How are women presented in relation to their partners in some of the pre-1914 poems you have studied?
In this essay, I will be discussing and comparing the poems ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover.’ I will be looking at many different criteria including the poet’s message and the form of the poem and how this relates to the meaning. I will also include different references from other poems I have studied.
‘My Last Duchess’ is a long dramatic monologue by Robert Browning. Browning has the reputation of creating moving love poems. However, this dramatic monologue shows love in a stranger’s sense. ‘My Last Duchess’ is told by the Duke of Ferrara who, standing in front of the painted portrait of his Duchess, is talking about her.
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‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is another dramatic monologue written by Robert Browning, again with the same strange, brooding outlook on love. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ takes a more descriptive position than ‘My Last Duchess.’ It is darker in the sense that everything is happening as you read the poem while ‘My Last Duchess’ is reminiscent of how the Duchess, and more importantly the Duke, was before her ‘death.’
‘That’s my Last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive, I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fr( Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands
The first two rhyming couplets give a very nostalgic opening as the Duke describes the origin of the painting. The first rhyming couplet immediately gives us the impression that the Duke sees his Duchess as nothing but a painting on the wall, a memory now. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ has a different opening with imagery and references to the weather:
The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake.
The speaker describes the weather outside as if his feelings when he is not with her, are reflected in the weather: cold, dark and gothic. He describes the wind as ‘sullen.’ This use of pathetic fallacy is giving the false belief of the weather actually being related to the speaker’s mood.
When the speaker enters in line 5 he speaks of his heart being ‘fit to break’ showing his emotional state being similar to the weather.
Browning reveals much about the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ though we also find out about the Duchess and her relationship with the Duke. He gives the impression of being overprotective or even obsessive.
But to myself, they turned (since I none puts by
The curtain that I have drawn for you, but I)
One detail we learn about the Duke is how possessive he is of the Duchess and how obsessive he is about her. Though we find out exactly how compulsive he is later in the poem, we realize from the quotation above that even when she is gone, he is still possessive of her memories. The quotation above means that the painting is covered with a curtain, and no one draws it but him. This gives the image that the Duke has his Duchess where he wants her: locked away from the world only ‘serving’ him. This is evidence of men in some pre-1914 poems being dominating over the opposite sex. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ takes a different stance in this extract where the speaker describes the change when Porphyria enters:
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, all the cottage warm;
Here he describes Porphyria as bringing the warmth back to his cottage and making the ‘cheerless grate’ or the fire, radiate as she enters. The speaker is actually giving the image of the room being his heart, and as she enters she is warming his heart. This gives the impression of her being responsible for what happens. This is a contrast to what is said in ‘My Last Duchess.’ Here Browning shows that the woman in the poem has an unusual power, mainly over the speaker as this is how he feels when she is around him, he feels warm and alive rather than cold and dark.
It is mainly in the middle of ‘My Last Duchess’ that we learn of how the Duchess was and, more importantly, what impression she gave to the Duke:
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere
The Duke reveals his dislike for being easily pleased, he sees it as a weakness within the Duchess and the evidence is in his tone.
The dropping of the daylight in the West
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace-all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech
He considers that her positive thoughts on everything were a weakness, something he desperately disliked. He says that even sunsets made her happy, or a gift from a person that he describes as ‘officious’ meaning intrusive. The Duke gives the impression that he does not resent the Duchess, but her ability to be happy over everything as if he is jealous of her because he cannot be that happy. He also gives the impression of being jealous when talking about the ‘officious fool’. He calls him officious because he is intruding on their lives. In reality, these are irrelevant factors taken from a clouded point of view; it is only his obsessive tendencies that turn the details into insecurities. He feels that he should be the only one to give the gifts that make her happy:
Somehow-I know not how-as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
The quotation above reveals that he feels she is unappreciative. His arrogance shows that simply marrying her, and making her his Duchess is a gift enough to be ranked over all others. This again shows jealousy, and competition, as if he is competing with all the men around her. This shows how he is actually insecure about his position as her husband. This shows an interesting insight to women’s roles in relation to their partners. It seems that the Duke thinks that his wife is not equal to him, that she should be eternally thankful for his name as if marrying her is a burden.
The speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ has a similar insight into his love interest. He is obsessed with her yellow hair, and he presents her as irresistible:
And made her smooth white shoulder bare
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair
This presentation of her being irresistible gives a feeling that the speaker is compensating for something, giving us his reasons for something that is yet to occur; its some sort of weak justification.
The speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is also jealous of her, but acts more rashly. His possessiveness is almost abnormal, unhealthy to say the least:
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever
And give herself to me forever
But passion would sometimes prevail
The quotation above gives the idea of an underlying factor between the relationship of the speaker and Porphyria. The use of ‘pride’ and ‘vainer ties’ shows that maybe she is of a higher status than he is. The fact that she has come to him, through the excessive weather, makes him feel that she has ‘severed’ those other ‘higher-status’ relationships to be with him. The last line of the quotation gives the impression that in fact, their love is secret. In reality, where love was an open issue, there would be no factor to overcome or prevail over. However, this coupled with the ideas of her ‘vainer ties’ shows there is definitely an underlying factor to be considered.
In ‘My Last Duchess’ the Duke reveals himself as being a proud man, which actually hurts his situation in the end:
-E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?
He speaks about ‘stooping’ as if he is ‘lowering’ himself to her level. This immediately gives the idea that he is on some higher plain than she. His arrogance also leads the situation to worsen, as he says he chooses never to stoop. He also talks about his interactions with her: when she smiles at him when he passes her, he feels that the smile she gives him is supposed to be a sacred thing only special to him. However, everyone receives that smile when they pass her. This again reveals his obsessive tendencies, to be anxious over-analyzing every detail.
One main comparison between both Browning’s poems is the subject of love. The Duke hardly ever talks about passion, love or compliments toward the Duchess, while Porphyria’s lover talks a lot about his passion for her and his everlasting love. This is the main thing that the Duke misses in his monologue. As he speaks to the messenger, the reader begins to realize that there is no real love between the Duke and his Duchess. We also see, as the monologue continues, that there is a lack of communication between the Duchess and Duke the only time he speaks of his interactions with her is the section about the ‘smile.’
The marriage was probably built on an arrangement, and apart from his thoughts on jealousy and owning her as if she was an object, he has no real feelings toward her. This is the direct contrast with the love described in ‘First Love’ by John Clare. While the Duke has no feelings of ‘love’ for the Duchess the speaker in ‘First Love’ talks about the opposite extreme, where love is discovered at ‘first’ sight.
The speaker in Porphyria’s lover, however, has an undying passion for his lover. His love is real but unhealthy. it’s an abnormal obsession that he does not even realize he has.
The speaker shows signs of being sadistic, before he actually kills Porphyria.
So, she was come through wind and rain
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
His feeling for her is strong, this is evident anywhere in the poem. Owing to the underlying factor of Porphyria being of a higher status, and the relationship being a secret, he is not sure of her feelings. The fact that she comes through ‘wind and rain’ to be with him, confirms that she loves him the same. This is why he says ‘at last I knew’ because he was not sure of Porphyria’s feelings. The lines ‘be sure I looked up at her eyes’ and ‘at last I knew she worshipped me’ are the misinterpretation, on the speaker’s part, that Porphyria worshipped him.
This is an important factor in discussing the portrayal of women in pre-1900 poems. The poem ‘A Woman To Her Lover’ by Christina Walsh is a statement of how a woman does not want to be treated. In the poem she talks about how she ‘refuses’ the lover that wants her to ‘gratify’ his ‘clamorous desire,’ and ‘my skin soft only for your fond caresses.’ The speaker talks about the same type of love misinterpreted by the speaker in Porphyria’s Lover. This shows a similarity, that maybe women were seen as ‘slaves’ or that men were seen as the ‘higher’ or ‘superior’ sex.
This is a similarity between both these Browning monologues that women are seen as lower than their partners.
The Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ is speaking to the messenger of the Count during the poem. The Count is preparing to marry his daughter to the Duke of Ferrara. Knowing this makes the reader wonder why the Duke would be telling someone unimportant something so important. In a way, the Duke is actually creating a warning for the Count when he says:
‘…your master’s known munificence is ample warrant that no just pretence…’ Speaking as if trying to save his daughter from such a fate. Though there is no direct description of the Duke murdering the Duchess, it is evident from the monologue. The Duke also points out a very symbolic statue to the messenger:
Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
This is an interesting image that Browning uses to get his message across. The sea horse is thought to be the Duchess, while Neptune is the powerful God, that the Duke considers as himself. Effectively, he is ambiguously articulating that he was taming the Duchess, it is an image of domination. The use of ‘notice’ strengthens the point that he is warning the Count, through the messenger, of his ways.
A significant difference between Porphyria’s lover and the Duke is that the Duke knows how he is, that he is obsessive and compulsive, while the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ does not realise that he is possessive and obsessive, showing he has an illness. I can make such a judgement because the evidence is clear. The fact that the Duke tries to warn the Count of himself is evidence enough to show the Duke knows his own flaws. While the speaker in Porphyria’s Lover, though justifying his actions, doesn’t ever come to terms with the fact that what he has done is wrong, or at least does not reveal this to the reader.
Browning uses some imagery after Porphyria’s death to show the speaker’s feelings toward his dead lover.
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain
And I enlightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed beneath my burning kiss
The use of ‘blue’ gives the cold dead-like feeling, ice-blue eyes. The alliteration in the last line helps to keep a steady rhythm of the poem, also adds to the somewhat erotic ambiance. The ‘burning kiss’ comment is actually ironic, in the sense, his lips would be warm to her as she is dead. Browning also uses some very contrasting imagery, after the speaker kills Porphyria:
As a shut bud that holds a bee
I warily oped her lids: again
In the shocking moment where he opens her eyelids to look into her eyes, Browning uses a joyful simile to show the contrast of the lover’s feelings at the time and the harsh reality of what he has done. This is a shocking moment because it is a direct portrayal of the speaker’s sadistic nature. Opening the eyes of a deceased person is considered far from sweet.
Women in some pre-1900 poems are expressed, in relation to their partners, in different ways. From the poems we have considered, we can see that there are some similarities and some differences.
‘My Last Duchess’ is a long block of speech heavily enjambed to sound like free speech, it contains no stanzas so contains no defining structure. This means the monologue really needs to be read to allow it to reveal the Duke’s character because in reality, he is what the poem is really about. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ however is more defined with a very descriptive, gothic style in rhyming couplets. The character is revealed more quickly and described more than told about like in ‘My Last Duchess.’ The speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is very passive.
‘My Last Duchess’ reveals the Duke’s character as self-obsessed by showing his possessiveness toward the Duchess. Though the Duke is possessive, toward his Duchess, he is strangely distant from her. Which is in some respects similar to the love of the speaker in ‘First Love.’ The speaker in this poem never actually confronts his ‘first love’ he admires her from a distance, like the Duke. The Duke obsesses over the Duchess but never interacts with her.
Women were seen definitely as objects, who needed to worship their partners as servants. In the case of ‘Porphyria’s Lover,’ women are also seen to be heaven-sent, and in a way are to be worshipped as well. ‘My Last Duchess’ reveals women to also be forward, and friendly with everyone, no matter how their partner might feel about it. They are perceived as having many flaws, which is always regarded by the speaker (man) as a negative thing, they should instead be perfect. Robert Browning’s poems involving love and women take many different outlooks depending on the subject matter. Both the poems considered are dramatic monologues as the speakers reveal themselves as the poem goes on.
‘First Love’ by John Clare takes a different viewpoint, where love is less dangerous and a woman’s face ‘blooms like a sweet flower.’ This poem is more descriptive and overindulgent in love. The pace is fast and the rhyme pattern very even, making it a very simple poem. The kind of love described in it is more of a naï¿½ve infatuation rather than an unhealthy obsession. ‘A Woman to her Lover’ by Christina Walsh definitely takes a different outlook as it is from the point of view of a woman. It actually addresses many of the points found in pre-1900 poems involving women. And basically refuses them as being valid points for love. It is women’s rebellion against the typical views of their partners. In general, pre-1900 poems, took a very ‘man’s world’ outlook, seeing men as the dominating sex and women as their unequal partners.
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