Porphyria’s lover and the status of women in the Victorian era (Khairy,2013)

Below is my academic paper, written on the poem “Porphyria’s lover” by Robert Browning in the Victorian Era.


Asmaa Khairy


Introduction to Literature II [L54]

Dr. Erin Holiday

Qatar University

Porphyria’s lover and the status of women in the Victorian era


Porphyria’s lover by Robert browning is an interesting poem written in the Victorian era. It’s in general addressing love from a different masculine perspective. It’s, as well, full of literary devices relating its hero’s to the environment. Yet I find it very interesting to look at the status of women in this specific poem. In this paper, I argue that the poem highlights the status of women in the Victorian era between the expected and reality and how society reacts to it.

The first notable thing about the poem is its title. Robert Browning has put Porphyria as subject and showed the man –the lover- as her object. This signifies the change that took place during the Victorian era when women tried to stop being objectified. As I’ll prove, the poem’s title was written in that way to clarify that the main character in this poem was “Porphyria”, and not the person who we see her through his eyes which is her “lover”, and that she is the one who should be listened to. The lover in the poem is the narrator. He provides the perspective in which we, as audience, should view Porphyria. Although he’s not identified, but we cannot question his narration, which is quiet similar to the concept of society norms. Society norms are a set of rules that members of society should commit to and were set by men. In the Victorian era, women were objectified by the norms. By naming Porphyria and putting her as a subject and leaving the other party unidentified, Browning reflects the rebel against the norms that was to take place at that era.

The lover in the poem is a man of high or middle class, but they usually meet in a place outside the country where nobody could see them. Throughout the poem the author shows the thoughts of the lover towards Porphyria. They meet in a rainy night, she tries to seduce him but he reacts coldly. He questions her love to her; he questions her faithfulness and eventually decided that she should be killed. He kills her using her blond hair through strangling her with it. After killing her, the lover starts to feel for her again, and kisses her while she’s dead. Some suggest that this specific action is due to a psychological disorder “Necrophilia” but I disagree, I see it as a decent device of showing the expected status of women at that time; which is submissive and not proactive.

The poem discusses the reaction of the society towards women who were trying to be proactive in the society and they eventually kill their talent by either marriage or prohibition. I argue that, it shows the cold response of the society to women who they used to admire when they tried to change their status and get recognized in different fields rather than sitting at home and doing nothing.

In the poem, Robert Browning states that women who were younger were able to act critically in the society and try creating different status for themselves. He shows that as well as the disturbance they make to the society by saying “The rain set early in to-night” (1) which describes the differing in the women’s act. He follows by saying: “The sullen wind was soon awake

It tore the elm-tops down for spite, and did its worst to vex the lake” (2-4)

By this he represents the reaction of the society towards these different women as the wind was awake; means that the society’s alteration towards their actions. Their actions have disturbed the normalcy and this shows in the 3rd line where he said: “It tore the elm-tops down for spite” and finishes up that this rain and difference it makes, in addition to the reaction of the wind and the disturbance of the society’s normalcy have did the worst to the lake, as in have wasted it’s beauty or disturbed it very badly.

In the next stanza Robert browning shows the societies caution’s of the women’s change “ I listened with heart fit to break”(5) yet shows the sincerity of women and their determination, grace and lack of fear in the following lines: “When glided in Porphyria; straight,  She shut the cold out and the storm, and kneeled and made the cheerless grate” (6-8)

By that he states that women were stable in their movement and they didn’t see it as a disgrace. They have left behind them the worries of the society and went forward cheerfully with this sense of freedom.

This sense of freedom through writing by authors of that era is shown in the poem as the action of meeting a man in a faraway place in a rainy day despite of the rules of the society. Their tiny circle disregarding the society was warm and fruitful and this shows in the line “Blaze up and all the cottage warm” (9) Yet Robert Browning stated that despite this fruitfulness they were still seen as a disgrace. This show in the lines “Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl, and laid her soiled gloves by, untied” (11, 12). He expresses beautifully the difference between the society’s view of women and their view of themselves through the vision of the lover. The lover sees Prohyria as “dirty” or unclean with her dripping cloak and soiled gloves. Yet, he shows the determination of women in Porphyria’s putting down of her soiled gloves and standing up beautifully.

Robert goes on explaining the society’s view of the feminine side of rebel women. It is when she takes away her hat, that represented the way she has to look in public; and still has her feminine beauty and seduction. Yet, society doesn’t see nor appreciate that, and this shows in the reaction of the lover when she sits by his side. “Her hat and let the damp hair fall, and, last, she sat down by my side, and called me. When no voice replied” (13-15) Not only that, but the poem clearly explains that as long as they are pro-active they will not be wanted, this shows clearly after the explaining of the means of seduction Porphyria used in line 26 where the lover says: “But passion sometimes would prevail, nor could tonight’s gay feast restrain” (26,27)

Afterwards, Browning moves on to the time when these rebels finally lean up to the society, through very small actions like a look in the eye; they lose everything they fought for. The society feels the superiority and takes control. This is clearly shown in the following lines: “So, she was come through wind and rain. Be sure I looked up at her eyes, happy and proud; at last I knew, Porphyria worshipped me” He continues: “That moment she was mine, mine, fair, perfectly pure and good.” (30-33)

In these lines Browning shows the society’s victory, as she leans up for him he realizes finally that she worships him. He accepts her and is happy and proud. The he says that at that moment she was “his” which turned her back to the object phase that she fought to get out of.

Not only that, the poem continues as follows: “I found a thing to do, and all her hair. In one long yellow string I wound. Three times her little throat around, and strangled her. No pain felt she” (37-41) Here, Browning showed that the society, represented in the lover, took no chance, after turning her back into the object, he murdered her, which represents the oppressing of any future chance of independence or pro-activity. In the Victorian era, this used to happen in either forced marriage or the girl would be locked in the house; which is a murder of talent and ambitions.

What happens after the oppression? Browning illustrates that in two lines where he says: “I warily opened her lids: again; laughed the blue eyes without a stain.” (44, 45) The society takes control back, even more control than it used to have; which shows in the lovers control over Porphyria’s lids. Not only that, the society then fully accepts her and sees her as the most innocent person that has ever been.


Browning ends the poem saying: “Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how, her darling one wish would be heard. And thus we sit together now, and all night long we have not stirred, and yet God has not said a word!” (56-60) I argue that Browning reflects what the society says, that women should not try to change the norms, as life won’t work otherwise. The society clarifies a norm where everything will be clam and nothing will be instable. It also states that this has been going on for a very long time, and if it was wrong, God must have said a word.

To sum it up, Robert Browning has used this “awkward” love poem to show us the status of women during the Victorian era. Browning highlighted the disregard of talented and independent women. He also showed how a compromise might end up for the girl by losing all what she fought for, and eventually being suppressed with no other chance to get her freedom. He clarified how society norms where controlling to the extent of defining how love and life should be like. He eventually delivers a message that this will last unless women act to change it, exposing their suppressions and living up to the challenge, or else, no one would say a word.

Through quotes and explanations, I’ve proven that “women” symbolized in Porphyria were the subject of the poem. I’ve also proven that Robert Browning uses Porphyria’s lover as mean to discuss women’s status in the Victorian era’s society; illustrating the contradictions between the expected norm versus the rebellion women, and the suppression versus the acceptance.



Works Cited

Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B. Eighth Edition. n.d. 2054-2057.


Porphyira’s lover

By: Robert Browning



The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
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,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last l knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string l wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And l untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said aword!

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