Tom Harper offers a Historicist 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.
Browning’s work with the dramatic monologue form stems from numerous accusations of ‘perversity’ from contemporaries on account of the disturbing characters he invents in his poetry, and hence the form was utilised as a means of distancing himself from his more sinister speakers. However, where the historical reading in this piece lies is in the fact that such accusations were based on many readers feeling the need to sympathise with such vulgar characters, as many of the themes highlighted in the poem (not including spontaneous murder) were indeed typical of the Victorian context in which this narrative was created.
In the article ‘Men of Blood’ author Carter J. Wood acknowledges that analyses of Victorian violence necessitate an understanding of that period’s “constructions of dutiful femininity that excused men’s ‘disciplinary’ violence ... or even actively supported male household dominance”, as Victorian gender ideology held women in a passive, loyal and submissive role with men having the authority to keep them in such a category. When analysing the poem more closely various references can be found as evidence towards Porphyria’s potential infidelity and hence a violation of the Victorian mindset: whether it be the “gay feast” bringing implications of a lust-driven evening out or the more subtle word “fall” perhaps making a reference to the Victorian “fallen woman” and hence prostitute. Thus one might take the view that in killing Porphyria the narrator is executing justice upon her in accordance with the time period, as female sexual promiscuity was heavily condemned by such a culture.
Interestingly, the poem’s triumphant ultimate line “And yet God has not said a word!” can also be seen to reflect the crisis of faith occurring in the Victorian era. Darwin’s publication of The Origins of Species in the mid-1800s instigated an unprecedented debate over the existence of God and so arguably by potentially challenging a divine intervention the speaker can be seen to highlight the loss in faith of that period. Hence the narrator’s brutish act goes unpunished by the end of the narrative due to the context in which he resides, as from a historical reading not only can the murder be perceived as justifiable due to it conforming to Victorian social ideologies but also due to no spiritual repercussions being implied, thereby transforming a seemingly mindless act into debatably logical.