Ben Schofield offers an Aestheticist reading of Robert Browning's poem 'Porphyria's Lover'. This article was originally published in the 'Fight Club' issue of Portsmouth Point magazine in July 2013.
‘Porphyria’s Lover’ tells a tale out of the ordinary, the story of a murder and an exploration of insanity. As an earlier title of the piece, ‘Madhouse Cells’, indicates, the narrator is insane, yet in the narrative of the poem he goes undescribed, in fact we can only assume the narrator’s gender as Browning leaves us not even a stray pronoun as a clue. However due to the form of dramatic monologue, we learn far more about the inner mind of the narrator through his description than we would otherwise.
The poem begins with a succession of images of the storm raging outside the Lovers’ retreat, each seemingly unfit for a storm. How can wind be “sullen”, tearing down elm-tops “for spite”? As well as evoking a fitful storm the images reflect the nature of the narrator, his own “cheerless” mental state. Porphyria herself, the centre of the poem, is initially described in a manner as “soiled” as her gloves; she “glide[s]” into the poem at once carrying the storm in with her and shutting it out.
It is interesting that after death Porphyria appears more alive than when she first enters: “The smiling rosy little head,/So glad it has its utmost will”. An image at once macabre and beautiful, the still couple sitting there throughout the night, only one sits too still. The poem revolves between the aesthetic of two images then: the riotous storm, and the gentle couple. In one there is anger, imperfection, and spite; the other portrays rosy, perfection. The question Browning seems to put to us is which is better? Firstly in the mind of a madman, and then in us; should we choose life with all its stormy soiled imperfections, or the elegance and love of death.