Robert Browning Paper

deadline for submissions: 
May 3, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Kayla Ireson / East Tennessee State University
contact email: 

Kayla Ireson

Abstract

Akin to other Victorian writers, Robert Browning was strongly influenced by the Victorian standard of objective beauty. Browning was also intensely influenced by the ideas of mortality, attractiveness and perpetual flawlessness. Throughout his literary career, Robert Browning wrote an excess of ambitious works that are still glorified today. For example, “Fra Lippo Lippi”, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” remain highly regarded poems. However, proper understanding of Robert Browning’s poetry should include delving into the tenants of existentialism, overt visualization of death, and additional macabre themes. Through this lens, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” exists outside many of the common conventions of the medium in a multitude of ways. Browning’s poems offer an introspective, critical perspective on humankind by composing intensely morose dramatic monologues during an existentially philosophical and liminal period.

Browning’s work often addresses the sexual nature of death, as seen in both “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess.” Using the dramatic monologue, he shows the crass and raw parts of human conduct and cruelty with fierce honesty that is engaging to readers. Although these poems have been critiqued before, there is a marked contrast when comparing “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” with regards to existentialism, the nature of death and the standard of beauty. In short, this paper presents evidence of Browning’s disturbingly sexualized poetry, and the implications one could draw from these interpretations. Also, the findings support the assertion that any poet’s infatuation with writing about death, the sexual nature of murder or the countless other uneasy topics shares no correlation to the poets themselves.

 

 

Kayla Ireson

Dr. Robert Sawyer

ENGL 5350

3 May 2021

A Comparative Analysis of Robert Browning’s, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”

In order to understand Robert Browning and his poetry, it is pertinent to have a small amount of knowledge on his background and upbringing. Browning’s father worked as a bank clerk who also owned over 6,000 books. Interestingly, Percy Shelly was one of his role-models and, in turn, Browning became both an Atheist and vegetarian. His wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning came from money, but it was still Browning’s infatuation with writing about death, the sexual nature of murder, or the countless other uneasy topics thatbrought him to fame during his lifetime. Throughout his literary career, Browning wrote an excess of ambitious works that are still glorified in modern literature. A considerable amount of Robert Browning’s poetry, including but not limited to: “Fra Lippo Lippi” “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” exist outside many of the common conventions. Leading an intriguing life, many modern literary critics still analyze and study Browning and his wife, Emily Barrett Browning, regularly.

Along with his various achievements, Browning also created a multitude of canonical poems. His creative works are inundated in macabre pessimism and existential themes that influenced him and other renowned poets. Additionally, Browning came up with the doctrine of the imperfect, which is essentially a version of “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”.Robert Browning remains a household name who is often studied and utilizedin college classrooms across the world. Calculatingly and overtly sexualized, Browning’s work often addresses the unusual sexual nature of death, as seen in both “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess.” Using the dramatic monologue, Browning shows the truly crass and raw parts of human conduct and cruelty with fierce honesty that is engaging to readers.The dramatic monologue is an effective literary tool that can also be used for a certain person to reveal more than they would if not in confidence (similar to the way one would speak into a telephone booth), which leaves readers up to their own interpretations.

When closely examining Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”,the severely sexualized, existential refrains support the idea that these two poems share hidden similarities and differences.This assertion helps one understand that any poet’s infatuation with writing about death, the sexual nature of murder or the numberless other uneasy subject matters, share no direct correlation to the poets themselves. This is how Robert Browning, a moralisticman and worthy husband is also, in numerous ways, a masterful artist of death and sexuality.

Robert Browning’s works also contain elements of existentialism.The key tenants to existentialism are skepticism, lonesomeness and overwhelming anxiety. Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher, author and celebrated existentialist, asserted that “man is not the sum of what he has already, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have.” (quote sarte) Browning, unfortunately, would never read the works of Sartre. His creative works, however, are inundated in pessimism, existentialism and gruesome themes that Sartre studied and used comparably throughout his career.

A considerable amount of Browning’s works, most notably, “Porphyria’s Lover” exists separate from the traditional conventions of the medium. Browning’s poems offer an introspective, critical perspective on humankind with deeply morbid dramatic monologues during an existentially philosophical and liminal period. “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” begs the question, what is a woman’s place in the world?And, furthermore, how are we viewed by others, including close friends and significant others?Also, this assertion could be used to demonstrate that individuals will continue to be molded by their outlying influences and uncontrollable impulses, as seen in both poems.

