Madness in Porphyria's Lover and The Sisters

Categories: Poems

'Porphyria's Lover' was first released in 1834 and is one of Brownings most popular dramatic monologues. The speaker of the poem recounts the killing of his illegitimate lover Porphyria, by strangling her with her own hair so that she can be his forever. 'The Sisters' by Lord Alfred Tennyson published in 1881, similarly shares the themes of madness, love and obsession that are subtly presented in 'Porphyria's Lover'.

This essay will explore how 'Porphyria's Lover' and 'The Sisters' present the theme of madness and how it is portrayed by both poets.

Both poems were written in the 19th Century Victorian times. 'The Sisters' explores the ideas the Victorian Society had about the concept of tainted love and violence. During those times extra-marital affairs were fairly uncommon and as Victorian England was led by Christian Values, it was something that was frowned upon and was considered blasphemous. Victorian Society was obsessed with stories about spinsters, adultery and did their best to look as morally correct as possible.

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Women adulterers were to suffer a severe punishment, most lost their children and were disowned from their families. A novel that is a perfect example of this is the 'Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Victorian era was a time bound by Social Conventions; female adulterers were shunned by society and treated like pariahs, whereas male adulterers were not in fear of getting this treatment. There were many double standards set between men and women in that era, some of these remain even now. Women were regarded as inferior to Men and considered housebound, and had less rights than Men did.

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Victorian era was patriarchal, and what the man said was law. Browning, however, seems to undermine the concept of this in the poem, by making Porphyria the domineering and the main character.

The name Porphyria is another point that bears a remarkable revelation. By a contemporary reader it can be interpreted as a neurological illness which can cause acute mania, hallucinations, anxiety and other mental complications. This knowledge in itself would make the contemporary reader assume that the name Porphyria and the illness are inter-related and that the name of Porphyria was chosen purely because of this. In addition, the reader would assume that the behaviour of the speaker is in fact, caused by this illness, meaning that the thing that is destroying him and contributing to his madness is Porphyria, his lover and the illness itself. A reader in the 19th Century, on the other hand, would believe that Porphyria translates as a precious stone, of a purple colour that has a cold surface and a smooth texture. Porphyria stones were known to be very exorbitant and only people of high status were able to afford them. This is a reference to Porphyria herself, who is believed to be from the Upper-Class Society and very beautiful, just as the Stone, and likewise ends up cold and dead, like a stone.

Browning uses many different poetic devices to portray madness in the poem, one such device is pathetic fallacy. It is used at the beginning of the poem, and is useful as a metaphor describing the speaker's mood, the quote, '...the sullen wind was soon awake, it tore the elm tops down for spite, and its worst to vex the lake.' reflects on his dark and volatile mood. The Lovers unstable frame of mind and the fact that he appears to be such a depressed and erratic character further reinforces the theme of madness.

The placid manner in which the lover recalls the story, seemingly trying to vindicate his actions suggests a sense of underlying madness and an unhealthy fixation on Porphyria. There are many references of Porphyria's hair in the poem, her weapon of seduction and manipulation that she often used, '...and spread, o'er all, her yellow hair'. Ironically, her hair is ultimately the weapon the lover kills her with. The lover murders Porphyria with her own hair, '...and all her hair in one long string I wound three times her little throat around, and strangled her.'

The lover tries to convince the reader and at the same time himself that Porphyria did not feel any pain, 'no pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain', the repetition of that phrase makes it appear forced, as if he was trying to reassure himself. This is the only part throughout the whole poem in which the speakers mentality is the most sane, as it makes it appear as if he has a conscience, and is regretting his action, another quote that reinforces this is ' I warily oped her lids: again' the 'warily' showing his uneasiness. The lover tries to rationalise his crime by saying that because he made sure her death was painless, he feels that the ferocity of the deed wouldn't be as bad; this further intensifies the theme of madness Browning has created, as it shows the lovers increasing insanity and his precarious frame of mind.

The lover attempts to vindicate his deed by saying, '...the smiling rosy little head, so glad it got its utmost will', he believes that it was Porphyria's wish to be murdered and be with him forever, 'her darling one wish would be heard.'

Another way the lover tries to justify his murder is when he says, 'And yet God has not said a word!' he assumes that because God is silent, his crime has either gone unnoticed- therefore, he will not receive punishment- or God is content with what had happened. The fact that the lover expects to hear a voice he thinks to be God is proof enough that he is unstable; this also hints that the lover may suffer from a mental condition known as schizophrenia, fortifying the theme of madness.

