This poem, like much of Browning’s work, conflates sex, violence, and aesthetics. Like many Victorian writers, Browning was trying to explore the boundaries of sensuality in his work. How is it that society considers the beauty of the female body to be immoral while never questioning the morality of language’s sensuality—a sensuality often most manifest in poetry? Why does society see both sex and violence as transgressive? What is the relationship between the two? Which is “worse”? These are some of the questions that Browning’s poetry posits. And he typically does not offer any answers to them: Browning is no moralist, although he is no libertine either. As a fairly liberal man, he is confused by his society’s simultaneous embrace of both moral righteousness and a desire for sensation; “Porphyria’s Lover” explores this contradiction.
The overarching message of the poem is thus that humans are full of contradictions. We are drawn to both the things we love and the things we hate, and we are eminently capable of rationalizing either choice. Through such measured and considered language, we are invited to approve of the murder even as it disgusts us, and in the murder itself we are to forgive the woman for what we (at least if we were Victorian) might have otherwise judged her. Humans are creatures of transience and chaos, even as we belabor the attempt to convince ourselves that we are rational and that our choices are sound.