Robert Browning was one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century and is still considered one of the major poets of the Victorian era. He was born in 1812 and married the privately educated poet, Elizabeth Browning, in 1846. They eloped to Florence, Italy, where his wife gave birth to their son, but after the death of Elizabeth, Robert moved back to London and it was here that he died in 1889.
Two of his most famous poems: ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ were published in 1842 as part of the ‘Dramatic lyrics’. They are both dramatic monologues, which provide an overall or intimate view of a character’s personality, but ‘My Last Duchess’ is written in iambic pentameter, whereas Porphyria’s Lover is written in iambic tetrameter, which includes 4 stressed beats per line.
Both poems are narrated from the male lover’s point of view. As a result, the reader becomes more closely involved in the poems. In ‘My Last Duchess’ we are invited into the poem; ‘Wilt please you sit and look at her’. As this involves us directly we feel very strong emotions for the individuals portrayed and this is more effective.
In the opening lines of ‘My Last Duchess’ the Duke is showing off a painting to an advisor of a Count: ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.’ This immediately implies that she is dead and the painting of his wife is there to show off and be admired by other people. It may also imply that he is looking for his next duchess, which we realise is true when we reach the end of the poem.
The Duke describes how people are surprised by her seductive, passionate glance, and he gets very jealous when people admire the painting. This leads him to hide it behind a curtain. ‘The depth of passion in that earnest glance, / But to myself they turned (since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)’ He acts like he still owns her in a way we would own an object.
Similarly in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ the character who becomes the voice of the poem, assumed by Browning, talks as if Porphyria is still alive: ‘And thus we sit together now.’ The way in which they talk about their dead companions is quite disturbing, but shows that both couples will be together for eternity. However the Duke is quite happily moving on, and is quickly targeting the next girl for his ‘collection’; the count’s daughter. Porphyria’s lover has killed her for love in the purest form and wants it to be everlasting.
In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ the dark evening creates a foreboding atmosphere. ‘The rain set early in tonight.’ The opening imagery foreshadows events to come and we are told that Porphyria ‘shut out the cold and the storm’ and made the ‘cottage warm’. She metaphorically and literally brings warmth to his life; without her it is cold.
In contrast ‘My Last Duchess’ uses little imagery but it based on a conversation with the Count’s advisor. However the artist who painted the picture (Fra Pandolph) states ‘the faint / Half – flush that dies along her throat’. This also uses the foreshadowing device maybe indicating her throat was slit.
‘My last Duchess’ does not describe the death of his wife and never directly informs us that he killed her, we can only assume that he was involved: ‘I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.’ The use of the word ‘command’ clearly highlights the threatening and controlling character of the Duke and shows how jealous he was with the fact that she seemed to show more attention to the men and show greater thanks for their gifts compared to the Duke’s gift of ‘a nine-hundred-years-old name’. The Duke justifies his actions by claiming his wife did not deserve her position as Duchess, or live up to the responsibilities that her noble stance required.
In contrast to this ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is blatantly more open about what he did. ‘Three times her little throat around / And strangled her.’ Although the narrator has committed a crime, and he does realise this; in a sense he has done it for the right reason; for love. He did not do it to avoid being humiliated, like the Duke feels in ‘My Last Duchess.’ The reader acknowledges that the narrator is passionately in love and I certainly feel more ‘sorry’ for the lover than for the Duke, where we are involved in a field of emotions of hate and anger towards him.
Unlike the Duchess who flirts with everyone and does not show the Duke the respect he craves, Porphyria does worship her lover: ‘From pride, and vainer ties dissever.’ She is too proud to give herself to the narrator as she is from a higher background and is unwilling to leave behind her family and the lifestyle that comes with it. This is the reason she is killed, as he does not want her feelings to change and the affair to end because he feels so passionate for her.
The beautiful imagery created by Browning in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ softens the death and shows a more considerate approach by the lover. ‘As a shut bud that holds a bee.’ This metaphor creates a delicate image and shows his compassion towards her. I think this is quite disturbing however as he tries to do it in a pleasant way, but ultimately this is still a murder.
The Duke on the other hand shows no remorse for his actions. ‘Will’t please you rise?’ He sees nothing wrong with what he has done and now wants to leave. This calm casual approach is very cold and calculating and I do not think he ever really loved his wife; if he did, jealousy and respect was more important rather than to try and remedy the situation and put his unease at rest.
