In Porphyria’s Lover, Browning sets the scene by describing the turbulent weather. The vexatious wind blowing on the trees and the moody lake is a metaphor of the Lover’s mind in the poem. It symbolises the violence and anger he has within himself. The Lover is full of hatred inside. The bad weather images is like an omen or a forewarning of what’s to come. Maybe it’s also his insecurities and fears as well as anger – how he’s waiting for Porphyria, and fears she will not come.
There’s a sense of changing of scene after the first four lines describing the weather, which is like an outside circumstance. Once Porphyria enters the cottage in which the lover lives, she ‘shut the cold out and the storm’ (Line 7). From then on, the outside world is forgotten about. We know that the lover lives in a cottage (Line 9), while Porphyria has just come from a ‘gay feast’. This tells us their difference in rank, Porphyria is obviously of a high social rank than her lover. The word Porphyria is the name of a precious jewel, this suggests that she is rich. We have the sense of Porphyria, stepping down her rank when she makes the fire as this is the kind of job usually done by the servant :
‘ And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm ‘
Fire symbolises warmth and brightness but it could also mean destruction too. So, like the bad weather outside, the fire is in a way like another warning of what is to happen. It’s clever how Browning puts the words ‘Blaze up’ at the beginning of the line. This makes the words sound like what’s happening i.e. the noise of the fire, the room brightened up by the fire. The words Blaze up also sounds very dangerous too.
When Porphyria enters, the Lover’s hatred towards her is blinded by her beauty. He could be angry because she can’t marry him since there’s a social difference between their ranks. Lines 11-13 describe Porphyria taking off her ‘dripping cloak and shawl’, her ‘soiled gloves’ and ‘her hat’. This detail shows the beauty of Porphyria. This slows down the scene and gives a sense of passing of time. It’s almost as Porphyria is exposing herself in Line 11-13, she’s allowing her real skin to be seen, it’s a metaphor of herself, opening out to him, or letting everything out in the open. The word ‘soiled’ used to describe her gloves is a strong word. It emphasises Porphyria making the fire and making her gloves dirty. These very sensuous and physical language describes the sexuality of their love.
Porphyria called her lover but there was no reply. Then
‘she put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare’
These two lines feel very unnatural, it is like Porphyria has learnt this. It is like a seduction. Porphyria is telling the Lover to notice her, she’s offering herself. Porphyria is ‘too weak’ and too proud to break her ‘vainer ties’ with the people of her rank but love breaks all boundaries and the desire she has for him sometimes overcomes that. She left her party, she had ‘come through wind and rain’ to see him and when she murmured how she loved him, the Lover was surprised and overwhelmed with pride and pleasure that she ‘worshipped’ him.
The moment in which the lover witnesses the woman’s apparently wholehearted love – is also the moment that the Lover attempts to preserve by killing her. He wanted to keep that moment forever. On Line 36, the repetition of ‘mine’ has the purpose of letting the readers know how controlling he is. He is obsessed with her. Porphyria’s Lover wants her to remain ‘pure’ because he had about Porhyria’s independence, her liberty puts his masculine self-estimation at risk. The readers probably think that he’s stroking her hair in Line 38 and 39 when on the next line they realise that he’s strangling her! Most of the lines of the poem so far had been quite misty and ambiguous in a way but death when it comes is almost a matter of fact and mathematical.
‘ Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her…..’
The Lover chose strangulation as the method of murder probably because it ensures that all the important appearance of Porphyria will remain unblemished, her beauty will still remain.
The way in which she was strangled by her lover with her own hair is like she strangled herself – almost as a way of releasing herself.
‘And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain’
The Lover assures himself that he did not really hurt her, that Porphyria didn’t struggle, she wanted to die at that moment so that she could be with him forever :
‘ So glad it has its utmost will,..’
Because the poem is quite ambiguous, therefore it could also be that Porphyria does want to be killed. She wanted to marry him inside his heart but she can’t because of her social background. Maybe she accepts what he’s doing to her and knew that it was going to happen.
A wonderful simile and image is used by Browning to describe the horrific moment when he opens his dead love’s eyes :
‘ As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily open her lids : again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.’
The Lover is scared that the ‘bees’ will sting him, maybe that after her death, she will still refuse him. But he’s convinced that she’s laughing and smiling with ‘happiness’ and ‘content’.
When Porphyria is dead, the Lover
‘..propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still’
We can see a reverse of roles here, after her death, the Lover is supporting her head, a simile of his control over Porphyria now that she’s dead.
Towards the end of the poem, Line 58 onwards ha gone to present tense. He’s now thinking of what he’s done. He committed suicide.
‘And yet God has not said a word!’
God is like his conscience, maybe he’s waiting for that to awaken.