Interestingly, the focal point of “Porphyria’s Lover” appears to be a steadfast conviction for preserving what the man viewed as an ideal moment he wished to owneternally. Disturbingly, the man’s plan to preserve her was to murder her and sit aside her corpse. To begin with “Porphyria’s Lover”, is it crucial to mentionPorphyria's disease. Scientific American notes that “Hippocrates is often cited as the first to recognize porphyria (which was then referred to as blood/liver disease).” (Lane) Furthermore, “Another relatively common form is porphyria cutanea tardea, which presents a very different spectrum of symptoms. In this case, the hallmark is photosensitivity (an excessive reaction to light), which causes chronic blistering and even burns on sun-exposed areas”. (Lane) Browning, a markedly intellectual man would have been well aware of porphyria as either a blood or liver disease.

Additionally, it is important recognize how women’s hair is viewed with regards to Victorian Literature. Akin to other Victorian writers, Browning was strongly influenced by the Victorian standard of objective beauty. He was also intensely influenced by the ideas of mortality, attractiveness and perpetual flawlessness. Literary critic, Elizabeth Gitter, observes that:

“The golden-haired woman developed in Victorian Literature into a complex but magnificent hair had multiple meanings and uses. When she was saintly, wife, nurse, mother, or victimized princess the gold on her head was her aureole, her crown, the outward sign of her inner blessedness and innocence” (Gitter).

Browning starts “Porphyria’s Lover” with a blonde woman hurrying in from a storm to warm her home she shares with her lover. She is painted handsomely by Browning: “She put my arm about her waist / And made her smooth white shoulder bare / And all her yellow hair displaced / And, stooping, made my cheek lie there, / And spread o’er all, her yellow hair” (Browning 16-20). At this point in the poem, it seems that the storm raging outside is a subtle foreshadowing of the storm that will shortly occur between Porphyria and her lover. Also, the way she is portrayed by Browning aligns perfectly with Gitter’s observation as the blonde woman who is a sort of “victimized princess the gold on her head was her, aureole, her crown, the outward sign of her inner blessedness and innocence”. Contradicting, Gitter, goes on to assert that,

“But when she was dangerous and corrupt, her gleaming hair was a weapon, web, or trap, a glittering symbolic fusion of the sexual lust and the lost for power that she embodied.” (Author)

Aligning with that, in “Porphyria’s Lover,” the narrator describes a moment in which the blonde woman seems to worship him: “But passion sometimes would prevail, / Now could tonight’s gay feast restrain / A sudden thought of one so pale / For love of her, and all in vain: / So, she was come through wind and rain. / Be sure I looked up at her eyes / Happy and proud; at last I knew / Porphyria worshiped me” (Browning 26-33). This is the critical turning point in the poem. Once her lover realizes she worships him, he decides that his only option is to preserve her innocence in that precise moment, in a manner that is immoral and deeply distressing. Perhaps her murder was afraid that she would become dangerous or corruptible and took both of those alternatives away from her completely.

Shortly after this, the narrator returns to more disturbing and unacceptable behavior:

I warily oped her lids: again / laughed the blue eyes without the stain. / And I untightened next the tress / About her neck; her cheek once more / Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss: / O propped her head up as before / Only, this time my shoulder bore / Her head (Browning 44-50)

Browning introducing this poem as a dramatic monologue gives readers a thought-provoking insight into the character’s mentality and thought-process. Readers mostly yearn to understand and comprehend why the man murdered his seemingly innocent lover and slept beside her corpse. This can be described as immoral, disturbing, and an act only committed by a truly deranged person. The man tells readers of some wayward fear, stating “Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how / Her darling one wish would be heard. / And thus we sit together now, / And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” (Browning 56-60). In his consternation, the man shows the distress and understanding of the tenants of justice, and a slight guardedness or bewilderment at the lifeless blonde on his shoulder.

Despite the fact that Porphyria’s lover committed this atrocity, by the end of the poem Browning notes that even god did not punish the man.What Browning is subtly embracing is the unavailing nature of finding purpose in one’s life. If god does not punish those who commit such atrocities, then from where does justice come? For Browning as an atheist, these types pf musings would not be unusual. As an intellectual and skeptic, one would assume this type of critical analysis inside of Browning’s poetry is usual, to say the least.

