Meeting at Night by Robert Browning: Imagery

Meeting at Night

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

"Meeting at night" is a poem about love. It makes, one might say, a number of statements about love: being in love is a sweet and exciting experience; when one is in love everything seems beautiful to him, and the most trivial things become significant; when one is in love his sweetheart seems the most important object in the world. But the poet actually tells us none of these things directly. He doesn't even use the word love in his poem. His business is to communicate experience, not information. He does this largely in two ways. First he presents us with a specific situation, in which a lover goes to meet his sweetheart. Second, he describes the lover's journey so vividly in terms of sense impressions that the reader not only sees and hears what the lover saw and heard but also shares anticipation and excitement. 

Every line in the poem contains some image, some appeal to the senses: the grey sea, the long black land, the yellow half-moon, the startled little waves with their fiery ringlets, the blue spurt of the lighted match-all appeal to our sense of sight and convey not only shape, but also color and motion. The warm sea-scented beach appeals to the senses of both smell and touch. The pushing prow of the boat on the sand, the tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch of the match, the low speech of the lovers, and the sound of their two hearts beating-all appeal to the sense of hearing. 

The sharpness and vividness of any image will ordinarily depend on how specific it is and on the poet's use of effective detail. The word hummingbird, for instance, conveys a more definite image than does bird; and ruby-throated hummingbird is sharper and more specific still. It is not necessary, however, for a vivid representation, that something be completely described. One or two especially sharp and representative details will ordinarily serve the alert reader, allowing his imagination to fill in the rest. Tennyson, in "The Eagle", gives only one detail about the eagle itself, that he clasps the crag with 'crooked hands', but this detail is an effective and memorable one. Robinson tells us that Richard Cory was clean favored, slim, and quietly arrayed; but the detail that really bring Cory before us is that he "glittered when he walked." Browning, in "Meeting at Night," calls up a whole scene with "A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch/And blue spurt of a lighted match."

Since imagery is a peculiarly effective way of evoking vivid experience, and since it may be used by the poet in such a way as to convey emotion and suggest ideas as well as to cause a mental reproduction of sensations, it is an invaluable resource of the poet. In general, he will seek concrete or image-bearing words in preference to abstract or non-image-bearing words. We cannot evaluate a poem; however, by the amount or quality of its imagery alone. Sense impression is only one of the elements of experience. A poet may attain his ends by other means. We must never judge any single element of a poem except in reference to the total intention of that poem.   

A Pretty Woman By Robert Browning: An Analytical study of the structure & Theme

A Pretty Woman
That fawn-skin-dappled hair of hers,
And the blue eye
Dear and dewy,
And that infantine fresh air of hers! 

To think men cannot take you, Sweet,
And enfold you,
Ay, and hold you,
And so keep you what they make you, Sweet! 

You like us for a glance, you know- -
For a word's sake
Or a sword's sake,
All's the same, whate'er the chance, you know.

And in turn we make you ours, we say- -
You and youth too,
Eyes and mouth too,
All the face composed of flowers, we say.

All's our own, to make the most of, Sweet- -
Sing and say for,
Watch and pray for,
Keep a secret or go boast of, Sweet!

But for loving, why, you would not, Sweet,
Though we prayed you,
Paid you, brayed you
in a mortar- -for you could not, Sweet! 

So, we leave the sweet face fondly there:
Be its beauty
Its sole duty! 
Let all hope of grace beyond, lie there! 

And while the face lies quiet there,
Who shall wonder
That I ponder
A conclusion? I will try it there.

As,- -why must one, for the love foregone,
Scout mere liking? 
Earth,- -the heaven, we looked above for, gone! 

Why, with beauty, needs there money be,
Love with liking? 
Crush the fly-king
In his gauze, because no honey-bee? 

May not liking be so simple-sweet,
If love grew there
'Twould undo there
All that breaks the cheek to dimples sweet?

Is the creature too imperfect,
Would you mend it
And so end it? 
Since not all addition perfects aye! 

Or is it of its kind, perhaps,
Just perfection- -
Whence, rejection
Of a grace not to its mind, perhaps? 

Shall we burn up, tread that face at once
Into tinder,
And so hinder
Sparks from kindling all the place at once? 

Or else kiss away one's soul on her? 
Your love-fancies! 
- -A sick man sees
Truer, when his hot eyes roll on her! 

Thus the craftsman thinks to grace the rose,- -
Plucks a mould-flower
For his gold flower,
Uses fine things that efface the rose:

Rosy rubies make its cup more rose,
Precious metals
Ape the petals,- -
Last, some old king locks it up, morose! 

Then how grace a rose? I know a way! 
Leave it, rather. 
Must you gather? 
Smell, kiss, wear it- -at last, throw away! 