As the Duke can quickly move onto to his next victim, so to speak, he refers to the count’s daughter as ‘my object’. This desire for her is not out of love but just another addition to his collection. In the same breath, he draws his guest’s attention to his latest acquisition – a new bronze in the shape of Neptune, the mythical Roman god of the sea. I think by doing this the Duke is making a sly reference to his own aims in capturing his next wife. I believe he thinks of himself as Neptune; powerful and ruling, and he compares this young woman to a sea-horse, in the way that she could be so easily tamed. This is an example of Browning’s use of irony.
‘Porphyria’s Lover’ also hints that he sees his lover as an object and possession. The repetition of ‘mine’ in the sentence ‘she was mine’ indicates how he too is mentally disturbed and now he has killed her he can have her all to himself, like a belonging. This is duplicated in ‘First Love’ when John Clare (1793 – 1864) describes how his life seems to ‘turn to clay’ when he sees this girl he has fallen in love. Time has frozen for him and he can capture the moment forever suggested by the use of the expression: ‘clay’.
In the same way both men in the poems are jealous of their woman’s love for others. In ‘My Last Duchess’ her love for life and the pleasure she got from simple things like ‘a bough of cherries’ and the joy she found in compliments from other men, does not mean she betrayed her husband, even though he obviously thought she had or was going to. In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ he wants to preserve the perfect, passionate moment they are embraced in and realises that the only way to do this is to kill her.
The modern reader is given an insight into the way relationships between men and women were viewed in the last century, and earlier, during the time of the Renaissance. Without doubt, men had the dominant role, and women had little personal freedom. Women were duty-bound to show unquestioning respect for the men in their lives, regardless of how they were treated. In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning shows us the vision of a woman who is not following this role model. In fact, she is completely the opposite, and as such, she is fulfilling the role of a male fantasy by taking a dominant role.
‘My Last Duchess’ comes across as more shocking as he can quite easily move on, and views women as mere ‘objects’, which he can collect. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is more disturbing as he thinks he has done Porphyria a favour and is now waiting for his punishment from God, which shows the historical context. He cannot move on and is tied to Porphyria forever.
It is not until the end the possession comes clear in both poems where the Duke is obsessed be the Duchess because she is a beautiful object and the lover is obsessed because of his eternal love for Porphyria.
Another genre of love is Romantic Love. This consists of the two sonnets; ‘How do I love thee’ and ‘Sonnet 116’. Sonnets are poems with 14 lines and a regular rhythm, rhyme scheme and structure. Although they are both sonnets ‘How do I love thee’ originated in Italy, whereas ‘Sonnet 116’ was Shakespearean, consequently having a different rhyming scheme and structure, noted by the rhyming couplet at the end.
Sonnets were particularly popular with romantic poets due to the romantic soliloquies they are associated with and Shakespeare was one of these who wrote ‘Sonnet 116’.
One other poem included in this genre is ‘A Birthday’. This is not a sonnet but is based upon a celebration. It was written by Christian Rossetti (1830-1894), and most of her work was religious in nature, which is reflected in the poem: ‘My heart is like a singing bird / Whose nest is in a watershed shoot.’ The entire poem involves Rossetti comparing her love to nature and the use of repeated word ‘My’ makes the poem feel more personal and also shows how it is written in first person.
As well as nature playing a part in ‘A Birthday’ it is also used in Elizabeth Browning’s poem; ‘How do I love thee’. ‘I love thee to the level of every day’s / Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.’ The series of similes are intended to aid our understanding of her emotions and helps create imagery. I interpret the ‘sun’ and ‘candlelight’ to represent the love that is still ‘burning’, highlighting the idea of everlasting love which is echoed in the last line.
Similarly the poem uses first person narrative, hence the fact that it is dedicated to her husband, Robert Browning, whom she was married to and also in ‘Sonnet 116’ nature is used to create imagery, which is emphasised by the metaphorical language: Love ‘is the star to every wandering bark’. Love is a guiding light implying it will overcome any difficulties in a relationship. This is also imitated in Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ where ‘the course of true love never did run smooth.’ This explains that a relationship will go through its bad times and have problems but in the end love will always win through.
‘How do I love thee?’ is built upon a rhetorical question, which is also applied to ‘First Love’. The use of rhetorical questions involves the reader and I think they are very effective as the reader is made to think about the different ways you can love someone and our first love, which we all remember. Throughout ‘How Do I Love Thee’ Browning tries to quantify love: ‘Let me count the ways’. She cannot enumerate the different ways she can love her husband for they are innumerable.
