Krebs—Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”

There are many similarities between Robert’s Browning’s poems, “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover.” Before discussing their similarities, though, I think it’s important to speak about each poem individually.  Since we are trying to keep dates in mind, I decided to research when each poem was published.  According to my findings, “My Last Duchess” was published in 1842 while “Porphyria’s Lover was published in 1836.  In the scheme of works we have read, this means that both poems were published between “Tintern Abbey” and A Christmas Carol.  The dates of these poems are important in understanding the context in which they were written and the social standards of the time.

“My Last Duchess” is in the first-person narrative and involves a Duke speaking about a portrait of his late Duchess.  Towards the end of the poem, the reader gathers that the person the Duke is telling this story to is, in fact, a representative who has been sent to arrange the marriage between the Duke and the daughter of another influential family.  This seems a bit strange since the Duke spends so much talking about his last duchess.  Most surprisingly, he says barely anything positive about the girl, and instead, criticizes her.  He says, “She had/ A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,/ Too easily impressed; she lived whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (21-24).  He goes on criticizing her and then concludes, “I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped together” (45-46).  From this short statement, the reader can guess that the Duke had the young duchess murdered.  What is more disturbing is how he so quickly changes the subject to focus on his upcoming marriage to a new young girl.  If you haven’t listened to the poem being read aloud, I would encourage you to do so because the narrator’s smugness becomes so much more obvious in speech.  Browning’s use of rhyming also leads the reader to believe that the narrator might be a bit insane.

“Pophyria’s Lover” also involves a murder, but this time the reader does not have to make assumptions since the murder is actually described.  The narrator bluntly states, “I found/ A thing to do, and all her hair/ In one long yellow string I wound/ Three times her little throat around,/ And strangled her” (37-41).  Browning’s use of rhyming in this poem, which follows the form ABABB ABAB, is much more prominent than in “My Last Duchess,” and gives the poem a singsong kind of quality.  This factor also makes the murder that much more unsettling.  It appears that the narrator kills his lover simply so that he can keep her forever—he explains, “At last I knew/ Porphyria worshipp’d me; surprise/ Made my heart swell, and still it grew/ While I debated what to do./ That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/ Perfectly pure and good” (32-37).  The narrator’s insanity is even more obvious after he has killed Porphyria and he sits, holding her dead body all night long.

These poems are similar not only because they both involve a murder, but also because they each use rhyming and involve a man as narrator who appears to be insane.  As we have learned in many of the class’s presentations, there seems to be a trend in men’s authority over women in the 19th century.  Since these poems were published even before Jane Eyre, we can be sure that the men’s control over women was a prominent theme of this time.  Each of these poems seems to be making a statement about men’s abuse and power over women.  As was the case with Jane Eyre, this statement goes against the norm or standard of the time and was undoubtedly considered controversial.


About Jessie Krebs

Jessie Krebs graduated from the University of Richmond in May 2014. Her personal accomplishments include winning multiple belly-flop competitions and mastering a grandma voice she uses for all her imitations. She currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland where she is a self-appointed Citizen On Patrol.
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