Even though Browning’s humor can be felt throughout the span of his work, some of his poems stand out as being comic stories purely created for the fun and pleasure of the poet himself and the reader. Curtis Dahl says that humor abounds in Browning’s “subjects, style, characterization, action, situations, ambiguity, construction or thought . . . in most of his best poems there is some element of humor, whether playfulness, wit, comedy, caricature, irony, self-satire, ambiguity, amusingly exaggerated melodrama, or the comic grotesque”. Browning’s genius, energy and vitality allow him to create an enormous range of characters, many of them humorous. Arthur Simons magnificently captures the variety of Browning’s characters:

. . . they are kings and beggars, saints and lovers, great captains, poets, painters, musicians, priests and popes, Jews, gypsies and dervishes, street girls, princesses, dancers with the wicked witchery of the daughter of Herodias, wives with the devotion of the wife of Brutus, joyous girls and malevolent graybeards, statesmen, cavaliers, soldiers of humanity, tyrants and bigots, ancient sages and modern spiritualists, heretics, scholars, scoundrels, devotees, rabbis, persons of quality and men of low estate, men and women as multiform as nature or society has made them. 

This humorous poem is, according to DeVane, “inspired by Gerardine Bate, the niece of Mrs. Jameson, a friend of the Brownings. After a visit from these two ladies, Elizabeth and Robert were of the opinion that “Miss Bate is ‘just pretty’ and that there is nothing more to her nature than her prettiness.” In an interesting letter to her sister about this visit, Elizabeth writes: “Robert took the liberty so often of telling her (Gerardine) what he took to be the truth in a very blunt fashion, and also what ‘he should do if he had the misfortune of having a wife like Gerardine.” Mrs. Jameson, naturally taking affront at Robert’s insults says, according to Elizabeth’s letter: “I am aware that under no possible circumstances, she could have been calculated to please you – I only speak of ordinary men . . .”

Structure Analysis:

So, in a splendid reflection of Browning’s contempt of this beautifully packaged but shallow woman, he created this poem of 18 light, metrical stanzas, with exceptionally simple words, multiple repetitions and horrific, but playful, bad rhymes. Throughout the poem, only six words are longer than two syllables and none are longer than three. The simplicity of the words reflects on the simplicity of the poet’s model. The word “sweet” is repeated nine times (sarcastically) in the poem and the words “flower” or “rose” are repeated seven times. The opening line is actually quite beautiful; it is the first thing the reader sees, similar to the first sight of the pretty woman. “That fawn-skin-dappled hair of her,” begins the poem but a major flaw appears (as with Browning’s model) in the second line: “And the blue eye.” One could argue for poetics’ sake the singularity of the word “eye,” but it seems more likely that our poet does it intentionally, comically describing only half of the pair – just as Gerardine’s outside appearance negates acknowledgement of any inner worth of character. What happens in the third line erases any doubt that this poem is anything but playful. The third line reads: “Dear and dewy.” The first word “Dear” (deer) could be a pun on the word “fawn” in the first line, and the rhyme of “blue eye” and “dewy” is unforgivable by even the worst of poets – unless, of course, it is intentionally done for humor and to force the reader to scrunch up his nose in repugnance – just as Browning was repulsed by the attractive but empty shell of the pretty woman. Returning to the off rhymes of “blue eye” and “dewy,” one interested in trying to repair the sound of the rhyme might pair “bluey” and “dewy,” or “blue eye” and “do I,” or “due, ay.” None of these work so we are left with the uncomfortable and humorously intentional bad rhyme.

Before going further, perhaps a note should be made of the rhyme scheme of this poem. All 18 stanzas are a b b a and Browning takes pains (the reader suffering the most) to rhyme double and even triple syllables in the second and third lines. Additionally, Browning often creates, for lack of a better term, “sight rhymes” which may or may not rhyme in voice, but would appear to rhyme in print. Just as Gerardine appears to be perfect, there is something amiss in her perfection. The first occurrence of this in the poem is in the rhymes of the first and fourth lines of the first stanza. The first line ends with “hair of hers” and the fourth line ends with “fresh air of hers.” Borrowing the letter “h” from “fresh,” we are left with the sight rhyme “h air of hers.” The second time a sight rhyme occurs is in the third stanza with the atrocious rhyming of “word’s sake” and “sword’s sake.” Since there is no word “swerd,” we must live with the sight rhyme by removing the letter “s” from “sword” giving us the sight rhyme “word’s sake” and “s word’s sake.” The reason Browning employs so many sight rhymes in this poem is simply because of the discordance of the pretty woman’s imbalance of sight (her looks) and sound (her shallowness). An interesting aside is that Elizabeth, in her letter to her sister about the visit of Mrs. Jameson and Gerardine is that she does not record a single word of Gerardine’s; not even in her own defense against the rude comments of her husband, Robert.

The fourth stanza has yet another humorous sight rhyme: “youth too” and “mouth too.” The reader unconsciously tries to correct the rhyme but has to abandon the effort since “mooth too” is unacceptable. The seventh stanza has another terrible rhyme, this one is not even a sight rhyme: “fondly there” is paired with “beyond, lie there.” There is nothing for the reader to do but squirm. The eighth stanza has another sour (sight) rhyme: “wonder” and “ponder.” The substitution of the word “punder” would solve the problem – if it were a word. Perhaps the worst rhyme is in the seventeenth stanza where Browning pairs “more rose” with “morose.”