While the language used in Porphyria’s Lover is quite formal, My Last Duchess is different in its tone. My Last Duchess is more of a conversational tone, we can see that in the first few lines, the Duke is like introducing someone :
‘ That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall
Looking as if she were alive…’
The Duke refers to his duchess who passed away as his ‘last’ Duchess, this language is not very appropriate as you should really say my ‘late’ Duchess. It is as if the Duke thinks of his former wife as a collection, like people referring to ‘my previous car’.
‘ ………………………….. I call
That piece a wonder, now :….’
The Duke thinks of his last Duchess as something that he can show off, like a trophy which is not dead. He treats her like his any other possessions. He’s a collector of art as we can see in Line 22 when he pointed out the Neptune cast in bronze. The Duke praises the painter ( Fra Pandolf ) for making the picture look alike to his last Duchess but he only refers the picture in terms of quality and not emotions :
‘ Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of that earnest glance’
The Duke marvels at how Pandolf has managed to get such a look of ‘depth and passion’ on her face. The Duke is telling his visitor how he feels there’s something special about the expression on the face of his last Duchess and he wants his visitor to share this experience that he has when he looks at the picture.
He refers his last Duchess as a masterpiece of art, almost something he can sell. She is his possession and belonging. By talking about the Duchess’s ‘earnest glance’ in the poem, the Duke is saying that he doesn’t want her to encounter with anyone and doesn’t want anybody else to encounter with her.
The Duke mentions the ‘spot of joy’ in his former wife twice, once in Line 15 and once in Line 21. It’s important that he’s mentioned it twice as that was the chief reason the Duke was dissatisfied wit her. He described his Duchess as ‘ too soon made glad, too easily impressed’. She seemed to be happy about everything but the Duke does not take that kind of joy in anything, he doesn’t experience what his Duchess experienced. He’s not used to showing his emotions, but the Duchess has come in, showing him how much she loves life. He seems to have the same problem as the man in Porhpyria’s Lover, so you can have exactly the same problem whatever your rank is, if you’re rich or poor.
The Duke remembers her by lovely innocent images described in Line 26-30 :
‘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 ..’
The Duchess was a beautiful woman, but to the Duke’s mind she had too little pride. He was frequently offended by her courtesy to other of lower rank, and he found her too easily pleased by a compliment or by a small favour from a servant or some other ‘unimportant’ person.
‘…….Oh sir, he smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?’
The Duke felt that she should derive pleasure essentially only from himself and that she should glory in the high social rank which she had married into. He’s jealous of everything she enjoys, angry by her happiness, her simple pleasures. He thinks that she didn’t value his aristocratic background ( as if she ranked my gift of a nine hundred year old name with anybody’s gift. Line 32-34 ). He was unhappy because she did not pay him the respect he felt he deserved, and because she seemed to smile at everything and found joy in the most innocent things ( Line 26-30, as quoted above ). The Duke is a man who is clearly an aristocrat and used to having authority and being obeyed.
He is a man who could have told his wife how to behave but his arrogance could not lower himself to tell her because he thinks that this is beneath him ( I choose never to stoop ). He became more and more annoyed with it ( ‘This grew;’) and so he took action, or ‘gave commands’. The exact nature of the commands is not made clear, but whatever they were, the Duchess is gone ( all smiles stopped together ), most likely dead. This is very different from Porphyria’s Lover as the man in that poem clearly kills his lover while in My Last Duchess, the exact action is not made explicit.
During the poem, we think that the Duke is addressing the speech to us because we do not discover until after he has told his tale that this second person is in fact present in the poem. It is true that we eventually discover that this ‘you ‘ to whom he is speaking is an envoy from a Count ( Line 49 ). It is clear that the envoy has come to visit the Duke to make arrangements for the possible marriage of the Duke to the daughter of envoy’s master.
‘Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; ‘
The Duke is clearly interested in the wealth which is going to come to him with the next person he’s marrying as he mentions dowry. The Duke told all his displeasure with his first wife in order to make clear to the second woman what sort of conduct he will expect from her, like a warning to his possible wife to be. The Duke already refers the Count’s daughter as his ‘object’ ( Line 53 ).
In the last three lines, the Duke casually points out one of his other works of art, the bronze statue of Neptune.
‘Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me’
This bronze statue is like a metaphor of the Duke controlling his former wife by giving commands so that ‘all smiles stopped together’. It is as if the Duke as fixed her forever like the sea horse, cast in bronze. The statue, fixed, hard and held forever just like the Duke’s wife forever fixed in his powers.
From the poem, we can see how ruthless and grasping the Duke is. Browning has presented a picture of a cruel, vain and possessive man. The man is in some ways quite similar to the man in Porphyria’s lover as they both wanted to keep their woman forever by killing them. They are both very dramatic. In both these poems, Browning explores romantic egotism. The lover in both poems kills the woman but not himself. What they had both done is a formality of the romantic male’s desire to fix and possess the female that they love because they’re feared of the female’s freedom.