To return to literary critic, Gitter, she asserts that:

The golden-haired innocent might be damaged or corrupted by the world; the wicked temptress might, like Mary Magdalen, be redeemed, her counterfeit gold gaining worth; women might barter, sacrifice, or sell portions of their gold in a variety of marketplaces, good and evil.”(Gitter)

In a peculiar way, the golden-haired innocent in “Porphyria’s Lover” might have been damaged or corrupted by the world, in her lover’s eyes, but is redeemed in a way similar to Mary Magdalen, with her hasty demise protecting her and preserving her absolute innocence. In that moment, “she was saintly, wife, nurse, mother, or victimized princess the gold on her head was her princess the gold on her head was her aureole, her crown, the outward sign of her inner blessedness and innocence.” (Gitter)

“The golden-haired innocent might be damaged or corrupted by the world; the wicked temptress might, like Mary Magdalen, be redeemed, her counterfeit gold gaining worth; women might barter, sacrifice, or sell portions of their gold in a variety of marketplaces, good and evil.” (Gitter) With this in mind, one could make the argument of Porphyria as a Mary Magdalen figure. Porphyria was not the mother of the son of god, but shares similarities with the mother of Jesus Christ. In “Porphyria’s lover” she is regarded as both saintly and innocent. Like Gitter observes, her blonde hair is similar to a saintly crown which stands as a representation of her blessedness and innocence.

Also, there seems to exist a correlation between the narrator’s conviction and his over-perception of the world and the blonde woman.Moreover, the man referred to in “Porphyria’s Lover” has found himself in a position of life that is less than idyllic. This, coupled with a robust yet discontent type, lands him in the center of a murder. By the end of the poem the man realizes that in his search for perfection and significance has failed, and he is left to accept the futility of his work.

A considerable amount of Browning’s works, most notably, “Porphyria’s Lover” exists separate from the traditional conventions of the medium. Browning’s poems offer an introspective, critical perspective on humankind with intensely morose dramatic monologues during an existentially philosophical and liminal period. “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” challenge the concept of a women’s presence while sustaining that individuals will continue to be molded by their outlying influences. The lover in this poem may remind one of the Rainer Maria Rilke quote:Almost as if one’s face as if it were a mask: “Other people are disconcertingly quick to change faces, one after another, and they wear them out. At first, they suppose they have enough to last forever, but hardly have they reached forty when they come to the last of them.” (Rilke 5)

Similarly, Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” contain similarities and disparities that are not, at first, completely transparent and easily understandable. To understand this poem in its entirety, it is important to understand the context behind the poem. This particularBrowning poem is based on the life of Alfonso II. Tragically, his first wife died at a young age after only three years of marriage. Shortly after her death, the married the niece of a Count.Browning begins this poem by describing something familiar to all readers: a painting. The Duke notes, “That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive. I call / That piece of wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands / Worked busily a day, and there she stands (Browning 1-4). Further into the poem, curiously, the narrator mentions that “Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat.’” (Browning 15-19) Again, the imagery of a woman’s delicate throat has been brought to the forefront of the poem.

Browning continues, “such stuff / Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough / For calling up that spot of joy. She had / A heart-- how shall I say? – Too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed; she liked what whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere (Browning 19-23).Before going forward, it is important for readers to understand that Browning is using the dramatic monologue in a very similar manner to “Porphyria’s Lover”. Also, similar to “Porphyria’s Lover”, theDuke acts as a director of this certain scene, so both poem are being told from a man’s perspective. The Duke, however, is a dissimilar to Porphyria's lover. He is an unpleasant human being and monomaniac. The wordage used in this poem suggest that the woman is deceased: “Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands / As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet / The company below, then.” (Browning 46-48)

Unusually, the Duke is jealous of the painter. More unusually, while the painting of the woman is beautiful, the Duke seems disturbed by the unusual look on her face. It appears to him that the woman in the painting has a slight grin similar to the Mona Lisa. Furthermore, Browning’s portrayal of the painting’s aliveness supports the notion of her as being deceased. In the last lines of “My Last Duchess”, Browning writes “At starting, is my object. Nay we’ll go / Together down sir. Notice Neptune, though / Taming a sea horse, though a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” (Browning 53-56) This is a reference to Neptune’s taming of a seahorse. In Browning’s “The Last Duchess” it seems the Duke’s anger and frustration come from the lack of ability to tame the Duchess the way Neptune tamed a seahorse.

