Romantic writers often held interesting philosophies of sexuality. On one hand, they were taught to believe that sensual things were sinful, while on the other hand, they were constantly confronted with sexuality in everyday life. Robert Browning is one of the most renowned Romantic poets who often explored the issue of sexuality. In his dramatic poem Porphyrias Lover Browning demonstrates a malicious intertwining of violence, morals, masculinity, and sexuality. His use of setting, gender roles, and transgression illustrate this point.
Romanticism is partially characterized by its longing to return to a leisurely, peaceful, private era in which society is not confined in an urban setting. In the beginning of the poem, the setting is perfectly romantic: a cottage by a lake, a roaring storm, and perfect seclusion. As the depiction of the setting is complete, Porphyria enters, soiled from the storm. The woman comes from the woods, having escaped from a party to see her lover.
Here, Browning is equating the woman to nature. The two are traditionally compared to one another for their purity and beauty. This sets the model for what a woman should be. When Porphyria comes to see her lover, she is concerned with physical intimacy. First she performed a nineteenth century striptease for her lover:Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl, And laid her soild gloves by, untiedHer hat and let the damp hair fall.
Porphyria is taunting her lover. First taking off wet clothes, then removing her gloves (a very unladylike thing to do); Porphyria is seducing the narrator. The unwed woman then lets her hair fall in front of a man. This would be the modern day equivalent to a woman taking her shirt off in public. Porphyria then tries to physically entice him to come to her.
After no reply, she goes to him and touches his waist and bears her shoulder to the narrator. He is overcome with emotion, and wants the moment to last forever. In the time this poem was written, this overt sexuality was shocking and immoral. Good girls were not supposed to be sexual beings or have sexual feelings, but here we see a female pursuing a male. As opposed to the image of Porphyria as an innocent seductress, the narrator portrays himself as very masculine and sexist. He speaks of possessing Porphyria, how she worshiped him and how she would give herself to him forever.
The narrator says that he is very proud of all these things. These statements show that the narrator possesses some very sexist ideas. The narrator obviously has an odd, possibly forbidden relationship with her. Porphyria comes from a rich family, and cannot formally wed her lover. She sneaked away from a gay feast during a storm. She is Too weak, for all her hearts endeavor/To set her struggling passion free/From pride, and vainer tiesThese vainer ties represent her family and money.
In the narrators mind, Porphyria is selfish, not willing to marry below her class. In this case, it is thought that a woman should marry below her class in the name of love. However, Porphyria turns the tables on the narrator, goes against the sexual standard, and insists on a purely sexual relationship. The narrator is obviously slighted by her disdain for his social position.
He is a man, and should have what he wants; in his mind, he deserves her. He is a man who cannot have what he wants; therefore it is justifiable that he does anything, even murder, to get it. His transgressions are justified through his right to sexual conquest. For want of deserves yet cannot have, the man moves to violence. A critic of Browning, Barbara Melchiori, asserts that by killing Porphyria, the narrator preserves her purity and his own. This cannot be the reason behind her murder.
The narrator did indeed love Porphyria, but she constantly controls the relationship. She is the one who had to sneak away to see him. She is the one who will not pursue their relationship outside of his poor cottage. The man would not tolerate this dominance by a female, yet he is desperate to save their time together. Therefore, he murders his lover.
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