How do Brownings poems – Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess – tell us about the position of women in previous centuries

Robert Browning’s poems give us an insight into the way men considered women in previous centuries; and the conclusions are actually quite shocking. From ‘My Last Duchess’, it is made perfectly clear that the Duke considers his wives as little more than possessions that are able to be disposed of if less than perfect. He says at the beginning of the poem; ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive’. He shows not a trace of remorse for his act and it is even as if the painting means more to him and is more valuable than his real wife when she were alive.

Browning is writing from the Dukes viewpoint and we have to remember that not only was the Duke three/four hundred years prior Brownings time, he would have also been brought up in a family where it was socially acceptable to discard wives as possessions and even to have had them killed if they did not satisfy their wants. This, in itself, is an injustice towards women, making it seem as though they are there merely for men’s sake only and are second class citizens – ranking far from males.

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The Dukes attitude towards the Duchess reminds me of a peacock’s display of its tail during mating season. The Duke flashes about his status and nine hundred-year-old name, as if that alone is enough to attract a partner. This is backed up by his statement; ‘… I know not how – as if she ranked My gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name with anybody’s gift. ‘ When the Duchess begins to displease him, the Duke ‘Gave his commands, and then all smiles stopped… ‘ ; meaning he had her killed… If he truly considered her an equal he would not think it fine to dispose of her like a used tissue.

This, backing up my theory that many man (if not the majority) living in previous centuries considered women as little more than objects. In the poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ the lover would also rather keep her as a possession instead of the real her. He believes that because Porphyria has given him her heart, it automatically means that she has given him her life and fate to control. The lover experiences a deeply passionate and jealous love towards Porphyria, which restricts all sense of reason and diplomatic judgement.

In a moment of madness, he believes that her life is as much his as her own, and he takes it apon himself to decide for her that she would actually like to die and then goes ahead with killing her. ‘That moment she was mine, mine… ‘ says the lover, showing the extent of his belief that he owned her. If the lover did not believe that he owned her, he would not be capable of such huge decisions on her behalf, with out even consulting her – this shows that is some way he must have considered Porphyria to be his own possession.

Just like the Duke, the lover shows not a hint of sorrow for the deed he has done, ending saying. ”And all night long we have not stirred, and yet God has not said a word! ‘ Although Robert Browning writes believable and impressionable poems on the domination of women and the belief that they are merely possessions for men to rule, it is unlikely that the poems he wrote were based in anyway around his own feelings regarding women.

Robert experienced a deep and true love towards Elizabeth Barret Browning, defying her father and eloping to Italy together and nursing her through poor health to her deaths bed in 1861. Their tale of love and romance, to me, does not sound remotely like a relationship surrounded by possessiveness… I personally think that Browning took it apon himself to open up both men and women’s eyes to the inequality shown towards many females by men.

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