“My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria's Lover”, both written by Robert Browning in 1842, contain strong elements of gendered sexual violence that is likely a product of the repression and censorship that typified the Victorian Age. While “Porphyria's Lover” is much more graphic and obvious in its depiction of sexual violence, “My Last Duchess” contains a number of elements that are dark and disturbing in their own right. Most important of these is the objectification of the duchess, which reduces her identity to that of another display in a collection. Both similarities and differences between the poems will be analyzed, including theme, symbolism, rhyme scheme, tone, and the nature of the sexual violence itself. This will show that the gendered sexual violence present in Browning's poems is indicative of their historical context, primarily the social norms of the time. The core focus of this paper is to represent the main themes that the speakers have presented in these two poems.
There are strong similarities between the two poems, particularly in theme, where both poems display a preservation of the mens' idea of the feminine in a form that fit their ideal. In “My Last Duchess”, this is seen in the opening lines, “That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive” and a little later in lines nine and ten, when it is revealed that the Duke keeps the painting curtained so that only he can enjoy the sight and smile of his late wife. In “Porphyria's Lover” the theme is present in the narrator's desire to fix Porphyria in time when he realizes that “Porphyria worshiped [him]”. The historical context is important in understanding the thematic similarities in Browning's poems.
Not only did Browning's fascination with sexual violence resonate in the Victorian social scene, but also a culture in which the power dynamics of married life were fiercely scrutinized and debated, but also, in so many of his dramatic monologues, sexual violence becomes a particularly extreme version of the longing to dominate and to define oneself through domination. The poems were written within the same social context, and just as the poems found readers who were drawn to them because of the current social forces, Browning was influenced by those same social forces while composing the poems.
The symbolism in the poems plays a role in understanding their similar themes. One common thread is feminine purity. In “My Last Duchess,” feminine purity is symbolized by the white mule that the duchess rode around the terrace, the color white being a common symbol for purity. This symbol is contradicted by its accompanying symbol, that of the mule. The mule, seen as a base and sexual animal, is perhaps the iniquity that lies beneath purity. The symbolism of purity comes into “Porphyria's Lover” using the same symbol, the color white. Browning writes, “She put my arm about her waist, and made her smooth white shoulder ...