Gregory Walton-Green offers a Structuralist 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.
The key element to appreciating Porphyria’s lover is in understanding how Browning repeatedly subverts our expectations. In the first nine lines, we are offered a scene that could come just as easily from the Romantic poetry of the earlier 19th Century; the immensely impressive might of nature at its most ferocious is juxtaposed with the doting girl who makes the rural cottage comfortable and warm for the narrator. From this we might expect something along the lines of Coleridges’s “Frost at Midnight”, another poem set in a cottage, with a fire burning, but this one goes on to reflect at length on the power of nature, a common theme in Romantic poetry. Instead of these musings, Browning plunges us into a description of a woman being overtly sexual, undressing in front of her lover and taking the lead in their relationship. This sort of open display of sexuality had been absent from poetry since the Renaissance, and so is entirely unexpected in a poem that starts off in a Romantic vein.
If Browning were to continue to develop along this plot-line, he might have taken a similar route as Renaissance poet Sir Thomas Wyatt in his poem “They flee from me”. In it, we are offered a description of female dominance also seen in Porphyria: the title characters are described as “seek[ing]” the narrator with “naked feet”, and one woman is said to have “caught me [the narrator] in her arms” after her “loose gown” had fallen from her shoulders. The parallels with Porphyria are self-evident. However, from line twenty-two, Browning moves away somewhat from suggestive imagery, and instead focuses onto Porphyria’s innermost emotions, almost reminiscent of his contemporary Tennyson. Godiva, in relation to her internal struggle between “proper” behaviour and her obligations, and Mariana, in her unfulfilled desire for her absent lover, surrounded by a depressing, decaying landscape, both share some similarities with Porphyria.
Just as we are starting to identify with Porphyria, Browning immediately turns our view instead onto her lover, the narrator, instead. The romantic imagery of his “heart swell[ing]”, means that we expect what he was “to do” to be something sexual in nature, to release the tension built up in the earlier seductive depiction of Porphyria undressing. Yet once again, Browning has deceived us as to where the poem is leading. He releases the tension not by a sexual encounter, but by murder. This plot twist is central to the poem, highlighting Browning’s skill at structuring his work, but remaining in keeping with the poem as a whole. For instance, he continues to describe the actions after the death in terms of the language of desire, albeit having perverted such language to depict a selfish need for control rather than love. Furthermore, the macabre ending leads us to see the Gothic suggestions in the introductory lines when the narrator is describing the tempestuous weather.
By these methods, Browning manages to tie the poem together as one complete work despite the numerous subversions of expectation. In Porphyria’s lover, Browning has mastered the skill of manipulating plot, which allows him to consistently surprise the reader. As a narrative poem, plot is crucial in shaping our understanding, and this is why I believe the careful structuring of “Porphyria’s Lover”, which draws on so many genres and literary traditions, is the most important element both in forming the character of the poem, and in our interpretation.