In short, this paper presents evidence of Browning’s disturbingly sexualized poetry, and the implications one could draw from these interpretations. However, the findings support the assertion that any poet’s infatuation with writing about death, the sexual nature of murder or the countless other uneasy topics shares no correlation to the poets themselves. Moreover, noting that Robert Browning is a markedly intellectual man, as illustrated by both “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” When closely examining Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,”the severely sexualized, existential refrains support the idea that these two poems share hidden similarities and differences.

When scrutinizing Browning’s poetry, one could proveThis assertion helps one understand h that any poets infatuation with writing about death, the sexual nature of murder or the countless other uneasy topics shares no direct correlation to the poet themselves. ow Robert Browning, a moralisticman and worthy husband is also, in many ways, a masterful artist of death and sexuality. It makes much more sense to assert at this point why Robert Browning is still a household name who is studied and used in college classrooms across the world.

 

 

 

 

Annotated Bibliography

Diedrick, James. “‘My Love Is a Force That Will Force You to Care’: Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind's Dramatic Monologues.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 40, no. 4, 2002, pp. 359–386. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40002351. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.

Diedrick’s article highlights dramatic monologues and their proficient use as literary tools. He also focuses on how sexuality is used in Mathilde Blind’s dramatic monologues, analogous to the manner Robert Browning utilizes the dramatic monologue.

Deidrick’s close analysis of a dramatic monologue helps shed light onto dramatic monologues in general. Most importantly, it will be used in my final paper to help readers comprehend the macabre overtone of the two poems, “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”. Lastly, it is a scholarly journal article and therefore a reliable source.

 

Efird, Tyler. “‘Anamorphosizing’ Male Sexual Fantasy in Browning's Monologue.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 43, no. 3, 2010, pp. 151–166. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44029488. Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.

Tyler Efird’s criticism of “Porphyria's Lover” and “My Last Duchess” suggests a thought-provoking take of the aforementioned poems. This journal article is an assertion of Efird’s notion of a “female other”. Moreover, the “female other” is a projection of repressed male desire. Efird concludes his article by distinguishing Browning’s ability to alienate the reader’s sense of self in the male speakers, and their familiarity as a current reader.

Efird’s article, mainly, will be used in my final paper to help readers grasp the bizarrely sexually perverse nature of the two poems, “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”. Lastly, it is a scholarly journal article and therefore a reliable source.

Francomano, Emily. “Escaping by a Hair: Silvina Ocampo Rereads, Rewrites, and Re-Members ‘Porphyria's Lover.’” Letras Femeninas, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 1999, pp. 65–77. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23021329. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021

Unmistakably, “Porphyria’s Lover” is macabre yet oddly sexual. In “Escaping by a Hair: Silvina Ocampo Rereads, Rewrites, and Re-Members ‘Porphyria's Lover”, Francomano’s offers an analysis of blonde hair as a murder weapon. In addition, she closely reflects on the sexuality of Victorian Literature, women’s free-flowing hair, romance, and love.

Francomano’s article will be used in my final paper. The article can be used to draw attention-grabbing parallels between the exaggerated significance of women’s hair in Victorian Literature and Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”. Moreover, the Michigan State University Press is a credible scholarly source.

Browning, Robert. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume E: The Victorian Age, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. Norton & Company. 2006. 1248- 1256.

Greenblatt’s anthology offers readers a straightforward excerpt on Robert Browning. These pages of the anthology explore Browning’s life, including his marriage to renowned poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, his upbringing by a bank clerk father and religious minded mother and his experiments with the dramatic monologue. This will indisputably be used in my final paper. Biographical information can be pertinent in persuading readers of a poet’s written purpose and principal argument. Additionally, the source is credible and reliable.

