Lengthy narrative poems are among the most difficult to discuss and analyze without entering into a simple retelling of the poem’s story. While Ashley deals with the poem’s elements in the order that they are presented in the poem, she provides a great deal of insight and analysis along the way discussing the poetic techniques that the author employs and their contribution to the poem. Ultimately, Ashley leaves readers with a compelling look into “an Unstable Man’s Mind”.
A Glimpse Into an Unstable Man’s Mind
When reading any piece of writing, one will usually form an opinion about the narrator and probably their state of mind through the way in which they portray certain events, or just because of the topic they are speaking of. “Porphyria’s Lover”, written by Robert Browning, is a prime example of a poem from which a negative opinion can be created about the narrator because of the words spoken and events described. The simple diction, rhythm and structure, as well as the complex theme of the poem help to convey to the audience that the words they have just given heed to are the reasonings of a mad man: a murderer, an unstable psychopath.
The poem begins simply enough, describing the stormy night on which Porphyria “glided” into the narrator’s home, shutting “the cold out” and making the “cottage warm” (6-7, 9). The events after this are ordinary and plain as well. Porphyria, wishing to be closer to her lover, sheds her “dripping cloak and shawl”, and takes a seat beside the narrator (11). After this, she makes an attempt to speak to him, but he makes no effort to converse with the woman. This is the first clue that there is something wrong with the narrator, because initially, while he was sitting alone in the cottage, he described that his heart was “fit to break” (5). One could interpret this to mean he was missing the woman he loved. So why then, when she came to spend the evening with him, did he not make an effort to talk to her? It is from here that the reader learns that their relationship is strained. The narrator speaks of Porphyria’s “pride” and “vainer”, two things that disallow her from being tied down, or owned by another (24). Her heart is “struggling” to admit it’s true feelings, and that is why she usually ends up with the narrator, but never for long. The narrator, so unstable and desperately in love, wishes nothing more than for Porphyria to just be in his life, to not be ashamed of her love for him, to be with him in his cozy cottage for eternity. That is why, with the “yellow hair” of hers that he mentions so often, he strangles her (18). This is one instance in which the reader can infer that the narrator is of unsound mind. He just strangled and killed a woman he supposedly loved, so that she would be his forever. This also displays how the rhythm and structure causes the poem to have such a chilling effect; one minute the evening has just begun – the narrator is happy, in love, and calm – then, the next minute, he is killing his lover and propping “her head up as [it was] before” (49). Whilst the words are clear and the structure and rhythm are noncomplex, they all definitely add to the overall effect and understanding of the poem.
Thematically speaking, this poem is anything but simple. Because the reader is so wrapped up in his love for Porphyria, he sees nothing but the positive aspect of his actions. He actually convinces himself that what he did was a favor because he allowed her “one wish” to finally “heard” (57). She would be with him forever, because he knew that is what she wanted. She did, after all, “worship” the speaker, and this he was sure of (33). He had to take such drastic actions because he knew there was no other way. Porphyria was too ashamed of their relationship and she would never fully be his. This is where the audience begins to realize just to what extent the reader is psychologically damaged. The way in which the narrator says “I am quite sure she felt no pain” is also an indication of his increasingly delusional state of mind (42). Of course she felt pain while she was being murdered! This was just the narrator’s way to convince himself that he did nothing wrong, just as he was attempting to do so when he stated that “God” had “not said a word” about his behavior (60). He has not been given a sign, he is not feeling guilty, God did not stop him from murdering Porphyria, because he, himself, is convinced that he did a good deed. He created a situation in which Porphyria did not have to be ashamed of her love for him, and in which he could have her love forever. So, to him, he helped his beautiful lover make a choice that she had been struggling with for so long. He helped her.
One can often realize a lot by the way a person presents themselves and speaks. This is an instance in which a poem’s narrator reveals his own personality, psychological issues, and secrets from the words he is saying. A lot can be inferred by what someone says, as long as the person listening (or reading) pays close enough attention. Robert Browning did a fine job in “Porphyria’s Lover” with portraying the way in which love can cloud a person’s mind and make them do terrible things in order to preserve that love they so utterly wish to possess.