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Victorian English society had many "ills," among them a world changing from rural and bucolic to increasingly commercial, a widening gulf between the affluent and the poor, an embrace of a patriarchal family structure that marginalized women, and a focus on "respectable" behavior that required excessive formality and placed a taboo on sexuality.
Tennyson, arguably the more famous of the two poets, wrote prolifically on domestic subjects such as arranged marriages, social climbing, and the fact that women were largely denied access to higher education or roles outside wife and mother. In "Maud," the speaker obsesses about an absent woman that he objectifies; she is of a social station above his own, and in the poem, his feelings veer from dislike and suspicion to a fixation on her beauty. "The Princess" offers conflicting views on the education of women, acknowledging that progress for women is positive and inevitable, but predicting that it will be an uphill battle for women in a misogynistic world.
Browning, too, took on subjects relating to class stratification and women; "My Last Duchess," set in Renaissance Italy, speaks of a duke who does away with his young wife when her flirtatious behavior disgraces him. He is especially disgruntled that she has squandered the social value of his family's longtime social prominence, and she is quickly replaced. Another poem, "Porphyria's Lover," explores the idea of sex as a transgressive act that ends with Porphyria's murder at the hands of her lover.
Alfred Tennyson sometimes made allusion in his poetry to the social and scientific issues that were so distressing to many Victorians, including Tennyson, related to the discoveries of geological and astronomical time and Darwinian theory. As a devout Christian, he added references in his poetry about how one might keep faith in God and yet acknowledge the "progress" of sciences understanding. Additionally, he would use some poetic works to express opinion about social issues like fair treatment of women and women's right to attain higher education.
Robert Browning, on the other hand, often took a psychological approach to addressing the ills of society. His poetry, often composed as dramatic monologues, told stories through various characters. Since Browning was therefore writing in a character voice and not his own, he was free to create characters that were capable of as much evil as good. In this way Browning could explore the psychology of crime and brutality as easily as he could explore goodness and beauty. He exposed the inner mind behind some of the situations of society and used his poetic stories to discuss philosophical points relevant to issues from art and beauty to materialism.
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