Porphyria's Lover and My Last Duchess

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Compare the two poems ‘Porphyria's Lover' and ‘My Last Duchess' by Robert Browning. What do they reveal about attitudes to women and relationships in the nineteenth century?

Robert Browning was one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century. In 1842, he published ‘Dramatic Lyrics' which included the two poems ‘Porphyria's Lover' and ‘My Last Duchess'. In ‘Porphyria's Lover' Browning gives the reader a dramatic insight into the twisted mind of an abnormally possessive lover, who wishes the moment of love to last forever. In this essay, ‘Porphyria's Lover' will be compared to Robert Browning's other dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess', where an Italian aristocrat reveals his cruelty to his late wife whilst showing off a portrait of her to one of his guests.

Robert Browning's poems ‘Porphyria's Lover' and ‘My Last Duchess' were both written in the form of a dramatic monologue. Both poems show a similarity because they are both narrated from the male lover's point of view. As a result, the reader becomes more closely involved in the poems and can feel very strong emotions for the individuals portrayed than if the poem was written from the eyes of an ‘outsider'. This form of writing enables Browning to use irony, in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the literal meanings of the words. For example, in ‘My Last Duchess' the Duke orders the death of his wife, though hides the true meaning in his words:

‘ Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.'

‘My Last Duchess' is also written in the form of a single stanza poem, which is the unit of a poem that consists of two or more lines of verse organised according to the content and form and usually repeated as a recurring pattern in the poem. By contrast, ‘Porphyria's Lover' does not follow this pattern, but has a different rhyming scheme.

On the surface, the narrators in each poem show completely different characteristics. In ‘Porphyria's Lover', the narrator shows powerful emotions towards Porphyria, which demonstrate his strong romantic feelings. The reader acknowledges that the narrator is passionately in love, as the following extract demonstrates.

"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."

By contrast, the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess' is shown as a formal, cold-hearted man who despised his late wife's lust for life. He wanted her respect, though all he could see was her pleasure from all around her, as the following quote shows.

"She had
A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere"

In both poems, there are similarities in the narrator's attitudes towards their women. Both narrators show an unnatural possessiveness towards them, presenting an unattractive, all-encompassing jealousy that wanted to eclipse all other interests that their women may have. It means that in each poem, the narrators end up killing their wives. In ‘Porphyria's Lover', the narrator justifies his actions by saying he wanted to preserve the perfect moment in time.

"That moment she was mine, mine, fair
Perfectly pure and good:"

At that point of pure passion, the narrator's lover belonged to him totally - the repeated words "mine, mine" emphasise this. To stop the struggles and conflicts that would prevent them from seeing each other, he decided to kill her. His act of strangulation was a crime of passion - it was not pre-meditated.

By contrast, the death of the Duchess was a cold, calculated move by the Duke to remove the source of his jealousy. She gave her favours to others too willingly, and did not value his nobility and all that it stood for.

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