Robert Browning

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What are the similarities between the speakers in Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess," and what are they guilty of?

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The speakers in "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess" are both men. Most importantly, they are men who are telling us, the readers, about their experiences with a lover. These relationships aren't typical. Instead, both men end up killing their partner. This action, killing a lover, is not "normal" in any sense of the word. However, the men's motivations for the killings do give us insight into attitudes towards women that could be considered normal—particularly during the era Browning wrote in, the mid-nineteenth century.

"Porphyria's Lover" features a male speaker telling us about a night his lover, Porphyria, came to visit him. The weather is stormy outside the speaker's cottage, but she brings cheer when she arrives. She even exposes her shoulder to him. Porphyria also tells her lover that she overcame societal pressures to be with him. However, the male speaker realizes that she is "Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor" and decides to strangle her with the hair that he admired earlier on in the poem.

"My Last Duchess" tells the story of a Duke who is entertaining an emissary who has come to negotiate his second marriage. The pair stops at a picture of his previous duchess, and the Duke begins to reflect on her. He says that she flirted with everyone and did not appreciate his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old-name." We later learn the Duke actually killed the Duchess, as the poem says, "[he] gave commands; / Then all smile stopped together."

Each of these poems begins in a similar way. The male speakers start off by admiring a female lover's beauty and grace. However, neither man can possess the traits they love about their partner fully. Porphyria will succumb to societal pressures and leave her lover. The late Duchess used her flirtatious charm on everyone.

With this, we see how men in the mid-nineteenth century felt about women, at least according to Browning. They found traits like flirtatiousness, beauty, and passion attractive and desirable. However, they also punished women for displaying these traits to others or for not giving themselves to one man fully. This kind of double standard is taken to the extreme in Browning's poetry.

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