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    Exploring Love and Loss in Browning and Shakespeare

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    The four poems that I have chosen to address love and loss are “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning, and “Shall I compare thee…?” and “Let me not” by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s sonnets address eternal and true love, whereas Browning’s poems explore the themes of passionate, consuming love and its consequences.

    Love can come in many different forms including true love, unfading love, eternal love, sexual love, platonic love and unrequited love. Feelings such as lust and infatuation can often be incorrectly identified as love, though that is not the case in these four poems, as even though all of the authors seem to be infatuated with the subjects of their poems to the point of obsession, there is also evidence in each of the poems that shows that they are in love to a certain extent. Loss has a wide number of definitions, including bereavement, failure and damage. Each of these types of loss are addressed in the four poems, mainly in “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”.

    The types of love that are shown in the two Browning poems are very similar in the way that they are deep and consuming, burning and irrational, and overwhelmingly protective. Jealousy also features heavily in both of these poems, but again there is a slight difference in the way that this complex and torturous emotion is portrayed in each of them.

    The type of jealousy in “Porphyria’s Lover” is more innocent than in “My Last Duchess”, because the narrator kills Porphyria because her love, like herself, is faultless,

    “That moment she was mine, mine, fair,

    Perfectly pure and good…”

    and he wants nothing to spoil it. This contrasts with the selfish motives behind the murder of the woman in “My Last Duchess”, in which the Duke kills his wife because

    “She had

    A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad…”

    Both Browning and Shakespeare use many poetic devices throughout their poems and sonnets to enhance certain aspects of the theme, and to attempt to elucidate their feelings and emotions.

    At the beginning of “Porphyria’s Lover”, Browning uses the tempestuous weather to set an unsettled scene of discontent, and in doing so, personifies the wind when he says,

    “The sullen wind was soon awake,

    It tore the elm-tops down for spite,

    And did its worst to vex the lake…”

    The effect that this has on the poem is that we are able to identify the actions of the personified wind with his own deeds later on in the poem, as it could be said that he killed Porphyria out of spite in the same way that the wind “Tore the elm-tops down for spite…”

    Browning also uses alliteration,

    “…her cheek once more

    Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss…”

    to accentuate the fact that even though he killed her, he still loves her as when she was alive. This gives the impression that she is as beautiful in death as she is in life. Other poetic devices used in “Porphyria’s Lover”, are metaphors and similes. Browning uses the metaphor,

    ” …at last I knew

    Porphyria worshipped me; surprise

    Made my heart swell, and still it grew…”

    to emphasise the love that he feels for her. This makes his actions later on in the poem more surprising, as it is not usual for a person who is happy and in love to kill the source of his happiness. The simile used at the most disconcerting part of the poem,

    “As a shut bud that holds a bee,

    I warily opened her lids…”

    is beautiful in its own right, but the focus of the simile is more to stress the danger and caution held as a result of his actions rather than to accentuate Porphyria’s exquisite death mask.

    The poem has been written with an air of innocence and beauty about it, which is reflected in the simple and naive way that the narrator convinces himself at the end of the monologue,

    “And thus we sit together now,

    And all night we have not stirred,

    And yet God has not said a word!”

    This view that just because God has not shown him that his actions were wrong, they weren’t, is a typical childish defence and that suggests that the narrator was not of a sound mind. With this in mind, we can say that there are two types of loss that are reviewed in “Porphyria’s Lover”, the loss of Porphyria and the loss of his sanity. The loss of Porphyria is, in a sense, a double loss, because not only has he lost his lover, but also, by killing her, he has denied himself his dream of remaining with her forever.

    In “My Last Duchess”, the loss experienced is much less complex than in “Porphyria’s Lover”, as although he has also lost a loved one, it is debatable whether or not his love was true and not just an obsessive infatuation with her. The only true love shown in this poem is the Dukes’ narcissistic tendency towards himself, which is shown by his use of arrogant expressions throughout the poem, for example

    “…And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst…”


    “…I gave commands…”

    This arrogance turns to possessiveness when it comes to his wife; he makes her out to be an insatiably gregarious person, which is almost definitely an exaggeration caused by the paranoid envy of the “…approving speech…” and “…faint half-flush that dies along her throat…” that he believes her to bestow upon other men. It is likely however that the Duchess was an expressive and genial person, because the one thing that the Duke emphasises a lot throughout the poem is the fact that the Duchess was “…too easily impressed; she liked whate’er she looked on…” This natural exuberance was probably the issue that initiated her husband’s malcontent, but it is more that likely that it was his own overpowering obsessive nature, that caused her love for him to fade, which is shown by Browning’s use of the simple metaphor,

    “…My favour at her breast,

    The dropping of the daylight in the West…”

    The use of this poetic device shows that the Duke knows, or thinks that he knows, that she looks encouragingly at other people and that he resents how they are taking his place in her heart.

