Robert Browning was writing his poems at the time Queen Victoria was on the throne. He was born in 1812 and died in Venice in 1889. During his life he wrote many poems, two of which were ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘My Last Duchess’. These are the poems we are going to be studying. During Browning’s lifetime England was very clearly divided into class systems. If you were born into the working class that is where you would stay all your life, you would only associate with people from your class and you would work for people of the higher classes.
If you were born into the higher classes you would not contemplate even talking to someone of a lower class than yourself. Also at this time women had no rights, they had no say in anything to do with politics, and they didn’t even have the vote. Women were told who to marry in this time period, usually for money rather than love. This is all very ironic as the monarch at the time was a woman. The two poems we are studying – ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘My Last Duchess’ – reflect the unfairness I have pointed out very effectively and for this reason some of Robert Browning’s poetry was frowned upon. An example of this is in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.
The relationship in it is between a man of a low class and a woman of a higher class which creates massive problems in the relationship and ultimately causes the relationship to break down. The other poem, ‘My Last Duchess’, again points out the unfairness of how high class men ruled everything and treated women as disposable possessions. The first poem I am going to analyse is ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. This is a story of a woman of a high class who is meeting with a man of a much lower class. The whole meeting is told from the man’s point of view making the poem a dramatic monologue. The poem starts by describing the mood of the weather outside.
It is described as ‘sullen’ and that it is trying to ‘vex’ the world outside. This personification is used effectively to reinforce how wild the weather is that night; it also sets a mood of storminess which can refer to the atmosphere inside the cottage. The description of the weather also goes towards making the cottage seem totally isolated. We then see the thoughts of the man for the first time where he says, ‘I listened with heart fit to break’ which suggests that he has been waiting a long time for something or someone and that is all he has been concentrating on, this also shows that he is worried about what is coming.
As soon as this is said the thing he has been waiting for, Porphyria, ‘glides’ into the cottage. The word glide implies that she is full of grace which is in total contrast to the storm going on outside. He then talks of how she kneels at the fire grate and makes the whole cottage warm. This could mean that she simply lights a fire or it may be that metaphorically just her presence lights up and adds warmth to the whole cottage. Next she proceeds to take off her wet clothes which is described in detail using such words as ‘soiled’ and ‘dripping’ to emphasise what she has come through to be at the cottage that night.
When she has finished she sits next to the man but it is she that calls to him, it is almost as if the man is nervous and uneasy in her presence. It is even her that must take the man’s arm and put it about her waist; she has to make all the moves which must show that there is something troubling the man. Next he lists all the things that she does but the manner in which this is done makes the man seem detached as if his mind is troubled greatly by something. Whatever it is that is troubling the man does not seem to bother the woman because she murmurs to the man that she loves him.
The word murmur, with its gentleness suggests that the woman really does love the man. Here the man reveals what it is that is troubling him, he says that though he knows she loves him she will never be able to give herself to him fully as she will never be able to totally break the ties with her class but he goes on to say that even with his fears that ‘passion sometimes would prevail’ over them. He then goes on to say, ‘For love of her, and all in vain’. Here he is saying that although he loves her too he thinks that their relationship could never last but in that moment he also looks into her eyes and realises that she loves him.
This makes the man proud, we can see this where it says, ‘Porphyria worshipped me; surprise Made my heart swell, and still it grew’ The word ‘worshipped implies that he thinks she is madly in love with him and the way that he Browning emphasises the way his heart swells reinforces how proud he feels to be loved by this woman. This feeling seems to take the man back as he doesn’t know what to do. He feels that for that moment he owns her, we can see this where it says, ‘That moment she was mine, mine’.
In this perfect moment he must realise that it cannot stay this way forever – although he wants it to – so he does what he thinks will mean the moment will last forever and strangles her. He does this in a very detached way, as if he doesn’t want to think about it in case he changes his decision. After he kills her he says, ‘No pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain. ‘ The way he says this is almost like he is trying to convince himself that she felt no pain and it was the right thing to do, the repetition seems to reinforce that.
He then goes on to say, ‘As a bud that holds a bee, I warily opened her lids’ I think this simile is extremely effective as he is saying that if her eyes contain pain when he opens them it will be like the sting of a hidden bee in a flower; this is my favourite part of the poem as I think it is such an effective simile. When he does open the eyes of Porphyria he says that they look happy but we are not sure whether he is telling the truth or is trying to convince himself that she felt no pain.
After he has looked into her eyes he then kisses her on the cheek which makes it seem that only now, when she is dead, he has the confidence to make physical contact as before it was Porphyria who had to initiate any contact between them. We realise that he really does love her again when even after he has killed he still cares for her, we can see this where it says, ‘I propped her head up as before, Only, this time my shoulder bore Her head’ This is loving but is a slightly twisted love as he only does all of this now she is dead.
He then goes on to talk of how that now he has killed her she is released from the worry that she was suffering because of their relationship, this could again be interpreted as him trying to convince himself that he did the right thing and it was for the best. He then says, ‘Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how Her darling one wish would be heard. ‘ Here he is saying how she would never have guessed how he was going to make sure that he would be the only person she was ever going to be with; which is again loving in a twisted way.
