Discuss the relationship between men and women as a recurring theme in Robert Browning's poetry.Examples: "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover" and "The Last Ride Together"

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Here are three poems in which Browning explores the theme of relationships between men and women. Note that he uses the male's point of view in each. He approaches this theme by exploring the psychological workings of the male, including contemplation of love itself, but also insecurity, neuroses and even psychosis.

Browning is often cited as the one who perfected the dramatic monologue, a poetic technique in which a speaker addresses another unknown person, sometimes himself, or a real person as in the case with "My Last Duchess." Often, if the person addressed is there with the speaker, we never hear that person speak. The dramatic monologue then focuses all attention on the words (and thoughts) of the speaker. In "My Last Duchess," we have the Duke addressing an agent who has arranged his second marriage. The Duke discusses his dead wife, noting her faults but since it comes from the Duke, the reader is left to wonder if he is being honest. He seems to convey that the Duchess was a flirt.

                                            She had

A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she like whate'er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. (21-24)

However, remember that we don't know the Duke's past and we can only interpret his character from what he says about the paintings and memories of his wife. Consider the fact that he was overseeing Pandolf's work and later in the poem, he tells the agent to notice his sculpture of Neptune. He likens the painting of his late wife "as if alive" (and thereby, his wife herself when she was alive) to other works of art, things he considers possessions. Was she flirtatious or was he possessive and jealous?

In "Porphyria's Lover," we have another speaker who paints quite a romantic scene only to interrupt it with Porphyria's murder. In this poem, the reader is left to decide if the speaker is insane, a liar, or if by some stretch of the imagination he is justified for killing her. Whatever the interpretation, this poem is also a construction of the male psyche relative to a relationship with a woman. The poem comments on sex and violence and a power struggle between Porphyria and her lover. Early in the poem, she is active and he is passive. This of course changes with her murder. With "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover," the window through which we observe relationships is through the man's psyche and this psyche is complicated by unstable emotion, mistrust and insecurity. It is a powerful, if not also disturbing, way of describing the problematic history of male-female relationships.

Browning's intent was not to condemn male-female relationships. Rather, he was interested in conflict and wanted to reveal the subjective, psychological complexities people go through when they are in love. In another dramatic monologue, "The Last Ride Together," the speaker deals with the end of a relationship with grace, appreciation and philosophical contemplation. This poem describes a male-female relationship in a more favorable light. 


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