Robert Browning's fame rests today with his dramatic monologues, such as "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover". Unlike soliloquies, the point of a dramatic monologue, are not the words that are directly spoken, it is what the speaker subtly gives away. Both "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover" are dramatic monologues, that are therefore centred around a single male character, telling the reader about events which have already taken place, although, once one has read the poems, one does get the sense that while the events in "My Last Duchess" took place some time ago, those in "Porphyria's Lover" have only just happened.
Due to the story of the poem being told from the point of view of an individual, the account is completely biased. Written in the Victorian, there is a major difference in the perception of women in polite society than there is today. This key issue is highlighted up in "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover". While there was a huge difference between the upper and lower tiers of society, their ambitions of both were remarkably the same: to do better for one's self and one's family.
However, the ability to do so was what separated the classes. While the divide between classes was a very clear one, there was another main divide in the classes themselves, that of sex. While men were free to try and do better for themselves, women were stuck with what they were born with and then later, married into. What makes this situation even stranger is that at the time of Browning writing "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover" is that there was a queen on the throne and therefore a female in charge of the running of the country.
The main themes of both "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover" are that of: control, class, and personalities. While from the outset, these seem like relatively small themes for poetry that was written to challenge and provoke thought, when one stops and thinks about it, they are truly huge thing to try and tackle within a poem. Merely with class there is the idea of relationship, inter-action, and personality. More over, these sub topics cross between the main themes of the poem. In My Last Duchess, the importance of class and what it means is present throughout the whole of the poem.
One knows from the outset that those in the poem are going to be of the upper classes. The Duke in the poem acts in such a way that he perceives as fitting for his class. While he is showing the silent listener in the poem artwork, he uses the name Fra Pandolf, who is clearly an artist of high standing with the art world. One can assume from the repetition of this name that the Duke is bragging somewhat about the piece of artwork before him. From the impression given about the Duke by himself, the Duchess is a stark contrast.
She acts in a way, seen by the Duke, unfit for her social class. During the time period in which the poem was written, there would have been very little inter-action between the different social classes. The Duchess, however, does not seem to pay much attention to this fact. While the Duke is speaking he says that "too soon made glad, too easily impressed; she liked whatever she looked on, and her looks went everywhere". Things that gave her pleasure were of such a nature, that someone of her class should not have even noticed them.
However, in Porphyria's Lover, the whole nature of the poem is that of inter-action between classes, up to the point of romantic relationships. Unlike My Last Duchess, the reader of the poem is not clearly told the social positions or titles of those in the poem. However, Browning does give the reader enough to deduce the social classes. The lover is of a lower class. This can be worked out from the fact that Browning mentions that he lives in a cottage. The woman, Porphyria, is of upper class.
This is told to the reader through the lines "from her form Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl, And laid her soiled gloves by, untied her hat". In addition, Porphyria's lover says that she would not "From pride, and vainer ties dissever" this shows that Porphyria is of a class that her involvement, in any form with someone like her lover, would cause a scandal. Also, she loves being in her social position, and even though she loved this man, and "worshipped" him, she would not leave her class for her to be with him.
This shows the reader how highly class was regarded during the Victorian era even love was subject to class. In both poems, the women are killed, if not directly, for acting in such a way that was not seen as acceptable for their social class, or more importantly, their gender. In My Last Duchess, the Duke gave orders and had the Duchess killed. Through out the poem, there is a great deal of control on the part of the Duke. Browning demonstrates this through the use of rhyming couplets. He demands control of the situation. However, when he was with the Duchess, he lacked this control.
He cannot stop the Duchess from doing what she wants to do. It is clear that he disapproves of her riding "the white mule she rode with round the terrace", and yet he does not stop her, for, for him to do so, would force him to "stoop" to her level. While the idea of control throughout My Last Duchess appears to be with the Duke, the Duchess does have some control over has her own life, despite the wishes of her husband, she does what she wants to do. The point at which the Duke is most in control of the Duchess is when she is dead and he has a painting of her.
Then he can fully control her. Only he can look at her portrait "Since none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I". However, in Porphyria's Lover, the control between the characters is never truly fixed. At the start of the poem, the control is with Porphyria. She turns up to see her lover when she wants to. He has to wait to her. The way this would seem to him would be wrong. He is the man and he should be the one completely in control of their relationship. However, from the moment that Porphyria's lover realises that Porphyria worships him; he gains control of the situation.
Both poems are centred on women that push boundaries. Neither of the women sticks to the social class which society expects them to. While the women in both poems are somewhat humble despite their elevated social status, the Duke in. My Last Duchess is nothing of the sort. He is boastful. The repetition of Fra Pandolf shows that he is very proud of his material possession. After he has finished with the portrait, he moves onto "Neptune, though, taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! " When he is talking, he refers to the Duchess as "my last duchess".
This implies that he has had more than one Duchess, and that he is in negotiations to gain another. For this to be true, the past Duchesses must have done something to displease him. This shows that he is very dominating and also very possessive. They are HIS Duchesses, "MY last Duchess". He does not let his anger show if it means that he will have to "stoop". By contrast, the lover in Porphyria's Lover is openly angry at the start of the poem. This is shown by his inactivity throughout the first half of the poem. Also, it is shown through pathetic fallacy. The weather is stormy to reflect his anger.
The Duke is a very cold person. He "gave commands" for her death, wanting little to do with it. He refers to his Duchesses, his past wives, as mere possessions. Meanwhile, Porphyria's lover is passionate. He waits for Porphyria to come to see him. And once she is there, and he has found out how much she loves him, he kills her to keep it so. However, the reason for both murders is that of control. Both murders happen so that the men can have control over the woman. Porphyria's lover's world changes as soon as she enters the room, she breaks all the rules that have been dictated to her.
He no longer notices the storm that is raging outside "She shut the cold out and the storm". Clearly when she is present he becomes more at ease with himself, as the pathetic fallacy is no longer needed to express his emotions. In both poems the women have their emotions on clear display, at least from the view of them that we are given by their respective narrators. There is a stark contrast between Porphyria and her lover. She is described in terms of bright colours (her yellow hair, the fire she makes blaze up), while he is pale.
She is active, he is passive. While she is busying herself moving around the cottage, he sits still. She is talkative while he is silent; she came in after being with many other people, while he sits alone and isolated in his cottage. Both poems have themes running through out them that cause similarities to arise. However, due to the nature of these themes, there is a great deal of differences in the poems. Class and the strict boundaries that it imposed on society during the Victorian era is the key to the understanding of these poems.
Both poems are told from a male, first person, point of view. It is possible that Browning used these points of view to highlight certain issues that he found within the makeup of society. In both poems, the women in them are at some stage, in control. This could be to highlight the fact that during the era men were always in control and that maybe this was something that needed rectifying, that women were a necessary part of society. On the other hand, the message of the poems could be that woman in society must learn to be sub-servant to a male culture.
Both of the men in the poems have completely different reason for the murder of the women that they kill. However while the reason for the killings are different, the meanings of them are very much the same. Both men feel like they should be the ones that are in control of the women. In contrast to the similarities they share for the murder of the women, the two male characters could not be more different. To sum up, the poems, while written for an audience more than a hundred years ago, still have a meaning that is applicable to modern society. It questions our attitude towards society and to women.