He sits with her all night in the same position as if he never wants to let the moment go. The last thing he says is, ‘And yet God has not said a word! ‘ This is like he has blocked everything out and is not listening to his conscience which would be telling him that he’d done wrong. The man in this poem is quite insane which is quite obvious with the murder he commits, although it was not pre-meditated or planned at all. The second poem we are studying is ‘My Last Duchess’ again by Robert Browning.
In this poem we have an extremely wealthy Duke who is talking to an unknown person; as the poem progresses we find that he is a man that values loyalty and must have control over people. The poem opens with the line, ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’ This line alone lets you into the Dukes mind set a little, with the word ‘last’ suggesting that there have been others before and will be more after, this shows that he treats women like disposable possessions and doesn’t mind them coming and going. He then says how she looks as if ‘she were alive’ which is simply stating the fact that the picture has captured the Duchess perfectly.
He also says that he calls the painting ‘a wonder, now’ the now suggests that he didn’t like it when it was first painted, almost as if he resented it at first but he has grown to like and think of it as a masterpiece now. He then asks the person we can’t see to sit and look at it; this introduces the other character although we still know nothing about them. The Duke talks about how the artist, Fra Pandolf, captured a look of depth and passion on her face that strangers would never have seen and the Duke grew to hate this.
This shows that he hates not being treated differently to everyone else as she would share the same look that she uses with him on someone he would consider to be below him. This could be one of the reasons that he keeps the curtains that cover the painting drawn normally; another reason could be that he must have total control of this person even after she is dead. Another reason could be that people who have seen the picture ask why she had the look and he had to tell them that it was not him that made her look so joyful but just some common artist and this he would view a weakness, so he grew to resent the Duchess.
He continues on this subject and says that even the smallest comment could produce this look that he hates; it is almost as if he is obsessed with the fact that he didn’t have complete control over her. He even complains that she is ‘too easily impressed’ and that everything brings this look of passion which is probably an exaggeration but if it was the only thing that he was thinking about it would grow and grow in his mind until he believed that everything could bring this look and he was only one thing among this list.
He indeed goes on to list some of the things that would bring this look to her, he says, ‘Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, The dropping of 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’ In this list he puts himself first, as with everything, but he is resentful that a commoner that brings her cherries makes her as happy as him and even a ‘mule’ is considered equal to himself.
He was also bitter that she would thank people of lower classes that did her little favours and as someone of the upper class you were never meant to even acknowledge the lower classes let alone thank them for things they were expected to do anyway. He is bitter because she did not follow the conventions – she didn’t even rank the gift of his ‘nine-hundred-year-old name’ as something worth smiling about and this infuriated him. He hates the fact that she is human and he is not, we can see this where he says, ‘Even had you the skill In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say ‘Just this Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, Or there exceed the mark” This quote shows that he couldn’t tell her that she disgusted him because, he says, he does not have the skill with words but I believe it is that he cant articulate his emotions well enough to tell her and we learn a few line later that he would consider it stooping to explain himself to her and he would never stoop lower than his level. He goes on to say, ‘Oh, Sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile? ‘
This is him saying plainly that the fact she treated him as an equal got to him. All this grew and grew until finally he gave the command to have her killed although he does not say this exactly, he says, ‘I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. ‘ This is him telling someone that he had his ex-wife murdered in the most off-hand way possible, almost like it doesn’t matter to him, which it can’t if he doesn’t mind having her murdered. After he has told this man that he has had the Duchess killed we then find out who this person is, we discover that he is a relative of a woman who is about to marry this Duke.
This whole speech could then be interpreted as a warning to this person that if this woman does not act as she should according to the Duke she could go the same way but he goes on to say that although the dowry with this marriage isn’t huge he doesn’t mind because he believes the new wife is perfect and he wants to have her as his own. As a close to the Dukes’ speech he points out a statue of Neptune taming a sea horse which could be seen as similar to him taming his wives.
These two poems are quite similar over all, for a start they are both dramatic monologues which means that they are both stories told from one person’s point of view – in this case the Duke and the lower class man. The structure of the poems is quite similar too, the rhyming scheme in them is a little different – in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ the first line rhymes with the third and the second line rhymes with the fourth and fifth and then repeats this pattern whereas in ‘My Last Duchess’ the scheme very simple, the first line rhymes with the second, then the third with the fourth and so on.
The line lengths in both these poems is quite similar too, they have quite short lines although it isn’t restricted to a certain number of syllables. These two things show that Browning is quite an ordered person but not obsessively so. The punctuation works the same way in both poems – it isn’t restrictive at all, it is placed where it is needed so allows both poems to flow.
The language used in the poems is representative of the person who we are hearing, for example in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ the language is simple as the man would not have received much education being in the lower classes but in ‘My Last Duchess’ the Duke, who would have been well educated, uses more complex language. These two poems would have been frowned upon in the times they were written as they can be interpreted as derogatory to the class system at the time. One of them points out how the classes could not mix and the other one shows how the upper class has total control of those below them and can quite literally get away with murder.
I believe that the poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is the more effective of the two. I think this because the rhyming scheme is more effective and the ending is more definite. Also the use of the simile when he compares the woman’s eyes to ‘A shut bud that holds a bee’ I think is particularly effective and is my favourite part of both poems. I also think that it makes the problems of the class systems more obvious than ‘My Last Duchess’. So in conclusion the poem I think more effective is ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.