Porphyria’s Lover as a Dramatic Monologue
The dramatic monologue is Robert Browning‘s most important innovation in form. It is the detached speech in which he takes some striking individual at a highly special moment in his life, and instead of dissecting him from the outside, as an ordinary novelist would do, he penetrates to the depth of his nature, and through his own utterances, makes him lay bare the innermost secrets of his life-his motive, good or bad, his temperament, his personality, the aberration of his thought, his self-deception, his way of looking at things. In short, in a dramatic monologue a soul’s history is told in an episode of an hour. “The ideal aim of the dramatic monologue,” as Hudson says, “may be defined as the self-portrayal, without ulterior purpose, of the personality of the supposed speaker.”
The dramatic monologue is predominantly psychological, analytical, and argumentative, like the soliloquy. But while in a soliloquy the person concerned speaks to and argues with himself, in a dramatic monologue the speaker speaks and addresses his arguments to another person who generally keeps silent. The dramatic monologue contains such dramatic elements as the abrupt beginning, inner conflict, contrast of characters and situations, and above all self-detachment.
Porphyria’s Lover is a representative dramatic monologue of Robert Browning. He catches Porphyria’s lover at a highly special moment of his life-the moment when he is sitting with the dead body of his beloved killed by himself, and lays bare, through his own utterances, the history of his soul-his doubts and fears about Porphyria’s love for him, the supreme joy he has when she surrenders herself to him, body and soul, forever, in complete disregard of her social position and marriage conventions, his reaction on coming to know, “Porphyria worshipped me” (“…. surprise/Made my heart swell and still it grew”), his inhuman jealousy which leads him to strangle his beloved with her long hair made into a knot, and above all, his hard-heartedness which forbids him feeling repentance for his inhuman homicide. The pressure of the moment forces him to confess what he would fain to conceal in normal times. Thus he reveals that he had physical contact with Porphyria before:
“….. her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss.”
It is incorrect to say that there is no listener in Porphyria’s Lover. Porphyria’s lover’s story is addressed to a silent listener, perhaps a visitor, as is evident in the line,
“Be sure I looked up at her eyes” (line 31) or
“And thus we sit together now.” (line 58)
Porphyria’s Lover is predominantly psychological and analytical. The first few lines probe the turbulent state of the lover’s mind and his nervous excitement. The lines “Be sure I looked up at her eyes/Happy and proud” (II. 31-32) show Browning as a great psychologist. When the lover has the physical intimacy with Porphyria, all his doubts and fears are gone and he feels happy and proud. In real life too the uncertainties and apprehensions of a lover evaporate when he enjoys his ladylove’s company.
Browning explores the mental conflict of the lover in the line, “While I debated what to do.” The lover is in a state of “to be or not to be.” He is unable to decide whether he should let the moment of the rich fulfilment of his long-cherished love go and allow himself to be swayed again by doubts and fears or he should make the happy moment into an eternity (i.e. he should make the instant eternity). The poet also analyses Porphyria’s mind torn asunder by the conflict whether or not she should turn her back upon her status and marriage obligations and surrender herself to her lover for ever:
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride and vainer ties dissever
And give herself to me forever.”
(IL. 21-25) The poem is argumentative. The lover argues to the silent listener why he killed Porphyria at the moment of the richest fulfilment of his love.
The poem contains such other dramatic elements as contrasts and abrupt beginning. Porphyria’s Lover is a poem of striking contrasts in characterization and situations. The stormy weather outside contrasts with the dead silence in the cottage where the lover is waiting anxiously for Porphyria and into which she steps silently. Her happy, unsuspecting character is contrasted with the suspecting, excitable and passionate nature of her lover. When she makes his cheek rest on her smooth white bosom and murmurs that she deeply loves and worships him, there is the climax in the drama of love, and then there is the sudden anticlimax in his strangling her with the very long hair she spreads over his head and shoulders out of love. These contrasts heighten the dramatic intensity of the poem.
The poem begins abruptly: “The rain set in early tonight.” It is marked by self-detachment, the supreme dramatic capacity by which the poet forgets and obscures himself. While laying bare the lover’s mind the poet nowhere lays bare his own.
To sum up, Porphyria’s Lover is a typical dramatic monologue.