Porphyria is also portrayed as domineering, particularly in her relationship to the speaker, Porphyria was the powerful one in their relationship up until the point where the lover murders her, 'three times her little throat around, and strangled her' he is also under the impression that he is an omnipresent being worth of worship, 'Porphyria worshiped me'. The lovers grasp on reality seems exceedingly senseless and the reader questions the lovers increasingly insane notions that makes up the lovers mind, having also described her to have 'glided in', like an Angel, a pure being that is the exact opposite of what Porphyria is- an adulterer, who is not afraid to exploit people of mental instability in order to satisfy her own sexual desires.

Brownings use of enjambment is another way in which he shows madness in the poem. The lack of punctuation in the poem makes it appear as if it is non-stop, as if the lover is rambling, and disturbingly by himself and a person he had just murdered after his necrophiliac tendencies are first revealed. Free verse allows the poem to seem as if the lover is musing to himself, recounting the details of his day, and in this case making the lover seem more delusional. It also shows the fact that the murder was not planned, it was a spontaneous act provoked by the lovers 'sudden thought' of seeing Porphyria's dead body in his mind and feeling aroused, reinforcing the theme of madness as it shows the lovers lack of control over his emotions.

Necrophilia is one element of madness that is shown throughout the end of the poem. Alliteration is used in the phrase, 'blushed bright beneath my burning kiss', implying that he is in the first stage of necrophilia. & nbsp;

Browning uses phallic imagery to support this, '...a sudden thought of one so pale...made my heart swell and still it grew.' The fact that he enjoyed this vision is enough to repel the reader into thinking of the mounting insanity of the lover, and how he is not able to be called rational while boasting such thoughts.

The theme of power, shifts considerably when the lover murders Porphyria, 'only this time my shoulder bore her head', insisting that now she is in his power completely because her head is on his shoulder, as opposed to his on hers, '...made her smooth white shoulder bare,...stooping, made my cheek lie there.' this suggests an underlying notion of jealousy of the power she used to possess over him and of his gladness of finally achieving what he wants, 'that moment she was mine, mine, fair', as if she was something to be possessed by him.

The lover also believes that it is Porphyria's choice not to leave her husband, unaware of the social stigma surrounded by adulterers, this shows his warped view of reality and signifies the extent of his delusion. Again, he seems to be progressively more out of touch with reality. It makes it seem as if he is imprisoned in his mind, and is unable to interact with people other than Porphyria, this would also explain his unprincipled notions on what he believes is love, which in fact is an unhealthy obsession and a relationship based on personal gain.

Browning has perfectly portrayed the madness in Porphyria's Lover, the fact that it is a dramatic monologue is also a revelation that explains the lover's thoughts and portrayed his haunting insanity well. Due to the use of enjambment, the reader is able to figure out what is going on in the story because it is written to appear as if he is having a conversation- albeit with himself in the story- and includes the reader into it.

Another poem that shares the same characteristics as 'Porphyria's Lover' is 'The Sisters'. Similar to 'Porphyria's Lover' in the aspects of madness and tainted love, but the madness in 'The Sisters' is unlike the madness in 'Porphyria's Lover'. The Sisters motive for murdering the Earl is understandable as there was provocation as well as the act of wanting to get revenge. Another difference is in the way the murder takes place; the Sister stabs her lover repeatedly, while Porphyria gets strangled with her own hair.

At the beginning of the poem, the Sister explains of her motive for the murder that will take place, 'we were two daughters of one race...she fell...therefore revenge became me well'. The phrase 'she fell' is a metaphor describing that she fell pregnant in a relationship that was not bound by marriage, which was, in the 19th Century, considered very blasphemous. The sister's lover, the Earl is of high status and is a respected upper-class man this is supported by the fact that titles such as 'Earl' was not common among lower-class Victorians. It is speculated that the Sister had committed suicide because of the Earl and her unexpected pregnancy, 'She died; she went to burning flame; she mix'd her ancient blood with shame.', as it was such an abhorrent feat during those times, the sister felt that it was the only way she would escape from the cruel punishment she would receive from the Victorian society.

