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Browning has written several dramatic monologues in which the persona is mentally disturbed (My Last Duchess, etc.) This is another one in which the speaker is obviously not of sound mind. During Victorian times, “tableaux vivant” was a popular art form and many believe that Browning was trying to recreate this art form through his poetry. “Tableaux vivant” means “living picture” in French and in this art form, human beings, usually artists’ models, were costumed, posed and put on display as a kind of living painting. Victorian writers were quite interested in this art form and made many attempts to transfer the concept to their writing.
As far as the prudish aspects of the Victorian period that show up in this work, first of all, the speaker is obviously a man, and he is sitting in his cottage alone. It is cold and rainy outside, but he has let the fire go out. As soon as Porphyria comes in, she immediately notices this and sets to work to get the fire going, like a good Victorian woman:
She shut the cold out and the storm, And kneeled and made the cheerless grate Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
She tries to engage the man in conversation, but he is brooding, so she tries to love him:
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there, And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
He is like the speaker in Browning’s My Last Duchess – he is a obsessive and possessing, and wants to possess Porphyria. Her love, though, is not enough to cure him from whatever is wrong with him. He calls her “weak” – illustrating the popular Victorian idea that women were the weaker sex:
she, Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,To set its struggling passion free, From pride, and vainer ties dissever, And give herself to me forever.
When he looks at her, though, he surmises that she does indeed love him – but he desires more. He wants her to worship him:
at last I knew Porphyria worshiped me:
When he realizes she worships him, he wants to keep this moment forever. He wants the scene to be a permanent work of art:
That moment she was mine, mine, fair, Perfectly pure and good:
And after he kills her, it is HE who is in charge. It is now HE who places her head on HIS shoulder.
I propped her head up as before, Only, this time my shoulder bore, Her head, which droops upon it still:
Pretty macho, pretty Victorian, pretty sick, wouldn’t you say?
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