Even though the instrument Browning uses to accompany this poem is severely out of tune, and the disharmony clearly intentional for humorous effect, the essence of the poem, aside from the sound, is also highly comic. The second through the fifth stanzas describes the beauty of the woman while attacking the shallowness. All the while, she is given the nickname “Sweet;” she thinks her looks alone are sufficient “the face composed of flowers,” her “youth” and “mouth,” “That infantine air of hers.” She enjoys the effect she has on men as they “glance” at her and fight for her by “word” or “sword.” But, in the sixth stanza, we are told of her major character flaw – she is incapable of loving or, perhaps, being loved: “But for loving . . . you could not, Sweet!”

The narrator then contemplates what should be done with this pretty but shallow woman. He considers destroying her beauty: “Shall we burn up, tread that face at once / Into tinder” (53–54), to prevent the effects of her mindless beauty to wreck havoc and destruction throughout “the place.” Or, should we “kiss away one’s soul on her,” which only a “sick man” (mentally deficient but full of lust) would do “when his hot eyes roll on her.” The third choice would be to try and preserve her beauty by creating a statue (also mindless), or in the narrator’s metaphor, a “mould-flower” of the rose where “Precious metals / Ape the petals . . .” (66–67). Even if the beauty could be preserved some how, “some old king” would lock it away, some place where it would no longer be a public thing of beauty. Considering the three alternatives, destroying it, succumbing to it or preserving it (but kept out of view), the narrator exclaims in the last stanza: “Then how grace a rose? I know a way!” (69). He decides to forego the afore mentioned choices and suggests a remarkably simple and humorous alternative. His suggestion is to “Leave it,” but before he leaves the pretty woman / rose, he insists that one should at least perform three acts. First, he should “Smell it;” inhale the essence of her beauty, then he must “kiss” it, not romantically, of course, but sensuously and in a most unexpected third act, he must “wear it.”The implication and interpretation of wearing the pretty woman is left up to the reader’s imagination, but once she’s been smelled, kissed and worn, the narrator must “at last, throw it away!”

A comical finale to this poem comes from DeVane’s comments on this poem; he writes: “Browning’s conclusion is that we should neither destroy her, nor break our hearts for her, but merely admire her for her beauty.” If only DeVane had added the following condition after his word “beauty:” “after we have taken from her all that we could possibly want and then give her the boot.”

As much as Gerardine annoyed the poet with her pretty but shallow ways, the level of the speaker’s irritation in the next poem comes from a completely different source of exasperation; the culprit is not only thrown away as was the Pretty Woman, but also taught a lesson in this wonderfully humorous poem.

Theme Analysis:

This poem was narrated by a young woman to an apothecary, who was preparing her a poison with which to kill her rivals at a nearby royal court. She pushes him to complete the potion while she laments how her beloved is not only being unfaithful, but that he is fully aware that she knows of it. While her betrayers think she must be somewhere in grief, she is proud to be instead plotting their murder.

She notes the ingredients he uses, paying particular attention to their texture and color. She hopes the poison will "taste sweetly" so she can poison the two ladies she has in her sights. Though she is a "minion" unlike her competitors, she will have the last laugh by having them killed in a painful way that will also torment her beloved.

When the poison is complete, she promises the apothecary both her fortune (her "jewels" and "gold") but also lets him kiss her. Finally, she is ready to go dancing at the king's and end her torment.

This wicked little poem, first published in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics in 1845, is most notable for the exhilaration of the writing. The rhyme scheme is regular, with an ABAC structure that makes each short stanza playful until the dramatic break of its last line. The voice is wonderfully captured, and we see that this woman is enlivened by more than just revenge; she is invigorated by the power that murder allows her to have. When she first mentions her untrue beloved, she only mentions one woman, but a few stanzas later, she mentions both "Pauline" and "Elise" as targets. She is already being taken away with the potential to kill. While the rhyme scheme is regular, the enjambments stress that she is willing to lose a bit of control, letting this impulse take her.

Further, if winning her husband or lover back were the only goal, she would not take so much glee in the prospect of causing painful death to the ladies and moral torment to him. Her intense focus on the ingredients further confirms the ecstasy she feels at suddenly giving herself over to this wickedness. That this scheme will cost her her "whole fortune" only validates the choice – we get the sense that she will be forever defined by this act. In closing with "next moment I dance at the King's," the poem implies her intent to carry herself as a woman who has accomplished a great deed.

Psychologically, her resentment could be motivated by class expectations. She considers herself a "minion," which probably means a lady-in-waiting or some low-level servant, whereas her competitors are not so lowly. That her beloved is involved with them and that both expect that the speaker is grieving away in an "empty church" is the worst offense. She is considered less worthy than them, which only strengthens her resolve to demonstrate her superiority through the murder.

One could argue that the speaker has never actually been involved with her beloved, since she gives no direct proof of a relationship. Further, as her lover and competitors all know that she is aware of the dalliance, it is possible that they do not even know they are offending her in any way. She could be like the monk of "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," whose hatred and resentment is known only to him. There is also, in the "empty church" line, the slightest indication that perhaps she is a nun, and so her grief would be due to their sexuality out of marriage. Much can be conjectured from Browning's masterful subtly.