Gitter, Elisabeth G. “The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian Imagination.” PMLA, vol. 99, no. 5, 1984, pp. 936–954., www.jstor.org/stable/462145. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021

Elizabeth Gitter’s article includes ruminations on yellow hair, particularly it’s enchanting and magical qualities, noting that “the Victorians thoroughly explored and greatly enriched a well-established literary tradition” (Gitter 936). Gitter thoroughly analyzes the importance of hair and the Victorian vision of magic hair and how it has become trivialized and devalued in the twentieth century. This article will be a leading source in my final paper. Gitter’s powerful analysis of the power of women’s hair in Victorian Literature lends credence to an uncontaminated ideal in golden-haired women. The super- feminization and objectification of women will be integral to my final paper. Additionally, Gitter’s article is credible and reliable.

 

Hadley, Elaine. “Home as Abroad: Orientalism and Occidentalism in Early English Stage Melodrama.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 41, no. 4, 1999, pp. 330–350. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40727722. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.

Elaine Hadley’s article is both insightful and articulate. Hadley uses her medium to tell readers about British imperialism, melodrama and poetry. Focusing primarily on melodramas, Hadley explores themes of disillusion, the imagination, indifference and relevance. The conclusion focuses on Eurocentric and anti-imperialist views of the poems. This source will be used in my final paper. The modernized ideas of Western imperialism bring an innovative and refreshing lens to view Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”. Also, the source is undoubtedly reliable and credible.

Ingersoll, Earl G. “Lacan, Browning, and the Murderous Voyeur: ‘Porphyria's Lover’ and ‘My Last Duchess.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 28, no. 2, 1990, pp. 151–157. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40002164. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.

Ingersoll’s article gives a Freudian interpretation of the two poems, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”. Specifically, Ingersoll focuses on a 1915 essay, “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” in which Sigmund Freud demonstrates sadism and masochism in its three stages: impulse to master or control another person as an object; the giving up of that “object” and the turning back upon the self of the subject as passive object; and finally the seeking of another subject so that the original subject might become a passive object” (Freud 127). Ingersoll’s article will be used in my paper to explore the Freudian elements in both “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”. Ingersoll’s article is credible and will be a pertinent and appropriate tool for exploring additional Freudian themes in Browning’s poetry.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. “Projection and the Female Other: Romanticism, Browning, and the Victorian Dramatic Monologue.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 22, no. 2, 1984, pp. 139–159. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40002963. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Similar to other critics, Knoepflmacher notices the objectification of Porphyria and the Duchess and their subsequent transformation into a stagnant sexualized image. This essay explores “the lover” and “the duchess” and how both poems are the staple of Robert Browning and his dramatic monologues. Knoepflmacher’s article will be used as an integral part in my final essay. The cumulative information about “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” with regards to the sexualization of the female “object” and voyeurism is invaluable.

 

Lafky, Sue. “Gender, power, AND CULTURE IN THE TELEVISUAL WORLD OF TWIN PEAKS: A FEMINIST CRITIQUE.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 51, no. 3/4, 1999, pp. 5–19. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20688217. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.

Lafky’s feminist critique of Twin Peaks begins with an excerpt from Robert Browning’s “Porphyria”. After, Lafky makes the point that the poem invites feminist scholars to critique male sexual fantasies about violence against women. Ultimately, Lafky’s essay argues that Twin Peaks has regressive and violent representations of women and an unquestionable celebration of law and order. This essay will be included in my final paper. While Lafky’s article is credible and noteworthy, it has genuine content on Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” and has notable contributing content.

O’Brien, E. (2008). Murder, Execution, and the Criminal Classes. In Crime in Verse: The Poetics of Murder in the Victorian Era (pp. 29-108). Columbus: Ohio State University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv16qk32n.6

Beginning with the importance of the ballad, this source is most captivating. O’Brien discusses the political importance of ballads and other progressive ideas. This source confirms the odd structure of the Victorian discourse of prison reform. O’Brien’s article will be used in my paper in order to examine both “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”. Also, this publication is credible and reliable.

Winters, Ben. “Strangling Blondes: Nineteenth-Century Femininity and Korngold's ‘Die Tote Stadt.’” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 23, no. 1/2, 2011, pp. 51–82. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41494574. Accessed 21 Mar. 2021.

Winters’ article offers a fresh viewpoint on Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt, arguing that the treatment of the characters, Marie and Marietta, draws on the erotic “strangling-blonde” imagery from the nineteenth century. This article will be included in my final paper. Winter’s article is a worthwhile read and the content of the article pertains to my paper’s topic.

New Light on Medicine," by Nick Lane; Scientific American, January 2003.

 

 

 

categories