A Comparison Between ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ And ‘The Laboratory’

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Robert Browning lived during the Victorian era and wrote poems on a wide variety of subjects. Browning was intrigued by abnormal states of mind and two poems based upon this were ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, written in 1836, and ‘The Laboratory’, written in 1844.

Porphyria’s Lover’ is an account of a young woman’s last moments alive written by her lover and murderer. The poem opens on a wild, stormy night with the gentleman sitting alone and depressed. The gentleman’s lover, Porphyria, entered the cottage and lit a fire in the grate. Once the woman had removed her hat, coat and shawl she called the gentleman to her, he didn’t reply so she approached him and put her arms around his waist. The woman then proceeded to lean her lovers head against her bare shoulder and whispered that she loved him.

The lines; Too weak for all her hearts endeavour,

To set its struggling passion free.

From pride and vainer ties dissever,

And give her self to me for ever.

Suggest that Porphyria was possibly of a higher social class than her lover and could not commit herself to him as it would be frowned upon.

After a moment’s thought, the gentleman realises this woman must love him as she was at a ‘gay feast’, but her love and passion for him willed her to leave the feast and travel through the storm to be with him.

It was in that moment he realised she worshipped him; he wanted to savour the moment. He wanted to savour the moment.

The lines ‘I found

A thing to do and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.’

Describe how naturally it came to this man to kill a woman he loved by strangling her with her own blonde hair. The calmness and natural behaviour of the murderer add to the horror of such a scene and reflects upon this man’s insanity.

The man worried that he may have caused his love pain, this is shown in the line; ‘No pain felt she;

I am quite sure she felt no pain’.

The repetition of the idea that Porphyria felt no pain suggests the man had to reassure himself as well as the reader of the account that Porphyria, felt no pain. The gentleman proceeds to tell the reader how he could be quite sure that her death was painless. He describes it as:

As a bud holds a bee

I warily opened her lids; again

Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.

The comparison between Porphyria’s eyes and a bud suggests how cautious the man was at opening them for fear of seeing an expression of terror in them, much similar to how you would cautiously open a bud for fear of finding a bee and being stung. The man found no look of terror in the woman’s eyes and, relieved, he unwrapped the hair from around his lover’s neck. The idea that Porphyria’s cheek ‘once again blushed bright’ refers to the sudden surge of blood being able to flow back to the woman’s head and face, thus giving her a final blushing appearance.

‘I propped her head up as before

Only this time my shoulder bore

Her head, which droops upon it’s still:

The smiling rosy little head,

So glad it had its utmost will,

That all it scorned at once is fled,

And I its love am gained instead.’

These lines mean that he leant Porphyria’s head against his shoulder, as she had done just moments before. The man believed she was happy now he had killed her and stayed in the same physical position all night, sitting with her leaning against him. The gentleman believed he had done no wrong because god would have interrupted him had he done.

The theme of this poem is the study of insanity. ~What makes the man appear to be insane is how he carried out a murder, completely unprovoked and in a calm state of mind. The man carried on after the death as if his actions had been completely acceptable, as god had not punished him or sent him a sign to say otherwise.

The style of this poem is quite old fashioned, that is, the vocabulary of the piece is of several centuries ago. The use of metaphors allows the reader to visualise the scene e.g. ‘As a shut bud that holds a bee

I warily opened her lids’

This is particularly effective because it enables the reader to visualise the cautiousness of the action.

The use of personification is effective (in the first four lines), giving the weather human qualities demonstrates its persistence.

E.g. ‘The sullen wind was soon awake,

It tore the elm tops down for spite

And did it’s best to vex the lake’

Enjambement (in the sentences describing Porphyria’s death) conveys the continuous unhurried movements, willing the reader to continue.

E.g. ‘In one yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.’

Robert Browning’s other poem; ‘The Laboratory’ is also about a psychotic murderer. The poem opens with the verse:

Now that I, tying they glass mask tightly,

May gave through these faint smokes curling whitely,

As thou pliest thy trade in this devil’s smithy –

Which is the poison to poison her prithee?

From the mention of poisoning a female we know that a murder is being planned. The reader is able to imagine the scene as the culprit ties the fume mask around her face and gazes around the laboratory at all the concoctions. The thought of curling white smoke suggests that Arsenic is being prepared.