    It would be wrong to assume that narcissism is the only form of love in this poem, because although “My Last Duchess” doesn’t show love in the same pure form as in the sonnets or in “Porphyria’s Lover”, it is made obvious that the Duke feels something for his late wife in the way that he is so obsessed with keeping her for himself. We are introduced to the Duke’s new inamorata at the end of the poem, and it is again made clear that he feels a form of desire, but this time it is not solely for her person, but for her dowry, which again adds a superficial egotistical air to the poem.

    “…no just pretence

    Of mine for dowry will be disallowed…”

    The whole poem is written in a sinister tone that lays bare the Duke’s person for all to see. He is revealed as being arrogant, possessive, self-loving, greedy and macabre in the first twenty lines, and when it comes to the discussion of the Duchess’ murder, he proves himself to be cold hearted, as he seems to dismiss it in one short sentence,

    “This grew; I gave commands;

    Then all smiles stopped together.”

    In comparison with the Browning poems, Shakespeare’s sonnets “Shall I compare thee…?” and “Let me not…” are much more innocent in the way that they focus much more on the emotion of love and less on the consequences of it.

    “Shall I compare thee…?” is written in an iambicpentametric pattern, which adds a soothing rhythmic beat to the sonnet when spoken aloud. This makes the words flow and gives the impression that the lines came easily to the author and so the sentiments of love that are expressed must be true. This sonnet represents everlasting love, and the eternal beauty of the subject of the poem. This is shown in the favourable comparison of the lover and summer,

    “Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?

    Thou art more lovely and more temperate…”

    Like Robert Browning, William Shakespeare uses many poetical devices to emphasise and clarify his sonnets. Devices used in “Shall I compare thee…?” include personification, repetition and soporific alliteration.

    The first poetic device that Shakespeare uses is repetition, and this enters the sonnet on the second line,

    “Thou art more lovely and more temperate…”

    He then uses it again in the rhyming couplet at the end of the sonnet,

    “So long as men can breath or eyes can see,

    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

    Both of these instances serve to emphasise the central theme of the sentence, o in the first instance, it accentuates the subject’s beauty, and in the second occurrence, it stresses the opinion that as long as men can see and read the sonnet, the subject’s beauty will be immortal.

    There are also two applications of personification in the sonnet, when Shakespeare personifies first the sun and then death. He first uses it when he is judging summer against the beauty of his love,

    “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

    And often is his gold complexion dim’d…”

    He uses this to highlight his point that summer’s beauty can be shaken, and that it has flaws, whereas his love’s beauty has no flaws and will remain that way forever. The implications of this comparison of the sun, is that the Sun is eternally bight and powerful, yet the beauty of the sonnets subject eclipses and surpasses it.

    The second use of personification,

    “Nor shall death brag thou wandr’st in his shade…”

    occurs after the main body of the sonnet, when Shakespeare has moved on to his conclusion that his loved one’s beauty is far superior to that of summer, and the personification is used to give emphasis to the fact that even though death will eventually separate them, time will not fade the loveliness of his perfection.

    Soporific alliteration is used throughout the whole of the sonnet in the way that many words begin with or contain, the letter ‘s’, for example,

    “Summer”, “possession”, “shade”, “shines”

    This creates an atmosphere of lethargy, relaxation and contentment, which sums up part of the happiness that Shakespeare is feeling on account of his being in love.

    In “Shall I compare thee…?”, Shakespeare immortalises the subject of the sonnet in the rhyming couplet at the end, but in “Let me not…”, he apotheosises love and the idea of love itself.

    In “Let me not…”, Shakespeare attempts to explicate the very concept of true love, and manages to dos so, not by explaining what love consists of, but by describing what love is not. He achieves this by using negatives throughout the sonnet,

    “Love is not love

    Which alters when it alteration findes…”

    Then he follows theses up with arguments for why and what true love is,

    “O no, it is an ever fixed marke…”

    Similar poetic devises to “Shall I compare thee…?” are used in this sonnet, with Shakespeare personifying time to express his point that love does not change with death, but is an “ever fixed marke” upon the heart of the person who has loved.

    “Lov’s not Times fool, though rosie lips and cheeks

    Within his bending sickles compasse come…”

    It is through this personification that he makes love immortal.

    Assonance and alliteration have also been used to imprint the facts about love firmly into the readers mind,

    “Which alters when it alteration findes,

    Or bends with the remover to remove.”

    He has also used a hyperbole in the rhyming couplet at the end of the sonnet,

    “If this be error and upon me proved,

    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

    This makes it unequivocal that he is correct in his description of love, because he has written and man has always and always will love.

    In conclusion, I can say that the two poets look at very different aspects of love, with Browning focusing on a more unusual and somewhat less publicized infatuous obsession of love, and Shakespeare on the seemingly more traditional version of true, eternal love. Loss is more focussed on in Browning’s poems than in the two sonnets, not only because of the subject matter, but also because of the nature of the love. From this I can say that love and loss are closely linked together, with loss being a direct consequence of the way that you handle love that you bear.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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