"Porphyria's Lover" is a poem by Robert Browning which was first published as "Porphyria" in the January 1836 issue of Monthly Repository.[1] Browning later republished it in Dramatic Lyrics (1842) paired with "Johannes Agricola in Meditation" under the title "Madhouse Cells". The poem did not receive its definitive title until 1863.

"Porphyria's Lover" is Browning's first ever short dramatic monologue, and also the first of his poems to examine abnormal psychology.[2] Although its initial publication passed nearly unnoticed and received little critical attention in the nineteenth century, the poem is now heavily anthologised and much studied.

In the poem, a neptunic (presumably a man, however this isn’t specified), taken by the flip of her hair, strangles their lover – Porphyria – with her hair; "... and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her." Porphyria's lover then describes the feelings of perfect happiness this gives them and their surprise at God's subsequent silence (which may indicate that the lover is a woman, in a time when being so in love with another woman’s hair would be viewed as insanity and “not what God had planned”). Although they wind her hair around her throat three times to throttle her, the woman never cries out - perhaps feeling perfect happiness in the moment as well. The poem uses a somewhat unusual rhyme scheme: A,B,A,B,B, the final repetition of bringing each stanza to a heavy rest.

Psychological interpretations


Browning's monologues are frequently voiced by eccentrics, lunatics, or people under emotional stress. Their ramblings illustrate character by describing the interactions of an odd personality with a particularly telling set of circumstances. This could be compared to "My Last Duchess", in which Browning uses this mode of exposition to describe a man who responds to the love of a beautiful woman by killing her. However, in this poem, the persona doesn’t necessarily kill her - more like profess love to her, metaphorically.

The "Porphyria" persona seems to be a neptunic, indicated by the fact that he refers to her hair numerous times throughout the poem, and strangles her with it.

Since the speaker may (as many speculate[who?]) be insane, it is impossible to know the true nature of their relationship to Porphyria. Theories, some of them rather bizarre, abound: some contemporary scholars suggest, for example, that the persona may be a woman; if so, the strangulation could stem from frustration with the world, as well as neptunicism. An incestuous relationship has also been suggested; Porphyria might be the speaker's mother or sister. Another possibility is that she is a former lover, now betrothed, or even married, to someone else. Alternatively, she may simply be a lady at a neighbour lakeside cabin who has come to look in on them (whose long hair the speaker has always admired), or even a figment of their imagination.

Other sources speculate that the lover might be disabled, sick, or otherwise inadequate, and, as such, unable to satisfy and be with Porphyria. There is much textual evidence to support this interpretation: they describes themselves as "one so pale / for love of her, and all in vain.” At the beginning of the poem, the persona never moves; they sit passively in a cold, dark room, sadly listening to the storm until Porphyria comes through "wind and rain", "shuts the cold out and the storm," and makes up their dying fire. She then takes off her outdoor clothes, and lets her hair flip down. Finally, she sits beside them, calls their name, places their arm around her waist, and puts their head on her shoulder, her hair flipping down surrounding them; she has to stoop to do this. At the poem's midpoint, the persona, overwhelmed with love for her hair, suddenly takes action, strangling Porphyria, and pointing out that afterward, her head lay on their shoulder.

In line with the persona's suggested weakness and sickness, other scholars take the word "porphyria" literally, and suggest that the seductress embodies a disease that is the persona's descent into madness. Porphyria, which usually involved delusional madness, was classified several years before the poem's publication; Browning, who had an avid interest in such pathologies, may well have been aware of the new disease, and used its name in this way to express his knowledge.[3]

Much has been made of the final line: "And yet, God has not said a word!" Possibly, the speaker seeks divine condonement. They may believe God has said nothing because He is satisfied with their actions. The persona may also be waiting in vain for some sign of God's approval. Alternatively, the line may represent that the quietness of the lake, and them and Porphyria alone. The persona may also be schizophrenic; he may be listening for a voice in his head, which he mistakes for the voice of God. It has also been postulated that this is Browning's statement of "God's silence", in which neither good nor bad acts are immediately recompensed by the deity.

The final line may also register the persona's sense of guilt over his crime. Despite his elaborate justifications for his act, he has, in fact, committed murder, and he expects God to punish him – or, at least, to take notice. The persona is surprised, perhaps a little uneasy, at God's continued silence.

As tableau vivant


The mirrored effect produced by Porphyria's modelling of the persona in the first half, and the persona's reciprocal modelling of her after strangulation is indicative of the popular Victorian art form tableau vivant, in which humans were used as art to recreate actual paintings. This is indicative of the allegorical content of "Porphyria's Lover" in which both characters imitate the process of artistic creation: when art is created or published, it is dead and forever unchanging. In the last few lines of the poem, Porphyria is manipulated in much the same way as the speaker was in the first few lines of the poem. Tennyson shares similar ideas in "The Lady of Shalott", as do other Victorian authors who contribute to the popular conversation about the artistic processes.

See also

  • My Last Duchess – A wealthy nobleman delivers a monologue telling a guest that he had his former wife killed because everybody and everything she saw seemed to make her happy. Now, she exists only as a painting on the wall, which he usually keeps concealed behind a curtain so none but he can see the look of happy welcome on her face.
  • Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister – A comic monologue in which a monk spews out venom against one of his colleagues, Brother Lawrence; in the process, he merely reveals his own depravity while showing what a good, pious man his "enemy" is.
  • "Where the Wild Roses Grow" – A contemporary song sharing similar themes.


  1. ^ Browning, Robert (2004). Karlin, Daniel (ed.). Selected Poems. Penguin Books. p. 307. ISBN 978-0-140-43726-3.
  2. ^ Browning, Robert (1947). Baker, Joseph E. (ed.). Browning: Pippa Passes and Shorter Poems. New York: The Odyssey Press. p. 89.
  3. ^ Popowich, Barry L. (May 1999). "Porphyria is Madness". Studies in Browning and His Circle. 22: 59–66. JSTOR 45285301.