem throbs with a vitality of realism. In fact, “realism” was the central working principle of Browning’s poetry and elemental passion was certainly a part of it. “Porphyria’s Lover” is a representation of the elemental instincts at its highest point, where the lover kills his beloved only to possess her forever.


It is quite interesting to note that the poem is scripted apparently as a defense of the lover’s actions. There is not just cold logic or intellectual analysis. A subtle mood is evoked, with an almost impressionistic “stream of consciousness” technique, transforms the monologue to absolute poetry . This makes David Daiches observe that Browning’s dramatic monologues “project with an almost quizzical violence, a certain temperament…in the self revelation of a type.”