Finally, sexuality is presented in this poem as something capable of great grotesqueness. In the same way that the bright, pretty poison will ultimately cause painful death, so does the allure of sexuality have a dark side. Sexuality is certainly behind whatever actions have led this woman to the apothecary, but note her willingness to use it on the apothecary in the final stanza, when she tells him, "You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!" Certainly, Browning is no prude and we should not read a moral message in this, but rather read it as one of his many uses of objects or values which also contain their opposite. What drives men and women to celebrate life can also cause that life to end.

Marianna & The Last Duchess: The Feminine Presence

     The feminine voice in Victorian poetry is often overshadowed by male authors' presence coming through in word choice and scenarios. Inspite the fact that these authors attempt to express the desires and emotions of their female characters, their words often do not convince and produce voices of weak women. Although male authors like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning most often create such enfeebled women, so does Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Therefore, this fact suggests that the weak distant feminine voices in nineteenth-century poetry derive from contemporary constraints women rather than from blatant misogyny. This paper will examine the way that male authors describe the female figures in their poems in connection to men. I shall also show how the masculine voice of the author frequently dominates the poems and thus distances the reader from the women in these poems.
In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Marianna,” the female voice has a very depressed and melancholy tone. Tennyson depicts a bleak scene in the first stanza of the poem, describing the "blackest moss," "rusted nails," and "broken sheds." Before the reader hears from Marianna, Tennyson establishes a gloomy tone, which prepares the reader for the poem's depressed central figure. The first words that she utters are prefaced by the condition "she only said." This implies that either she does not say very much or that what she does say is not of much consequence to the narrator. If Tennyson had omitted this conditional preface, the words that she speaks would have a much stronger effect. Tennyson thus establishes his male presence in the poem. The reader only knows what Marianna says because Tennyson places himself in the scene to describe her sadness. He is effectively the moderator dissecting her emotions and allowing a glimpse of her world. Without his existence, the reader would not know anything about Marianna and as such, her existence completely depends on his interpretation of her.
The fact that few words she says are about a man for whom she is pining for also makes her voice very weak. Throughout the poem she obsessively repeats her concern for her lover's absence: "The night is dreary, he cometh not" (stanza 1, lines 9-10). In the subsequent stanzas, "the night" is replaced with "the day" and "my life." Her sorrow is intimately connected to the absence of an anonymous male figure. The idea that her feelings depend on a man's presence effectively ties her existence to men. She does not have a personality of her own independent of men, but everything that Tennyson has her say and feel is somehow related to a man. Furthermore, since she is not speaking about herself, the reader is given the impression that her words and thoughts would not exist without male presence.
Tennyson also removes Marianna from her setting, as the only thing she can focus on is her lover's absence. We the readers are affected by this removal from reality and consequently are distanced from Marianna. Her words are even more unconvincing in lines eleven and twelve when she repeats the anguished lament, "I am a weary, a weary, I would that I were dead." Even if the character had such morbid feelings, it is unlikely that she would sit by herself and mutter them aloud. Tennyson also over-dramatizes her emotions. Although she is obviously a melancholy character, it is somewhat of a stretch to imagine an embowered woman pacing her room, repeating again and again, "I am a weary, a weary." This repetition does emphasize her depression but it also is not a believable manner to do so since a variation of her expressions of loneliness would seem more like a woman speaking, rather than a man's voice attempting to speak for her.
Another aspect of the poem that draws away from the idea that the woman herself is speaking is the fact that Tennyson romanticizes her setting. It seems more likely that Marianna is an expression of a man's desire to imagine a woman wasting away for the presence of her lover who has abandoned her. The archaic, ballad-form that the poem is written in makes the woman more removed from the reader, which also detracts from a strong female presence. This poem is extremely static and it does not give the reader any indication that Marianna is really expressing her own feelings. The "dreamy house" (stanza 6) that she is described in only adds to her distance from the reader and does not allow for a sense that she is describing her sadness but rather that her sadness is being romanticized by the male author.
The romanticized sadness of a female heroine also appears in Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shallot." Tennyson plays with the idea of the embowered woman once again, except that in this poem, the woman is confined because of a mysterious curse rather than a self-imposed isolation. Like "Mariana," the "Lady of Shallot" is defined by the absence of a man:
And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shallot. [part 2, stanza 3, lines 24-27]
     She too is placed near a window and waits for her love to rescue her from her despondent existence. The reader never learns the fate of Marianna, but it can be assumed that she her happiness is solely dependant on her lover's return. In contrast, there is no speculation about the Lady of Shallot's fates since it her death is explained as a result of her feeling that she is "half sick of shadows," (part 2, stanza 4, line 35) which can be read as her desire to experience the real world.
The Lady of Shallot does not say anything else in the entire poem and by its end she is dead. She dies an anonymous beauty as the people of Camelot gather around her body and question who she is and where she came from:
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said she has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shallot. [part 4, stanza 6]
The only validation that the Lady of Shallot receives is from Lancelot at the very end of the poem when he comments on her beauty. The reader never even learns her name, only where she is from. The sing-song rhythm and rhyme scheme employed by Tennyson throughout the poem also diminishes the impression that she is speaking for herself. It sounds more like Tennyson fit her words into his rhyme scheme and she had no input in what came out of her mouth. Consequently, the voice of the male author is more perceptible than the voice of the woman who is the central focus of the poem.
When "Marianna" and "The Lady of Shallot" are read in comparison to Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess,” the idea of distance between the female in the poem and the reader is repeated. The main difference between the poems is that in Browning's poem, the woman does not ever speak because she is already dead. The poem begins in the middle of a conversation between the Duke and an envoy. The Duke describes his last wife, apparently so the envoy will pass on the Duke's strict standards for his wives. The Duke totally controls access to the late Duchess, who in this poem is only a painting, not a live woman. The reader does not know how she was killed or even what she looked like, only that she was beautiful. The Duke completely controls all that the reader knows about her, which means that everything the Duke says, must be read in the context of his insanity. He tells us more than he should and his obsession is clear when he tells the envoy that "none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you." (lines 9-10) The reader is thus denied access to the Duchess in the sense that the Duke controls who and what can be learned about her and when they can learn such information.
Since he strictly controls access to his wife, the reader will never know what the Duchess herself actually thought or said. She is completely objectified by the Duke, and the reader only knows about her in the context of her relationship to her husband. This is especially evident in the fact that she is the "Duchess," and we never know her name, just as we never learn the Lady of Shallot's name. Not only that, but the Duke refers to her as "My last Duchess." She is a possession, something the Duke once added to his collection of things to show off. The way that Browning emphasizes the idea of the artist painting her portrait further objectifies her until she is only a figment of the male characters' impressions, just as the figure of Marianna is discussed as a removed and distant figure. The reader is never given the idea that a true understanding of the Duchess is possible because the Duke and the Duke's ideas of his late wife are the barrier to his accessing the central figure of the poem, the Duchess.