Likewise in ‘Sonnet 116’ Shakespeare tries to measure love. The height of the ‘star’ can be measured but its value cannot, which metaphorically explains the reasoning behind love being immeasurable.
Both ‘How do I Love Thee?’ and ‘Sonnet 116’ make reference to the idea of love being eternal. This is a common theme, which runs through all the poems including ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘My Last Duchess’ where both men refer to their dead wives as ‘alive’ indicating their love is everlasting.
In ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ Browning makes obvious referral to everlasting love by ending the poem with the line ‘I shall but love thee better after death.’ This highlights the point that love will win through any problem a relationship comes across.
In the same way ‘Sonnet 116’ explains that even the ‘edge of doom’ cannot destroy love and it will not ‘alter with his brief hours and weeks’. This is slightly an idealistic view of love as we never know what will happen in the future and if love does end with someone it may start back up again with someone else. Shakespeare assures us that love is ideal and states ‘If this be error and upon me proved, / I never write, nor no man ever loved.’ He is so determined that love is everlasting that he is prepared to destroy his sonnets if he is proved wrong. This is a strong claim to make considering he is so famous for his many sonnets.
On the other hand ‘A Birthday’ deals with the issue of love as either a new life or a new beginning to a relationship. It does not address love after death. The celebration of a new life, which is one aspect the poem, links with ‘First Love’ when Clare describes the ‘blood burning round my heart’. I interpret this as love being similar to a life source, which could highlight a new life being born as it is in ‘A Birthday’.
‘A Birthday’ is more materialistic and the reference to ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ shows her desire to celebrate the new love she has found and exaggerate her feelings, as these are opulent items.
The personal views of the poets in ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and ‘A Birthday’ help the reader understand more easily how they are feeling, whereas ‘Sonnet 116’ talks about love in a more general form.
‘How Do I Love Thee?’ talks about her own love which is implied through the first person narrative. This suggests that the poem was wrote for Browning’s husband; Robert Browning and likewise in ‘A Birthday’ the extensive use of repetition; ‘My’ shows how personal the poem is, involving the reader more. However in ‘Sonnet 116’ we are not informed about Shakespeare’s own personal experience on love but he informs us about love in its purest form and what it should be like. ‘Love’s not Time’s fool’ explains that physically we will all grow old and weaken but love will grow older and stronger.
All three poems are very positive and as I have mentioned talk about love in an ideal way but unfortunately love does not always run smoothly and so I think these poems are an exaggerated view of love and cannot be relied upon when querying love itself.
When you love someone and you are in a relationship it will always come to an end due to the death of on person. You can still love someone once they are dead and it can be everlasting which is repeated in many of the poems but the physical aspect of love will come to an end when someone dies. The next three poems are all related to love and death and have different views on it.
‘To Mary’ was written by ‘John Clare’ who lived for 71 years. He grew up in the countryside of Helpstone and was a working class boy who was forced to work at a very early age due to his family’s poverty. His finest poems were wrote in an insane asylum and in ‘To Mary’ he has a different perspective on death compared to the other poems.
The other two poems in this section are both written by ‘Christina Rossetti’ as is ‘A Birthday’, which featured in the Romantic Love section. This English lyric poet reflects her lyrical style of writing onto ‘Song’ which is similar to ‘To Mary’ where the poem is lyrical. This style of writing is not followed in ‘Remember’ but instead she writes in sonnet form. This sonnet used is an example of the Italian style and follows a different rhyming pattern and structure compared to the Shakespearean sonnet as seen in ‘Sonnet 116’. This style is appropriate for the poem and displays the fact that this is the poet’s final thoughts.
The tone of the three poems varies. ‘Remember’ has a reflective and melancholy tone. I think this is because Rossetti wrote this when she was only nineteen and at this time people died at a young age and so we get the impression that she was writing it for later life as her death would come sooner rather than later. The whole poem therefore has a more personal touch than the others and implies that she wants to be remembered for the right reasons. ‘Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad.’ Although the poet does not want be forgotten by her lover, if it causes him grief to think about her then she would rather him forget. She puts his happiness first and this idea is highlighted throughout the poem.
Similarly Rossetti creates a sorrowful tone in ‘Song’ and is poignant in its subject matter. The two verses are clearly differentiated by the use of instructions in the first and the benefits of her death in the second. She doesn’t want him to grieve for her and sing ‘no sad songs for’ for her yet she states; ‘Be the grass above me / With showers and dewdrops wet.’ This contradiction is explaining how on one hand she doesn’t want him to be sad or upset about her death but wants him to visit her grave and think about her. Metaphorically I think she is stating that she wants him to cry for her, emphasised by the ‘dewdrops’ and ‘showers’ which represent the tears she wants to fall from his eyes. This is slightly confusing, as the reader does not know what Rossetti wants her lover to do.
‘To Mary’ has a much more positive tone to it. Clare talks as if the person is still alive which we came across in both ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. ‘I sleep with thee, and wake with thee’ evidently portrays the character to still be alive yet ‘thou art not there’. Similarly to ‘Song’ the three verses all exhibit different aspects of love and death and they include physical, emotional and nature.
Because of the positive tone in ‘To Mary’ the poem is very gentle towards death. The ‘whispers’ and ‘hush’ of nature is very calming and the personification used helps create the idea of the person still living. We never come across details of how she died or bluntly stating she is dead and this is why the poem is much more positive.
On the other hand the other two poems are much more blunt but in particular ‘Song’. The opening line highlights this straight away; ‘When I am dead’. ‘Remember also opens with death but in a more general way. ‘Gone far away into the silent land.’ This metaphor for heaven is a euphemism and makes dying sound like a journey. This isn’t as harsh or blunt as ‘Song’ but still states the fact she is going to die some day.
Rossetti creates the idea of time standing still in ‘Song’. ‘Dreaming through the twilight’ creates the idea of falling asleep forever and waiting for her lover to join her once she dies. This links with ‘First Love’ as Clare wants time to stand still to capture the moment of his first love. This also relates back to ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ when he kills Porphyria so that he doesn’t have to share her with anyone and wants to remain on the sofa together forever.
The concept of eternal love runs throughout all the poems in different ways. In these three poems they highlight this and hope they will be re united one day. ‘To Mary’ creates the idea of everlasting love through nature. The personification used brings her to life and constantly reminds him of ‘some pleasant tales of thee.’ This is comforting for Clare and offers some reassurance. The physical aspects in this poem contrasts with ‘Remember’ as the physical contact been lost; ‘When you can no more hold my hand’. This is simple yet affective as it signifies that obviously you cannot hold hands now the person has dies but yet there is still hope that one day they will be reunited.
The everlasting love in ‘Remember’ is based on memories however rather than through nature. Death can take away the physical contact in a relationship but it can’t take away the memories. Similarly ‘Song’ is based on the memories, as she wants him to ‘haply may forget’ the bad memories but remember the positive ones. Although they differ in the way they portray eternal love, they show similarities with ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and ‘Sonnet 116’. Both these two poems from Romantic Love explain how love does not alter and sustains even after death. This is equally represented in ‘Remember’, ‘To Mary’ and ‘Song’.
The second verse of ‘To Mary’ deals with emotions and how Clare cannot forget her. He is trying to move on and ‘think and speak of other things’ but like ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ he is unable to and his ‘memory clings’.
Similarly in ‘Remember’ Rossetti prompts her man to move on and carry out the ‘future plans’ whether it be alone or with someone else. She does want his life to come to an end just because hers has. This poem is very different to Rossetti’s ‘Song’, as it is clear she wants him to remember the good moments they had and move on unlike Porphyria’s lover who couldn’t get over it and became obsessed with her. ‘Song’ is more varied with her emotions where at one stage she wants him to move on as well as remembering her and mourning for his loss.
When we think of love we immediately think of romance and the idealistic view that Shakespeare portrays in ‘Sonnet 116’. However love has many different aspects to it including obsession and death, which we do not contemplate for. The poems deal with all these issues but in conclusion most have one common theme of eternal love. They exhibit the idea of being reunited one day but in different ways. The Duke has the picture, which he can admire to remind himself of her as well as showing off to his guests. Shakespeare clearly believes that love is eternal and if it is not then he promises to destroy his sonnets and all poems in the love and death section hope that they will meet again one day in ‘the silent land.’
In conclusion I hope to have shown a detailed examination of the poems I have studied and made reference to others, showing how they link in with many of the poems. Love is something we all want to encounter one day but as we have seen can have bitter consequences.