How poets portrayed love during the Victorian era

Our view today of Victorian relationships is that of love, money, and marriage – and sex only happening after marriage. The poems I have studied give a clear view of relationships. What was wanted from them, feelings, Victorian views etc, which appear to be different to our initial ideas!

Firstly, I looked at Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, which is an example of a 17th century Carpe Diem poem. A “seize the day” poem Marvell is having his speaker direct his words at a particular women that he is courting, and by extension, to all young women with advice that urges them to act upon their hormonal instincts as soon as possible. Back then, “mistress” simply meant “young woman”, he is not instructing them to be licentious and “easy” whores. That is exactly the opposite of what men wanted then. He does however, urge them to catch the fancy of an upstanding man and marry him while still young and with the physical beauty that would first catch the eye of a man. He does not believe there is enough time for extended flirting as leading a man on without allowing him full sexual satisfaction will cause him to lose interest.

These views portrayed in Marvell’s poem say a lot about feelings on love and relationships during the Victorian era. By all of Marvell’s talk about finding a man and getting married while you still have looks and fulfilling sexual desires tells us two things straight away. Feelings felt towards a woman then did not start because she may have had a beautiful personality, it was more like the beautiful looks that counted, as did sex. The male figure fits in entirely with these ideas. He is pushy, impatient and arrogant. He also sees her as a sexual object rather than appreciating her as a person. He piles upon her lots of flattery, however, upon studying the poem you can see that it is all about her looks! For example:

“An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze

Two hundred to adore each breast

But thirty thousand to the rest.”

It is all about her physical image; her eyes, her breasts – which is typical of the Victorian era as breasts are seen as sexual objects, as is the woman herself – and then the rest of her body.

Robert Browning’s early monologue “My Last Duchess” is a great example of dramatic dialogue, dramatically and narrating Victorian concerns. The poem is based on incidents in the life of Alfonso II, duke of Ferrara in Italy. The use of dramatic monologue works to separate the speaker from the poet, which forces the reader to work hard to understand the words of the speaker arguing with his 2nd self as well as talking to the listener.

We learn lot about the Duke by what he says and how he says it. The Duke was jealous, obsessive, snobby, insecure and also untrustworthy. An example of this untrustworthiness would be:

“Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not

Her husbands presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek …”

This quotation also shows insecurity. The Duke got extremely jealous of the Duchess’ flirtatious nature with other men, and her natural sexuality also irritates him. These feelings of the Duke, his upset and his jealousy show that he actually was in love with his wife. It deeply irritated the Duke that even with his money and gifts he felt he was not loved in return. The Duke is manipulative, filled with family pride, and a feeling of ownership over even the memory of his deceased wife. I think that another reason that the Duke does not allow many people to see the Ducess’ painting is the fact he wants her all to himself.

Now that she is dead, the picture is like her remains, and it makes him happy to feel that he finally has her all to himself; plus, he is acting like he did not love her and is over her, by not having the painting covered and, from the impression we get, moving on to his next Duchess. We even get the impression that he might have murdered her Could it have been that his insecurity and irritation could have drove him to get rid of the one thing he could never control? Perhaps when “all the smiles stopped altogether”?

The two poems have extreme contrast. “To His coy Mistress” is a poem about sexual fulfilment, beauty and obtaining a husband by giving a man what he ultimately wants according to this poem – sex. “My Last Duchess however ultimately shows that money and power cannot buy love. For this moral commentary in dramatic monologue, Browning draws from the traditions of Shakespeare’s soliloquies to offer the reader that “truth broken into prismatic hues”.

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