Throughout the poem, the Duke speaks for the late Duchess, and there is no way that she can defend herself against his accusations and descriptions of her because she is not present to speak for herself. Although this might seem like a weak support of the absence of the female voice in poetry, I think that it supports my central argument that the female voice in many Victorian poems is really only a male voice speaking for the female. In this poem in particular, the male voice comes through because the female is physically not included in the poem to defend herself. Therefore, every accusation that the Duke makes might be unsubstantiated, but the reader will never know what the Duchess would have said in response, because Browning omits her from the action in the poem. She is not there when the Duke speaks about her and thus, she cannot defend herself against his description of her. It is in this manner that Browning creates a distance between the reader and the female described in the poem, which completely eliminates the reader's ability to feel any connection to her.
Browning similarly objectifies the female character in his poem "Porphyria's Lover." The result of this objectification is the creation of distance between Porphyria and the reader in his poem. In this poem, Browning continues the theme of men trying to possess women, as though these women are objects without souls, personalities or thoughts of their own. Although her name is central in the title, the poem is not about Porphyria. It is concerned with her lover's obsession for her and the tragic end that she meets as a result of his obsession. Browning does not even bother to quote Porphyria in the poem, but rather, he only mentions that she "called" the speaker. Browning does not tell the reader what she called, how she called it or even why she called, he only tells that she did in fact call. Porphyria is thus a mute, ephemeral figure that the reader is essentially distanced from.
Since the reader does not understand her motivation, it is difficult to feel connected to her and it is thus difficult to feel any sympathy for her. Although her death by strangulation is certainly shocking, the fact that her voice is not expressed makes the reader much more detached from her. The reader understands that she is a selfless and generous person because of the way she comes into her lover's room and stokes the fire to make sure that he is warm and comfortable. Despite her kindness, the male speaker objectifies her and feels justified in killing her. What is so distressing about the poem is that she is not given the chance to speak. Browning does not even allow her to scream while she is being strangled. Instead, in lines 40-41, the speaker tells the reader "no pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain." How does the speaker know that she felt no pain? He strangles her with her own hair and yet he is sure that she has felt nothing. Porphyria is essentially denied the ability to speak for herself. Even in her death, her male counterpart interprets her emotions for her and tells the reader what she feels as though he can read her mind. Not only does Browning's speaker deny Porphyria the ability to speak for herself, but he also projects all of his anger onto her. This projection further decreases Porphyria's presence in the poem, which increases the reader's distance from her.
Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not create a more convincing portrayal of women in poetry, even though she is a female poet. Like the women in Robert Browning's poetry, the women in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh are objectified as the author makes extreme stereotypes about women in different classes. This poem can be read as a brilliant feminine work because of its focus on an independent Victorian woman, but it really only addresses the problem of a woman trying to escape male patriarchy. There is no mythic control over the women in this poem such as in "Marianna" or "The Lady of Shallot," but these women are still subjected to men as they are forced to arrange their lives according to the actions of the men around them. Although Barrett Browning tries to liberate Aurora Leigh, she only succeeds in showing how women had no real identity of their own as Aurora Leigh's individuality is only through her separation from a man.
The reader learns the most about Aurora Leigh through her relationship to the men in her life. This reinforces the idea that Victorian women did not have their own identities outside of their relationships with these male figures. Early in the poem, Browning writes of Aurora Leigh's attachment to her doting father and how his influence on her does not diminish even as she grows up. Later in her life, Aurora Leigh's existence is defined by her desire to avoid marriage to her cousin Romney and make a living as a poet. Although much time passes during her period as an independent poet, in lines 571-577 of the fifth book, she marks the progress of her life by referring to Romney:
For instance, I have not seen Romney Leigh
Full eighteen months add six, you get two years.
They say he's very busy with good works, — 
Has parted Leigh Hall into almshouses.
He made an almshouse of his heart one day,
Which ever since is loose upon the latch
For those who pull the string. — I never did.
This passage shows that even though years have passed between her visits with Romney, she still thinks about him and about the love that she gave up. Her life at this point is accordingly defined by her deliberate reaction against men, which means that her identity is defined against male figures.
Additionally, the latter part of the poem when Aurora Leigh is the most independent and separated from men is also the most ambiguous since Barrett Browning does not give a clear explanation of setting details. This expresses the author's self-conscious discomfort about what it meant to be a self-sufficient woman in the nineteenth-century. Women at this point were seldom published authors and it was even more rare for a woman to be a published poet since poetry was considered a higher art form than the novel. Barrett Browning's attempt to describe the life of a female poet is admirable in its effort to emancipate her main character from dependence on men, but despite the poem's female authorship, it objectifies the female characters and defines their existence in comparison to men in the same way that contemporary male poets did.
The way that Barrett Browning stereotypes women and only defines them against men is most apparent in lines 457-465 of the first book in which she describes the way men perceive women:
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary — or a stool
To stumble over and vex you . . . 'curse that stool!'
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not,
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this … that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.
Although Aurora Leigh makes a point about her anger regarding the way Victorian women were objectified by men, this statement furthers the idea that women had no identity outside of the men in their lives. Aurora Leigh effectively supports my suggestion that the male voice and male presence is more palpable in many Victorian poems, regardless of the poet's gender.
To write a truly feminist poem, Barrett Browning would have had to describe Aurora Leigh solely in terms of her accomplishments as a poet. The constraints of Victorian society would not have allowed a woman to exist as such however. Respectable women in Victorian England were either identified by marriage or by spinsterhood. Either way, their identity depended on the presence or absence of a man. It would have been completely unrealistic for Barrett Browning to have written about Aurora Leigh as a completely autonomous heroine, but the fact that she could not do this supports my suggestion that female figures in Victorian poetry are overshadowed either by the presence of men in the poems or the voice of the poems' male authors.
Although many nineteenth-century poets attempted to use the voices of the female characters in their poems in effective ways, the result is usually that the male voice of the author or the presence of men in the poems overshadows the female voice and the female presence. Since women are always defined by their relationship to men, a distance is created between the reader and the female subjects that also makes the female voice and presence in these poems weaker than the presence of the male authors and the male subjects in the poems. The result of this is that women are typically objectified in Victorian poetry since their voices and their actions in the poems are only described according to their relationship with men.

