Exploring Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” as a murder ballad that arguably… isn’t.
In this episode we consider another reading of the work, in which Browning’s poem parodies and logically dismantles problematic tropes about love. Transcript follows the embedded player below.
Picture is by Herbert Rose Barraud, a Woodburytype portrait of Robert Browning, and is in the Public Domain. Sourced from Wikimedia.org
More than a murder ballad – How Robert Browning called out sitcom romance as the worst, in 1836.
I’ve been carrying Porphyria’s Lover with me for some years now. It’s among the first works that showed me the scope of poetry, and for that reason it’s one I keep returning to.
But there are a few interesting features of this work for a modern audience, and turning a critical eye to the piece can really help them pop.
The first thing to consider is that the speaker, the titular Lover, is genderless – or at least, no personal pronouns are used to describe them. The temptation today would be to read this poem as a commentary on gender politics, the patriarchy and the power imbalance inherent in societal structures that literally has life and death repercussions – and you could make an argument for that reading… However, there’s something else going on here. The speaker is also speechless. “… And called me. When no voice replied.”
They are also agent-less for the first half of the poem. “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 has all the power, all the agency, at first. Let’s consider the actions of the poem in list form, and who or what is ascribed them:
The rain sets early in, and is full of rage and frustration, although largely impotent – it tears “the elm tops down, for spite” and does “its worst to vex the lake”
The speaker only listens.
Porphyria glides into the cottage.
She makes the fire blaze up.
She shuts the door.
She systematically removes her outerwear.
She sits down.
She calls her lover.
She moves their arm around her.
She adjusts her hair.
She murmurs words of love and regret.
She chose to visit her lover tonight, despite the weather and the circumstances that prevent them being together.
The lover finally acts, and even that is merely to look “up at her eyes”
And then they find “a thing to do.”
Up until that point they have been entirely passive. They have listened, silently. They have observed. But they have not interacted with Porphyria, except through her own actions.
And in that moment of “love,” what do they find to do? Murder.
The speaker is genderless, nondescript (unless you count “one so pale for love of her,” which I wouldn’t – that’s the invocation of a Classical trope, not a description) and powerless. They are a placeholder, then for something else.
This poem is often introduced as a murder ballad, an attempt to get inside the mind of a killer. But I’d posit something more in Browning’s effort here. For one, a study in aberrant psychology would ideally imbue the subject with some personality to study. Instead we have a singular fixation: Porphyria is the speaker’s entire focal point, and everything is framed around her and their relationship. This element is not novel, and is in fact a feature of much earlier love poetry – it’s the very overly wrought depiction that Shakespeare argues against in Sonnet 130 – so if this is meant to be a psychological study of a murderer, it’s a highly derivative and inconsistent one.
Bear in mind the historical context. Porphyria’s Lover was written in 1836. That’s about ten years before Wuthering Heights, but a couple of decades after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma.
This is a literary period that defined not only the term romantic, but also our concept of toxic masculinity and the nascent buds of the modern feminist movement.
It was also a period during which Classical – capital “c” – notions of love and the division between eros and agape became heavily scrutinised, and more contemporary depictions of love began to evolve.
In this poem, we have two clear archetypes in the single “person” of the speaker, and the result of their conflation. Interestingly, this same conflation is often identified as a core misstep that contributes to damaging models of masculinity today.
The first archetype is this: the lover who literally lives for their beloved, even if that love is unrequited. This is an ancient trope, although the more recent Romeo and Juliet is certainly the example that springs to mind and is probably the most responsible for identifying it as a depiction of love.
The second archetype is just as cliched, but remains more acceptable in modern texts, even though it is arguably the more problematic of the two: the lover who wants to possess their beloved, and for whom jealousy is inseparable from love.
In the speaker we have both archetypes taken to their logical conclusions, in turns. So we have the lover who is utterly powerless without their beloved. They cannot even keep the fire going, or speak, or move, without Porphyria. She is their all, and they are “so pale” – near death – without her.
We then have the lover who sees a chance to keep her all for themselves, at a single, terrible cost. And here we see the tragic conflation of the two archetypes: the lover who lives only for love makes a consistent logical extrapolation: if Porphyria also loves them in the same manner in that moment, then her ultimate wish would be to preserve the moment by any means necessary – and we’ve already established that life, and therefore death, means nothing so long as you “have” your beloved.
Browning’s poem is interesting because it so cleanly draws this distinction. This is not the deranged act of a deviant murderer – it’s the logical, inescapable outcome of jealous, hyperbolic treatments of love that diminish the agency of the participants, diminish their partnership, making them subservient pawns to the love itself.
Objectification is another component often raised by the poem, because there’s another inversion going on here. The lover is not initially objectifying Porphyria, but themselves. Porphyria is the human with agency, and the lover is the object with a single purpose: to fulfil her wish. The closing lines make this explicit, even while shifting to the language of objectification for Porphyria: “I, its love, am gained instead.” The lover is the object of desire, attained by Porphyria’s implied wish – although said wish is discerned only by projecting the lover’s understanding of love into Porphyria.
She could not “give herself to me forever”, the lover states early in the poem. So instead, they “give themselves” to Porphyria in a moment where they see their level of intensity reflected – and in that warped understanding of love, it’s entirely consistent that it doesn’t matter which one of them is alive. In fact, it makes sense for the lover to be the living guardian of their relationship, because their side of the relationship is constant and unfailing.
This type of obsession is again a trope dating to the earliest human stories. In the works of Ovid we see the Olympian gods obsessing over favourite mortals, contorting the stuff of the universe itself to maintain unhealthy relationships.
And yet, consistently through the ages, this same type of destructive and deeply problematic love is lauded again and again.
Want to show two characters are falling in love? Do we demonstrate their deepening trust and mutual understanding? Sometimes, yes. But more often we still see acute jealousy used as a shorthand for an emergent relationship.
Spoilers ahead, but look at Episode 9 of Star Wars for an unnecessary and misguided example of this – the injection of jealous reactions into Poe’s character to hint at possible emergent relationships does not demonstrate the measured, mature reaction of someone you’d want to promote to the rank of General, but the poorly-formed, immature response of a child who has been taught erroneously about love, and never grown above those lessons.
Better still, look at any major TV series of the last few decades: Almost every single character on Friends, The Simpsons, Modern Family, Castle, How I Met Your Mother, or Parks and Rec has undergone arcs featuring jealous behaviour as a demonstration of love – and often love that is held up as a model.
And yet it’s been self-evident throughout history that, while this model of “love” is often a learned feature of our first relationship – maybe our first two or three relationships if we are slow learners – it’s also something we need to be more consciously critical of if we don’t want it to persist as a norm.
Shakespeare attempted this when he killed Romeo and Juliet – they were never characters to be emulated. And Browning does the same thing, in an even starker demonstration, in Porphyria’s Lover.
Porphyria’s Lover is not a portrait of a killer. It’s a portrait of problematic social norms which persist to this day. It’s an indictment of jealousy and a reminder that love and obsession should not be confused.
Let’s share it again with that distinction in mind, and see if it can spark anything the next time we go to repeat a stale cliche about relationships or perpetuate a logically indefensible mindset towards love: