Robert Browning was one of the great poets of the Victorian age in two of his poems, ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ he gives us an insight into the minds of two abnormally possessive lovers. In these dramatic monologues, both personas seek control over the women they love and both gain it by murder. In a perverse way they believe themselves not to have done anything wrong. The intense jealousy that each lover feels overcomes the passion of their relationship and leads them to the only way they can achieve ultimate control – murder.
The Lover in ‘My last Duchess’ is a Duke who subconsciously gives himself away to the reader whilst showing a messenger from a nearby count a picture of his last wife. In the first line by saying ‘my’ the Duke shows us that he is possessive, he goes on to say that the picture makes her look as though she is alive. Because of the reality of the picture, he thinks of her as alive and therefore is satisfied with the amount of control that he has over her now that she is only present as a painting.
‘That piece a wonder, now…’ the Duke ambiguously describes the painting as a ‘wonder’, meaning that not only is it a marvellous looking picture but also wonderful because it finally gives him that sense of control over her.
The first sign of jealousy is detected very early on in the poem when the Duke claims that he sees a change in her face that other men do not, the more flirty side. He becomes paranoid about her treachery, leading himself deeper and deeper into the depths of anger and hatred, increasing his lust for control.
‘The depths and passion of that earnest glance’. If strangers ‘durst’ ask how that look got there, the Duke in his paranoia would immediately conclude that because only Fra Pandolf was present, he must have made her cheeks blush with his compliments: ‘Paint must never hope to reproduce the faint half-flush that dies along her throat’. The Duke admits that his wife would see these statements as no more than ‘courtesy’ and that the look is of joy and embarrassment.
As a lover the Duke is obsessed with control and his inability to control her, he tells the messenger that her heart was ‘too soon made glad’, and that she was ‘too easily impressed’. Apparently she was very prone to flirting; ‘her looks got everywhere’, the Duke cannot stand this and this becomes one of the main reasons for killing his wife.
She was generally a happy person, taking an interest in material things: ‘The dropping of the daylight in the west’. The Duke despises her for the equal affection and favour she gives out, apparently showing the Duke no distinction, no grains of respect or gratitude to his gift of a, ‘nine-hundred-years old name’.
In all his resentment the Duke failed to discuss the situation and his feelings with his wife because it would mean losing his pride; he arrogantly exclaims ‘I choose never to stoop’. The Duke finally admits giving the order for his wife’s murder on line forty-five when he says: ‘I gave commands, then all smiles stopped together’, he clearly indicates what he has done in a blunt and arrogant way, he hastily changes the subject, dismissing the matter of his ex-wife and displaying the amount of control and power he has over her. Once more she becomes a mere object, nothing but a painting.
The deranged lover continues to arrange his marriage to the Count’s daughter, he comments on his ‘masters’ known ‘munifance’, it becomes obvious that all the Duke is interested in his the handsome dowry he will receive for his new wife. In realising his bluntness the Duke hastily corrects himself: ‘Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed/ At starting, is my object.’
The Duke wishes to buy art with the dowry. It is hard to believe that such a self-centred, artless man, whose only passions are to control and dominate the woman he ‘loves’ can genuinely be interested in art.
The writing techniques that Browning uses in ‘My Last Duchess’ help to give the reader a more accurate idea of the Duke’s feelings. The poem is written in rhyming couplets which makes it flow and consequently easier and more fun to read. Similarly it is written in a very conversational style, making the reader more included. Some sentences in the poem are quite complex, for example:
‘Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Fra Pandolf by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of that earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
The contrasts within the poem are supplied by some short, sharp sentences, which suggest perhaps the need to show off, or to off load his guilt, but why to a nobody, maybe it is easier for him to tell someone of little importance, or maybe he feels safer talking to someone with no authority and whose not likely to repeat his admission to anyone.
As a reader you sense his increasing emotions and his need to suppress them as the poem develops, this is evident in lines thirty to thirty-five where the Duke begins to ‘fire’ himself up about her ‘betrayal’ and then persists in an attempt to reassure himself by claiming: ‘Who’d stoop to blame this sort of trifling?’
In comparison, the poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning once again tells the story of a possessive lover, not unlike the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’, there is the continual thirst for lust and control in both men.
Unlike ‘My Last Duchess’, in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ Browning sets the scene by describing the weather outside. The ‘storm’ reflects the feelings that the lover has inside. The sulleness of the weather reflects his sulleness.
Although the similarities between the two poems are numerous in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the man is not out to impress anyone or conceal the fact that he murdered his love, unlike the Duke who subconsciously reveals the fact.
‘I listened with a heart fit to break’, this is an ambiguously written sentence similar to that in ‘My Last Duchess’, it leaves the reader in a state of emotional suspense whilst also revealing the unavoidable truth that she will break his heart.
‘When no voice replied’, the speaker is obviously a silent and moody person, in comparison the Duke is a more loud but also moody person. You get the impression that Porphyria is elegant, smooth as implied by the phrase ‘glided in’. You also feel that she is having an affair, this is evident because she has travelled to his cottage in the middle of nowhere and in abysmal weather.
This shows that she obviously loves him and that he is worth her time and effort. Porphyria is very maternal, very domestic, ‘And kneeled and made the cheerless grate’, it is obvious that they lead a strange relationship. She tries to speak to him as a lover but he ignores her, Porphyria becomes the one to take control, the one to encourage him to be passionate, ‘stooping’, she tries to be more flexible and help out. The Duke’s relationship with his wife is remarkably dis-similar to that of Porphyria and her lover, the Duke cares about his wife but more like a child cares for his new toy than true love.
In addition to this the Duke is very much in control whereas it seems the opposite to that in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. Although Porphyria loves him, she is not strong or able enough to cut off all her ties, this is obviously not going to please the lover whose thirst for eternal control is overpowering the passion of the relationship he has with Porphyria. Sometimes he can forget his broody thoughts and can be distracted by passion: ‘But passion would sometimes would prevail’. The Duke is unable to be distracted in any way from the lust for control that flows through him. Porphyria fails to realise what her lover is really like, this is similar to the Duchess who must have not realised the Duke’s deathly thirst for control, surely otherwise she would have made more of an effort.
Both the Duke and Porphyria’s lover think and behave as though they are god and have the power to decide peoples fate, this a manic idea; the extremity of their passion has obviously deranged their minds. Murder is Porphyria’s lover’s way of preserving this moment of passion forever: ‘And yet God has not said a word!’ Just like the Duke he wishes to preserve and control her forever, but for a different reason. Porphyria’s lover wishes to preserve her purity and love for him, whereas the Duke only wishes to show his power and control over his wife, because of this you have more sympathy and understanding for Porphyria’s lover. The picture of love is therefore one of ultimate intensity.
‘In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.’
The lover actually murders Porphyria himself whereas the Duke only orders his wife’s murder. The lover makes an attempt to justify himself, as does the Duke, ‘No pain felt she; /I am quite sure she felt no pain.’ This becomes an image of his warped mind, by saying ‘her little throat’ he stresses her virgility and his power.
‘As a shut bud holds a bee’. The idea of a trapped bee is an ironic image, as a bee would be full of life and energy, trying to get out of its trap. The lover compares to a bee as though he thinks that she is still alive, like she has felt no pain. She is only alive in his head because it gives him the power to control her, by kissing her and lying her head on his shoulder he has reversed the role he played at the beginning: ‘I propped her head up as before, /Only, this time my shoulder bore/ Her head, which droops upon it still.’ He imagines her to be content, happy, as though he has done her favour: ‘That all it scorned at once is fled, / And I, its love, am gained instead!’
‘And yet God has not said a word!’ Porphyria’s lover imagines that he is God because he hasn’t been condemned, and hence carries on thinking he is. He seems to be admitting his guilt; it is as though he wants to be punished. The Duke on the other hand although admits to his wife’s murder, he does not believe that he deserves to be punished.
Both the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ and the lover in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ have disposed of their women, who become captured in a freeze-frame, the Duchess as a picture and the eternal moment of Porphyria’s love captured in her death. The picture of love that Browning presents you with is warped, centred around the ‘dominant male’ having ultimate control and power over his lover.