The Sister is outraged by this, 'therefore revenge became me well' and the writer creates madness here as it shows of the woman's uncontrollable desire to avenge her sister. Another huge difference in the poem compared to 'Porphyria's Lover' is the fact that this murder is premeditated and is done out of revenge. In 'Porphyria's Lover' there was no provocation aside from the Lover's necrophiliac tendencies. The fact that she spent 'Whole weeks and months, early and late' to get her revenge shows her obsession to get reprisal and her predator-like indignation for revenge. The phrase 'she lay in wait' brings to mind a lion about to strike its prey. This also craftily adds to the madness as it suggests of the Sister slowly turning into an animal with no rational thoughts.

As with 'Porphyria's Lover' the Sister also seems to have a fixation on the Earl. The phrase 'O the earl was fair to see!' is repeated in each paragraph, suggesting the fact that the Sister may have liked the Earl too and was jealous of her sister's relationship with the Earl. 'She was the fairest in the face' suggests the Sisters contempt for not being picked by the Earl as his lover, making her desire to get revenge on the Earl a twofold. Her jealousy over her sister and the fact that the Earl was the cause of her sister's suicide are some factors that could explain the madwoman's need for retribution.

Another way the writer creates madness is by the usage of repeated refrain throughout the poem. It acts as pathetic fallacy to show the Sisters increasing madness. The chorus-like phrase goes from 'The wind is blowing in turret and tree' to 'the wind is raving in turret and tree' the verb changes throughout the poem to show her increasing insanity.

The Sister skilfully seduces the Earl, luring him into her trap, 'I made a feast; I bade him come...I won his love, I brought him home.', this adds to the madness as it shows the lengths the Sister will go to get what she wants, going as far as to make him fall in love with her in order to get her revenge, 'to win his love I lay in wait'. The phrase 'And after supper, on a bed, upon my lap he laid his head' has a romantic air to it. This is the only part in the whole poem where the stereotypical romantic scene comes in, reappearing when the madwoman- after killing him- 'curl'd and comb'd his comely head'.

Again, the Sister comments on the Earls beauty, 'O, the earl was fair to see.' including numerous references to his beautiful appearance throughout the poem. The oxymoron, 'I hated him with the hate of hell, but loved his beauty passing well.' this shows the Sisters contradictive belief; her lust and her purpose are completely different, her lust in this instance, defying her purpose. This is an addition to the theme of madness as it shows the madwoman's unruly, contradictive and whirlwind emotions towards the Earl.

A further indication of the Sisters increasing insanity showing signs of her enjoyment in necrophilia. The turn of phrase, 'he look'd so grand when he was dead' supports this, as it suggests that the Sister is attracted toward the Earls dead body. The verb in the repeated refrain goes from 'raving' back to 'blowing' showing her calm state of mind, after she had fulfilled her deed. This, in addition to everything else, emphasises the madness as it shows the madwoman's lack of conscience- treating the murder of the Earl as someone would treat a domestic task.

The ending phrase 'I wrapt his body in the sheet', is the Sisters closure from the whole episode and has an ambiguous meaning that could refer to her success in getting reprisal, or can literally be interpreted as the Earl being laid by his mothers grave. The extent of the Sisters madness is shown, who after killing the Earl still resumes appreciating his attractiveness, the poem ending with the phrase, 'O, the earl was fair to see!'. The ease in which the Sister slips back to normality after killing the Earl fortifies the theme of madness as it shows of her perverse principles and her warped view of reality.

On evaluation, Tennyson uses many different techniques to portray the poem in the way it is supposed to be; a dramatic monologue, showing her insanity. The usage of repeated refrain to show her mounting madness is also useful, as well as the usage of oxymoron in the poem. 'Porphyria's Lover' likewise manages to effectively create the tense atmosphere when reading it and the theme of madness is depicted well in the poem. Both writer's usage of literary devices such as structured verse, rhyme and repeated refrain successfully captures the theme of madness in the poems and creates the atmosphere it was meant to, simultaneously captivating the reader into the story. In contrast of Browning's use of enjambment and Tennyson's use of structured verb, the outcomes of both poems are not deterred and the desired effect is gathered from the readers.

To conclude, both poems successfully entrance the reader, while drawing light to the issues and values of 19th Century Britain. Challenging the ideals of the Victorian society and inadvertently indicating the huge changes and the great difference of the ideals of then compared to the present, while concurrently showing the reader what values and principles have remained the same in contemporary Britain.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Madness in Porphyria's Lover and The Sisters. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Madness in Porphyria's Lover and The Sisters essay
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