The Lady and the Painter: By Robert Browning (Asolando – 1889)

SHE: Yet womanhood you reverence,
So you profess!

HE: With heart and soul.

SHE: Of which fact this is evidence!
To help Art-study,--for some dole
Of certain wretched shillings,--you
Induce a woman--virgin too--
To strip and stand stark naked?

HE: True.

SHE: Nor feel you so degrade her?

HE: What
--(Excuse the interruption)--clings
Half-savage-like around your hat?

SHE: Ah, do they please you? Wild-bird-wings
Next season,--Paris-prints assert,--
We must go feathered to the skirt:
My modiste keeps on the alert.
Owls, hawks, jays--swallows most approve ...

HE: Dare I speak plainly?

SHE: Oh, I trust!

HE: Then, Lady Blanche, it less would move
In heart and soul of me disgust
Did you strip off those spoils you wear,
And stand--for thanks, not shillings--bare,
To help Art like my Model there.
She well knew what absolved her--praise
In me for God's surpassing good,
Who granted to my reverent gaze
A type of purest womanhood.
You clothed with murder of His best
Of harmless beings--stand the test!
What is it you know?

SHE: That you jest!

In a combination of Browning’s defense of the female nude in art along with his love of animals and antivivisectionist beliefs, this delightful little poem was born. In reply to Mrs. Bronson’s question as to what inspired the poem, Browning said: “Well, . . . the birds twittering in the trees suggested it to me. You know, I don’t like women to wear those wings in their bonnets.” The poem opens with a slightly snobbish woman, Lady Blanch, a title suggesting, perhaps, social elitism, reproaching an artist for painting nudes. She bluntly accuses him of having no “reverence” for “womankind.” The painter stands firm and replies that he does revere women “With heart and soul.” To this, the woman gestures about the studio and admonishes the painter for paying “certain wretched shillings” to “Induce a woman – virgin too – / To strip and stand stark-naked?” His defense is a monosyllabic “True.” The woman finds not only his art subject disagreeable, but his attitude as well appalls her. She continues: “Nor feel you so degrade her?” Since the painter feels he has already answered this question, he changes the subject and asks: “What / . . . clings / Half-savage-like around your hat?” Mistaking this question as a complement, the woman suddenly forgets her disdain for the artist and begins boasting of her “wild-bird-wings!” She explains that it’s all the latest fashion, in fact, “Next season, – Paris-prints assert, – / We must go feathered to the skirt . . .”