The whole twist of Porphyria’s Lover depends on the reader thinking that this is about a very sentimental, romantic love and then discovering at the end that it is actually about a different sort of love – an obsessive, dangerous sort of love. The title is quite conventional and suggests that this poem is about a kind of noble, romantic love, with Porphyria’s Lover as the hero. In a way, it could be said that the love in Porphyria’s Lover is actually self-love, as the lover’s obsessions means that he feels he must kill the woman he loves in order to keep her forever, but of course, he destroys their love as he destroys her life.
Yet, we only realise the full extent of the lover’s madness once we have read the whole poem. This love is exactly the same love presented in My Last Duchess but in this poem, this love is more subtle but is equally sinister. The lover in Porphyria’s Lover killed his lover because he wanted to control her and keep her forever and similarly in My Last Duchess, the Duchess was killed so that she can’t go off anywhere. The Duke in this poem shows how cruel, vain and possessive he is.
He talk about his possessions and he clearly though his last Duchess was a possession as well. Duke gives himself away and reveals the cruelty underneath his confident manner. Browning satirises the Duke. The Duke thinks he is a man of culture and learning but we, the reader, realise that he is an unpleasant person who is only interested in collecting people like objects. In a way, this poem is very sad because embedded inside is a picture of a beautiful innocent girl whose life was cut short simply because she smiled too much and took pleasure in many things. She is probably killed without evening knowing the reason why. It is easier for the Duke to give commands to servants to have his wife killed than to point out what he dislikes or what he was dissatisfied about.
It is also interesting to see how the social rank of the male and the female in the poems differ from each other. In Porphyria’s Lover, the male is a man who lives in a cottage while Porphyria is of a social ranking much higher than him. He was afraid of losing her because people will disapprove of their relationship because of the social ranking difference. In My Last Duchess, the Duke in the poem is obviously a man of wealth and authority. We’re not sure of the Duchess’s social ranking before she married the Duke but it is safe to assume that she was in the same social ranking as the Duke. This is because he obviously cares a lot about dowry ( Line 51 ).
A dowry is a gift given by the bride’s family in arranged marriage – usually money, jewels, property and/or land. If the marriage between the Duke and the Duchess was arranged then they must be more or less the same social ranking. Also he probably wouldn’t have married her if there was not a sufficient amount of dowry for him. The bigger the dowry, the more important the husband to be ‘bought’. The Duke was actually dissatisfied with her because he felt that she didn’t respect his aristocratic background and always gave her attention to other ‘unimportant ‘ people of lower rank.
The ‘lunacy’ that Browning exposes is that the two of his monologist’s crime in My Last Duchess and especially in Porphyria’s Lover can be regarded as ‘rational’. It shows us how apparently reasoned justification can be founded on jealousy, fear, and obsession. It can also be founded on fantasy as shown in Porphyria’s Lover, what the Lover has done is not fantasy in his mind but he probably has played the scene of killing his lover in his mind over and over again.
The verse form and rhyme pattern is very interesting in both Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess. In Porphyria’s Lover, the rhyming scheme works in groups of five – A B A B B but the informal phrasing doesn’t really emphasise the rhyme, so that we seem to be hearing the spontaneous thoughts of the speaker in the monologue. There is also an effect of moving on. The unexpectedness of the rhyme pattern is a metaphor of the unexpected twist of the murder in the poem.
In My Last Duchess, the verse form is couplets, and they’re pentameter line with five stress. The poet chose to use this particular verse form so that it seems conversational as the Duke in the poem is actually talking to someone. There’s also enjambement in the poem – sense of sentence running on to the next line :
‘Looking as if se were alive. I call
That piece a wonder ‘
Browning also uses enjambement very effectively in Line 16 :
‘ …………to say ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much’
The sentence runs on to the beginning of the next line and echoes the effect of the cloth falling over her wrist, it’s acting out what the words are describing. The enjambement makes the rhyme less obvious and so it’s not drawn to our attention. The rhyme keeps the structure of the poem while the enjambement has a more natural effect. This is just like the Duke in the poem, he lives life by regularity, his life is in a very controlled pattern, very regular and formal, just like the couplets. He’s had emotional things that he can’t tolerate, and the shift in enjambement disturbs the formality of his life. The effect of enjambement disguises the fact that the Duke lives by rules. When you read the poem, you have to change the way you say it and might need to take some time to try and get the stresses in the right place because of the effect of enjambement.
My Last Duchess is like a play, and the pentameter line helps to make it seem like a story. You’ll notice that both poems is only in one stanza. In My Last Duchess, this effect makes the poem seem like half story and half poem. It seems like a story because it’s all in one stanza and it seems like a poem because it has rhymes. Because it has no separate stanzas, it has no interruption. Porphyria’s Lover also only has only one stanza, but its five line groups is quite odd and signals the strangeness of the events in the situation in Porphyria’s Lover. The events in Porphyria’s Lover are more disturbed and distorted than My last Duchess.