I think Porphyria’s Lover could be read in many ways. For me, the most interesting thing is the contrast between the male and female characters. They seem to represent two completely different reactions to love. Porphyria embraces her feelings of love. She comes to comfort her lover even in the midst of a great storm, and she fills his home with warmth. Browning writes, “She shut the cold out and the storm, / And kneeled and made the cheerless grate / Blaze up, and all the cottage warm” (lines 7-9). She also works hard to comfort her lover and ends up confessing her love for him. The lover says, “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” (lines 16-21).
After the confession of love, Porphyria’s lover finds himself with a choice to make. What should he do? He notes, “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 wound / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her” (lines 36-41).
Is he attempting to preserve her love by capturing it in that moment? Or is he simply rejecting it? Does his crime corrupt the purity of that love? Or does his act show the love to be one-sided? I think you could look at this portion in any number of ways. For me, the lover seems to care for her in some way, but his feelings are odd. He seems to feel he benefits as much in her death as he did receiving her love when she was alive. When she dies, he remarks, “I, its love, am gained instead” (line 55). He even sits with Porphyria for the remainder of the evening. What I cannot decide is what he thinks he accomplished. Has he preserved the feelings of the present? Did he prevent those feelings of love from changing by stopping time?
Was Porphyria a fool for giving in to love and feeling safe with this man? Was her lover a fool for ending her living affection? It seems to me that Porphyria and all she represents triumph in the end. Even after her lover has strangled her, he describes her features as beautiful: “again / Laughed the blue eyes without a stain. . . . / her cheek once more / Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss” (lines 44-48). These images mirror the comfort and warmth Porphyria brings him in the beginning of the poem. To me, it seems as if the signs of her love remain—even in killing her, her lover didn’t diminish that love. Was he a fool for trying?
I can’t say I understood every part of this. I know that I could have looked at this poem from a variety of angles, and I know that this could be analyzed in much greater depth. In the end, this poem left me with more questions than answers, but I think this is a good example of how Browning leaves messages and clues about the characters for us to sort out.