She begins to name some of the birds from which the fashionable feathers have come: “Owls, hawks, jays – swallows” when the painter interrupts her a second time. He asks: “Dare I speak plainly?” and she gives him the go-ahead: “Oh, I trust.” Then he makes a comically shocking confession; he says, in essence, that he would be less disgusted “In heart and soul” if she stripped “off those spoils you wear, / And stand – for thanks, not shillings – bare . . .” His wording is interesting; he does not say that he would be pleased to see her naked, but that he would be less disgusted. He draws the lady’s attention to one of the paintings of a nude in his studio and explains that his model “Well knew what absolved her.” He further explains that God has granted him the gift to be able to paint “A type of purest womanhood.” Literally and figuratively stripped of all moral and social impurities, “the naked female form” (to borrow a line from “Parleying with Francis Furini”), is the purest of the pure. The painter then focuses on Lady Blanch and exclaims: “You – clothed with murder of His best / Of harmless beings – stand the test!” The lady has not had a chance to reply since the artist first told her to strip bare; one can only imagine what is going through her mind. The artist then asks: “What is it you know?” and the woman, in a fitting and humorous reply simply says: “That you jest.”

A closer look at her reply, the reader wonders exactly what she thinks the painter is jesting about; her stripping bare, his defense of painting nudes, his belief that God has granted him the skill to paint “purest womanhood,” or that her fashionable hat is made from murdering God’s best harmless creatures. Perhaps her single statement encompasses all of the above. Still, the reader might ask which of the insults stings her the most: that she is a “savage” accomplice to the “murder” of innocent birds, that he would feel less disgusted (but still disgusted!) to see her naked or that he does not offer to pay her even a few “wretched shillings” as he does with his virgin models.

Browning’s love of animals can be seen in the painter’s feelings towards the woman he accuses of murdering small birds for the sake of her vanity. Similarly, Browning’s love of music can be seen in the next poem where the poet wrestles with the composer to shed a little light on the meaning of his fugues.

Structural Analysis of The Garden Fancies II: Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis

Plague take all your pedants, say I!
He who wrote what I hold in my hand,
Centuries back was so good as to die,
Leaving this rubbish to cumber the land;
This, that was a book in its time,
Printed on paper and bound in leather,
Last month in the white of a matin-prime
Just when the birds sang all together.

Into the garden I brought it to read,
And under the arbute and laurustine
Read it, so help me grace in my need,
From title-page to closing line.
Chapter on chapter did I count,
As a curious traveller counts Stonehenge;
Added up the mortal amount;
And then proceeded to my revenge.

Yonder’s a plum-tree with a crevice
An owl would build in, were he but sage;
For a lap of moss, like a fine pont-levis
In a castle of the Middle Age,
Joins to a lip of gum, pure amber;
When he’d be private, there might he spend
Hours alone in his lady’s chamber:
Into this crevice I dropped our friend.

Splash, went he, as under he ducked,
At the bottom, I knew, rain-drippings stagnate;
Next, a handful of blossoms I plucked
To bury him with, my bookshelf’s magnate;
Then I went in-doors, brought out a loaf,
Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis;
Lay on the grass and forgot the oaf
Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.

Now, this morning, betwixt the moss
And gum that locked our friend in limbo,
A spider had spun his web across,
And sat in the midst with arms akimbo:
So, I took pity, for learning’s sake,
And, de profundis, accentibus lætis,
Cantate! quoth I, as I got a rake;
And up I fished his delectable treatise.

Here you have it, dry in the sun,
With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow,
Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!

How did he like it when the live creatures
Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
Came in, each one, for his right of trover;
When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet?

All that life and fun and romping,
All that frisking and twisting and coupling,
While slowly our poor friend’s leaves were swamping
And clasps were cracking and covers suppling!
As if you had carried sour John Knox
To the play-house at Paris, Vienna or Munich,
Fastened him into a front-row box,
And danced off the Ballet with trousers and tunic.

Come, old Martyr! What, torment enough is it?
Back to my room shall you take your sweet self.
Good-bye, mother-beetle; husband-eft, sufficit!
See the snug niche I have made on my shelf!
A.’s book shall prop you up, B.’s shall cover you,
Here’s C. to be grave with, or D. to be gay,
And with E. on each side, and F. right over you,
Dry-rot at ease till the Judgment-day!

“Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis” (Dramatic Romances and Lyrics – 1845)

This poem is delightfully amusing from start to finish. Ian Jack comments that “In so far as it is a narrative, it might well be described as a comic Dramatic Romance”. Browning uses different tools from his artist’s kit to created a totally different kind of humor. In this poem, one warm spring morning, the speaker, probably Browning himself, carries an old leather book into his garden for an afternoon of pleasant reading. The speaker reads the book from cover to cover and, disgusted with its pedantic contents, prepares for “revenge.” The book is one written by the German scholar Sibrandus of the city of Aschafenburg. In the title, Browning plays with the name of the city, garbling, gnarling and warping Aschafenburg to Schafnaburgensis. The pronunciation is difficult if not comically impossible; a precursor of the poet’s own feelings about those who believe in and practice pedantic forms of education. Browning summarizes his contempt for this dry, lifeless, unnatural education with the first word of the poem “Plague” and with humorously Biblical proportions, he proceeds to do just that, he casts a plague on the book and its writer and, presumably, on all those who follow these tenets. The speaker calls the book “rubbish” and declares it a bother to the land.