The second verse indicates the motive for the murder. The culprit is female and wishes her lover’s mistress dead for the betrayal. The woman imagines her lover to be laughing at her misfortune while he believes her to be at church crying for her loss, he is oblivious to her whereabouts as demonstrated in the lines;

They believe my tears flow

While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear

Empty church, to pray God in, for them – I am here.

The next verse of the poem uses alliteration and rhyme when describing the making of the poison. This sets a sort of rhythm to the poem and may make it more appealing to the reader.

‘Grind away, moisten and mash up thy pasts,

Pound at thy prouder – I am not in haste.’

The last two lines of this verse explain the woman’s preference to watch the potion being made than to go out socialising.

‘Better sit thus, and observe thy strange things,

Than go where men wait me and dance at the king’s.’

The poem continues by describing how intrigued and fascinated the woman is by the phials contain blue liquid and wonders whether the contents are poisonous. It then continues with the woman commenting on how easy it would be to carry around ‘pure death’ by concealing it in jewellery and everyday items such as ‘an ear-ring, a casket, a signet, a fan mount’ or a ‘filigree basket’.

The poem goes further in depth of this woman’s insanity when the narrator mentions how she could benefit from poisoning other women who are physically more attractive than she.

‘Elise with, with her head

And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop


The woman starts to lose patience and begins asking questions about the appearance of her requested poison and whether or not it will do her bidding. The quantity of the potion is small and the woman wonders whether it would kill the mistress as she is tall and used it to her advantage to ensnare her lover.

Moving on the poem goes even further into the matter as the psychopath explains how it was only the previous night when she began to contemplate the murder originating from a jealous hatred. The woman wishes her rival to suffer pain and death and for her lover to look upon and remember the dying face. This is conveyed in the two verses;

For only last night, as they whispered, I brought

My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought

Could I keep them one half-minute fixed, she would fall

Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all.

Not that I bid you spare her the pain;

Let death be felt and the proof remain;

Brand, burn up, bite into its grace –

He is sure to remember her dying face.

The penultimate verse summarises the completion of the poison, the last verse, however, discusses her fee to the alchemist. Out of gratitude she offers him jewels, gold and a kiss. She asks for him to brush the dust from her clothes.

Now take my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,

You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will.

But brush the dust off me, lest horror it brings

Ere I know it – next moment I dance at the kings.

The theme of this poem is jealous hatred. The woman’s motive was: if she could not be with her lover then he was to be alone in the world and suffer, as she did when she was betrayed.

The poem is written in quatrains, each containing two rhyming couplets.

e.g.: But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings

Ere I know it – next moment I dance at the king’s.

I find that it makes the sentences flow into each other making it an easier format to read while setting a rhythm.

The use of alliteration in the line ‘grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste,’ gives a more descriptive effect of the process of poison making. The rhythm to the poem also gives the atmosphere of a chant.

The use of metaphors in the poem e.g. ‘devil’s smithy’, allows the reader to visualise the epitome of evil that is taking place in the room, the potions are also referred to as ‘treasures’ demonstrating how important these poisons are to the woman in her psychotic time of need. The use of metaphors allows the reader to compare the situation or object in question to another thus allowing the reader to visualise more clearly.

The similarity between the two poems is that they are both written in the first person i.e. the psychopath, and are originated from loving relationships.

The differences in the poems are that one is motivated by a love and a fear of loss and the other from love, loss and jealous hatred.

A noticeable difference in poems is the tenses. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ was written in the past tense as an account of the murder which had taken place. ‘The Laboratory’ was written in the present and future tense as a plan of how a murder is to take place. The style and format is another difference between the two poems.

Of the two poems, I preferred ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ because it was written as an account with an ending,where-as ‘The Laboratory’ was written without concluding whether the murder was carried out.

Another reason for me preferring this poem was that it captured the true mind of a psychotic murderer; the gentleman did not understand how awful his actions were and believed his actions had been justified as God had not objected. I found it horrific that someone could be so determined that they had done no wrong that they would let their faith and God distinguish whether they had done rite or wrong as opposed to their own conscience.

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