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The poetic rendition of the female subject has historically been a patriarchal domain for famous poets like Robert Browning and Andrew Marvell to create their masterpieces. In these poems, objectification of the female body and attitude towards women is clearly shown under the garb of romantic poetry. In this essay, I will compare “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell and “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning to show how these two apparently different poems are similar in their treatment of the female subject. The poems hide the patriarchal desire to look at a woman who is behind the veils, hidden and unattainable. Though the poems are apparently dissimilar, the tone of the narrators, their description of the object of their obsession, and the treatment of the female body suggest a connection that previously was unobserved. The theses I present in the paper are that the resemblances and divergences between the two poems and finally argue that they are thematically similar.
Treatment of women
The voices of the narrators in both poems seem uncannily similar. Both are egotistical misogynists. A woman, the object of obsession for both the narrators, is the forbidden erotic object that the poets want to capture in their poems. In these dramatic monologues, the poets show the narrators as dominating and egotistical men who feel a woman’s wish is insignificant. Duke Ferrara shows the envoy his last, and, presumably, dead wife’s portrait that he keeps concealed from the common eye. A duke is a proud man who feels that his last duchess was too frivolous, easy to please, and bestowed her smiles too generously on strangers. The narrator has an inflated male ego that boasts of the nothingness of female existence. This is apparent when he says, “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together” (Browning 45-46). The masculine pride of the duke reduces the duchess to a mere object (a painting). He boasts of his power to stop her from smiling with just one command. The narrator clearly indicates that the female demeanor is controlled and ruled by the man’s wishes.
He is the master of the female ‘other,’ and therefore, has physical and emotional power over her. A similar rejection of the female identity is observed in Marvell’s poem. Marvell’s narrator tries to seduce his mistress, initially with sweet words of love, and then with morbid and grotesque imagery to frighten her into submission. Here too, the narrator tries to gain sexual favor from his mistress, even when she is “coy” and reluctant to engage in physical relations. Apparently, the narrator seems to have accepted her negation, but that is a fallacy that the poet wants the readers to believe with the use of words like “lady” and “if you … refuse” (Marvell 2-9). However, the narrator, in the tradition of courtly love, should have accepted the woman’s denial. Instead, he pursues her with unabashed fervor. He solicits her love even when she refuses his advances: “And you should if you please, refuse / … My vegetable love should grow” (9-11). This actually shows that the narrator was unable to accept the lady’s denial and continued to pursue her. Like the narrator of “Last Duchess”, here too, the narrator believes his wishes gained precedence over the woman’s denial. Both of them believe that the female ‘other’ did not have any individual identity, but was an appendage to the male ‘self’, and therefore, a man’s possession.
Views of women
Women in the poems are depicted as frivolous and flirtatious. Browning’s narrator openly declares to the foreign envoy that his last wife “had a heart” that was “too soon made glad” or easily “impressed” (25-26). Duke Ferrara disapproved of her easy manner and sweet disposition. He believed his wife’s love and attention should be his exclusive property. When the duchess did not differentiate between the men on whom she bestowed her “speech” or “blush”, it infuriated the duke (33-34). The sense of egotistic possession was so strong in the duke that he could not tolerate the Duchess’s good-natured smiles towards other men.
Thus, the natural female beauty in her smiles, blushes, or sweet manners did not inspire love in the narrator. Instead, we find swelling anger to the mild and compassionate nature of the duchess. These character traits that the duke disliked in the duchess were the epitome of feminine nature and therefore a source of her identity. However, the duke vehemently rejects her character and suspects her fidelity (Gardner 166). Similarly, Marvell’s narrator in “Coy Mistress” feels that the “coyness” in his mistress is a show of her flirtatiousness. He strongly believes that she was enjoying his overt sexual advances even though she was rejecting them. Thus, both the narrators believe that women have an enticing nature. They are frivolous and ‘coy’, devoid of any moral uprightness.
Objectification of the female body is another aspect present in both the poems. These poetic creations have a voyeuristic appeal for the poet as well as the readers. Vivid physical description of the women depicts the male gaze on the female body. In “Last Duchess” the duke and the foreign envoy, both men, are looking at the life-like portrait of the duchess. The painting becomes the voyeuristic window where the male gaze appraises the female body. The line “Will ‘t please you sit and look at her” is an invitation by the duke to the envoy to appreciate the female form in the duchess’s painting (Browning 5). This invitation contradicts the duke’s possessive nature expressed in the poem. On the contrary, he takes pleasure in the show. The use of words like “depth of passion” of the duchess’s “earnest glance” and the “blush” on her “cheeks” was actually drawing the envoy’s attention to her physical appearance (9-15). The deliberate drawing of the reader’s attention to the duchess’s body shows the voyeuristic pleasure the narrator drew from this exhibition of the painting. Marvell’s narrator in “Coy Mistress” gives a vivid description of his mistress’s physical attributes:
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart. (13-18)
This description of the female body is devoid of any pretention of romantic involvement. Instead, it is just a pretense of passionate address that is rejected at the very beginning of the third stanza when he brings forth his real perception of his mistress whose beauty he believes are mere ashes (Cousins 398). His perception of his mistress becomes more apparent when he metaphorically compares her attempts to safeguard her chastity as a mere folly for her “long-preserved virginity” he says will “turn to dust” (27-30). Therefore, he believes that a woman’s beauty “shall no more be found” and will turn her old-fashioned honor to “dust” and “ashes” if she continually rejects a lover’s advances (25-30). The woman’s cadaver is also an object of lust to the narrator: “then worms shall try / That long-preserved virginity” (28-29). This shows that the narrator believes that a woman is desired only for her beauty and once she grows old, all her charms are lost. Both the narrators believe that women’s beauty is skin-deep. Their voyeuristic description actually shows their perception of feminine beauty and attraction. Both the narrators openly display the woman’s body for voyeuristic viewing through the words and expressions in the poem.
Views of themselves
The narrators of the poems are but a mirror into the poet’s attitude towards the gender. Marvell’s witty and erotic poem skillfully hides the true attitude of the poet behind the narrator. However, the poem depicts the poet’s disgust towards the female form (Cousins 399). The physical descriptions of feminine grace and virtue are an ironical representation of the rude description of the female body. Similarly, Browning, through his narrator, expresses his attitude towards women. His idea of feminine conduct is piquantly speckled with Victorian morality (Gardner 167). Both the poets show no respect for female identity and strongly reject its presence through their overt masculine overtures towards the female ‘other’. Imagining frivolity and flirtatiousness as the main traits of female character, the poets show that women are in their social status and should suffer male dominance. The presence of the male gaze in the poems is a deliberate sexist trope to intensify the narrator’s and through them the poet’s, misogynistic attitude towards women. In conclusion, both “Last Duchess” and “Coy Mistress” trivializes the female body as an object controlled by man, thus denying them an individual identity.
Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” My Last Duchess and Other Poems. Dover, 1993, pp. 1-2.
Cousins, AD. “The Replication and Critique of Libertinism in Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, 2013, pp. 392-404.
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Gardner, Kevin. “Was the Duke of Ferrara Impotent?.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, vol. 23, no. 3, 2010, pp. 166–171.
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” “To His Coy Mistress” and Other Poems. Dover, 1997, pp. 1-2.