The humor is acute in the personification of wrecking “revenge” on an old book. Most readers, finding some offence with a book would simple set it aside without bothering to read it in entirety. Other, more drastic reactions might be to burn the distasteful old tome. But this reader decides to go one step further and to teach the book (and its writer) a lesson about the meaning of real life, a life throbbing with vibrant, flourishing, colorful and rich action; quite the opposite of the dry, flat and pedantic nature of the book by Sibrandus. To exact his revenge, the reader decides to drop the old book into the rotting, insect-laden pool of stagnant rain-water found at the bottom of a crevice in the garden’s old plum tree “where it endures the indignity of being invaded by amorous efts and bugs.” Once the book has been deposited, the speaker tosses “a handful of blossoms he plucked/To bury him with.” It is interesting to note that the speaker drops the book into the “crevice of a tree, which an owl (conventional symbol of wisdom) has rejected for a home.” Afterward, the speaker goes back to the house and returns to the garden with a loaf of bread, “Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis” along with a different book “and forgot the oaf/Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.”

A month later, the speaker, feeling sorry for the old book, comically says: “I took pity, for learning’s sake,” and rescues the book from its water-logged nest with a rake. Once the book has been baptized in the joyousness of life’s brew, he refers to the redeemed book (and Sibrandus), as “our friend,” “this fellow,” “old martyr” and “your sweet self.” During the soaking, a spider had spun a web over the crevice and now “sat in the midst with arms akimbo.” The following quotation has a high edge of comedy as the speaker describes the condition of the old stuffy book now that it has been fished from the nook in the plum tree and is allowed to dry in the sun:

     With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
     And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow:
     Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
     Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!
How did he like it when the live creatures
     Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
     Came in, each one, for his right trover?
–When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
     Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
     As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet?
All that life and fun and romping,
     All that frisking and twisting and coupling,
While slowly our poor friend’s leaves were swamping
     And clasps were cracking and covers suppling. (42–60)

A partial catalogue of the words from the above quote highlights the humor: blister, reddish streaks, toadstools, live creatures, tickled, toused, browsed, worm, slug, eft, water-beetle, “blind deaf face,” eggs, deposit, newt, life, fun, romping, frisking, twisting, coupling, swamping, cracking and supplying. Of course, insects and reptiles don’t couple, but that’s part of the fun. W. David Shaw makes these comments on the inherent humor of this poem: “The toadstool growing in Sibrandus’ sixth chapter and ‘the live creatures’ that ‘Tickled and toused and browsed’ his book all over advertise the speaker’s hilarious revolt against pendants like the grammarian. But even in discrediting the pendants, the extravagance of the speaker’s own high spirits become an object of comedy.”

The book and the author are conjoined into one personified “he” and “him.” The speaker asks: “How did he like it when his creatures/ Tickled and toused and browsed him all over?” The verb browsed is usually used in reference to looking through a book, and the humorous twist in these lines is that the insects are literally browsing through the book; toadstools are growing “Here’s one stuck in your chapter six!” Meanwhile, insects including newts, beetles and efts are “coupling,” burrowing and laying eggs from cover to cover. The combined effect is absurd, bizarre and comic. Elizabeth Browning wrote in a letter to her future husband: “Do you know that this poem’s a great favourite with me –it is so new, and full of a creeping, crawling grotesque life.” The speaker, delighted with the result of his revenge, compares it to the horror and disgust that the puritanical Scottish religious leader, John Knox, might feel if he were “fastened…into a front-row” seat at a ballet and forced to watch the dancers wearing “trousers and tunic.” To a pious and straight-laced fellow such as John Knox, this performance would be disgusting, appalling and against every fiber of his moral and spiritual character.

But for Browning, a great nature lover, the creepy, crawling grotesqueness of this poem would be amazing and alluring, not at all disgusting. Sibrandus symbolizes intellectuals who have lost touch with what is real and meaningful in life; they have lost sight of the true, base origins from which life grows. This poem shows “how natural and simple beauty of true knowledge is found in close association with the harmonies and rhythms of nature and the instinctive life processes.”

The poem ends when the speaker asks the book: “What, torment enough is it?” Then the speaker and the personified voice of the book say farewell to “mother beetle; husband eft” and the old, warped, rotting, cracking volume is returned to the house and placed on the bookshelf surrounded by other books to “Dry-rot at ease till the Judgment day!” Obviously, in the speaker’s mind at least, the book and its author have received  a taste of redemption, but have not been forgiven. Understanding the humor of this poem will help the reader understand the much more subtle humor found in “A Grammarian’s Funeral” (Men and Women – 1855) where another pedantic character is satirically eulogized by his loving and adoring students.

Among Browning’s most despised character flaws of humanity are vanity, arrogance and pride – he attacks these vices, often humorously, over and over throughout his work. Sibrandus, and his book, are given due punishment; in the next poem, the characters also pay the price for their own unbridled vanity, arrogance and pride.