Critical Commentary by Emm Din Chadibugh
Porphyria’s Lover is a dramatic monologue, uttered by a person of the most unusual kind of psychology. Here is a lover who tries to stop time at a moment of perfect bliss by murdering his beloved. The ramblings of the lover illustrate the peculiar thought processes in his mind. His response to beauty and love is almost psychotic, while the manner in which he commits the murder is almost in the manner of ritualistic sacrifice.
In the first half of Porphyria’s Lover, we listen to the speaker’s description of Porphyria coming to him on a night of storm and rain, laying aside worldly thoughts of propriety. He is observing her, saying nothing. Porphyria is the active agent performing various actions while he is silently submitting to her directions. She ‘made his cheek lie’ on her shoulder’, while he remains passive. All the actions seem to be part of an artistic process. Then when he looks into her eyes he thinks he sees a kind romantic idolatry. He debates’ what to do’ as he sees the worship in her eyes.
In the next section, we witness a horrific tableau where he strangulates her in a ritualistic manner, commensurate with her ‘worship’. The repeated reference to her hair adds to the sense of ritual. Here, too, there seems to be an imitation of artistic creativity. We are shocked into realizing that we are audience to a murderer. He tries to justify his action by claiming that it was Porphyria’s ‘darling one wish’. There is an element of Romantic egotism in his claim that she wished to be dead and that she ‘felt no pain’. Perhaps there was fear of losing her to the world which prompted the unnatural act. Through the narration of events, the speaker is redefining the roles of Porphyria and his own. She becomes the passive receiver while he takes on the role of the doer, who remakes Porphyria as an eternal object of adoration. And as the masterful agent, he feels that even God is silenced. At the same time, the mention of God’s silence does evoke a sense of uneasiness.
As a dramatic monologue, this poem is different in not being addressed to any particular audience. There is no definite placing in time and place. The setting and situation is rather reminiscent of Keats’s ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, with lovers meeting at night in stormy weather. There is a projection of the speaker’s mood onto the world of nature. However, as in his other dramatic monologues, the utterance is made at a moment of historical crisis. There is also the characteristic attempt at justification while leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.
The poem has a neat structural division with Porphyria as the active agent in charge of the action in the first half and a neat reversal of roles in the second half. Browning makes subtle use of contrast, by replacing the ‘soiled gloves’ of the first part by the eyes ‘without a stain’ as if his act of murder has purified her eternally.
Also, she had made him rest her cheeks against her shoulder and later he ’propped her head’ on his. There are many such little details which act collectively in bringing out the changed positions of the protagonists. It is to be noted that the speaker is looked at in the beginning and is speaking in the second half. The rhyme scheme of ababb adds to the effect of a tableau being played out. Browning makes extensive use of transferred epithet as in ‘sullen wind’ or ‘cheerless grate’ with great effectiveness. The language is simple yet highly hypnotic in its effect, vividly bringing out the romantic setting, followed by the artistically executed murder. The arrangement of the dramatic action in the poem unobtrusively brings out the abnormal psychology of the speaker.
As is typical in a dramatic monologue, there is a sense of dramatic movement in the course of the poem’s unfolding. Porphyria arriving at her lover’s place, laying aside her wet cloak, letting drop her wet hair, placing his hand around her waist, making him rest his head on her shoulder – all these movements are meticulously described in the first half where both the speaker and the audience watch with anticipation. A dramatic turn follows after this when the speaker discovers the worshipful adoration in her eyes. Now it is the speaker who performs the actions in the drama and the audience is led to a state of hypnotized shock by the artistically executed murder of Porphyria. So, this is Porphyria’s lover!
Also, the monologue is uttered in a moment of crisis, a typical feature of Browning’s dramatic monologues, when the lover has just killed his beloved and is compelled to justify his act to the world. Further, the response of the audience or the reader is distinctly unlike that which the speaker had intended to produce. However, unlike Browning’s other dramatic monologues, the response of the audience is not recorded or indicated within the poem. Also, the place and time against which the poem is set is not indicated, which is usually found in his other poems. But it is one of Browning’s shortest and finest dramatic monologues which is open to a variety of psychological interpretations and responses