Love & Gender Portrayals in Poetry

Categories: Novel
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The poems “My Last Duchess” (1842), by Robert Browning, “First Love”, (1821), by John Clare and “How do I love thee” (1850), by Elizabeth Barrett Browning are all concerned with the relationships between men and women. These poems all portray the relationships in different ways and present love and the consequences falling in love has, in different ways. In the first poem “My Last Duchess”, the Duke is in control as he is a very proud man. The Duke is very confident and this makes him arrogant.

The relationship in this poem is portrayed as unequal and it is dominated by pride and not love. The Duke speaks very formally, this links with his power and pride; he also doesn’t show any emotion in his words. In the second poem “First Love”, the woman is in control and the man is broken hearted because his first love is over, and it has not been sustained. It is unrequited love because of this the relationship is ambiguous.

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The poem “How do I love thee” presents a positive relationship. The woman reinforces how much she loves him, and nothing can get in the way. It is written in the form of a sonnet, which is a traditional form of love poems.

“My Last Duchess” begins with the speaker showing off the portrait of the Duchess.

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive. I call, that piece a wonder, now”.

The Duke is addressing his guest and it almost feels like he is speaking to the reader.

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This quote shows the Duke’s love for the painting of his Duchess, through these words it sounds like he is almost praising her.

In “My Last Duchess” the Duke talks in a formal tone, like he is proud or sure of himself.

“My gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name”.

This suggests the Duke is aware of his high status, and full of his own importance, which gives him an air of arrogance. According to the Duke, the Duchess did not show she was grateful for the special gift that the Duke gave to her. She ranked his gift as she did anyone else’s. The Duke’s relationship with his last wife was very negative; their relationship was more about pride than love. He describes his last wife as a flirt,

“She looked and her looks went everywhere”.

This implies the Duchess was a very happy lady and must have liked everyone because she smiled at many people, this could also indicate she was quite content and also enjoyed the attention of other men. The Duke refers to the Duchess as a mere object; this insinuates that he did not think very highly of her.

“At starting, is my object”.

The Duke makes his wife sound like one of his possessions, like an old sock, something he can control. As we approach the end of the poem the Duke reveals that the Duchess was murdered. The Duke may have personally killed her, or paid someone else to do his work.

“All smiles stopped together”.

If the Duke did kill the Duchess this may be because he was jealous of her behaviour towards other men. The Duke obviously did not like her behaviour, if he’d stoop as low to kill her. He must have had really negative feelings towards her; this is also shown when he repeatedly regarded his wife as an object.

In “First Love” the man is the more active part in the relationship. All the love is coming from him; this is known as unrequited because he is not loved back. The narrator is really gloomy and his life hurts as a result of love.

“My life and all seemed turned to clay”.

He feels like his life is over and he is finding it very hard as love is controlling him. The man doesn’t reveal much about his relationship to the woman, just that it was very intense and perfect.

The poet’s love for her husband is very strong in “How do I love thee?” During the poem she talks about how much she loves him and nothing can get in the way. “How do I love thee” is made more convincing because it includes a lot of persuasive techniques. For example, a range of rhetorical questions are used for effect, the poet also answers these questions by including a lot of her own opinions.

“I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise”.

The capital P that is used is a reference to God and religion. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is honouring God in words, and in the 1800s religion was an important part of life and this would have made this poem a lot more believable. The quote shows her love for the man is spiritual, perfect and pure. The poem is about how much she loves her husband,

“I love”.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning repeatedly uses this quote throughout the poem; this is because it is a persuasive device. By repeating these words it is bringing the poem to life and making it more enjoyable for the reader. The narrator is increasing the impact and effectiveness of making her key points stand out.

In “My Last Duchess” there are a lot of language devices used to contribute to the mood and tones of the poems. The Duke uses a lot of old fashioned words, which make him sound confident and his way of talking is sophisticated. The Duke is very self-confident.

“And you turn and ask thus, Sir, twas not”

The Duke talks very formally which reflects on his social status.


This means that someone is talking, it is like a pause or a hesitation. The poet uses this quote to create the impression that the Duke is speaking to someone. Robert Browning uses a lot of other features like alliteration, personification and hyperbole. These are used to describe the poem in a more valuable quality.

“Half-flush that dies along her throat”,

This is an example of hyperbole; it is used to exaggerate the sentence, it shows strong feelings and creates a strong impression but it is not meant to be taken literally. It is used to create emphasis.

The language devices used by John Clare in “First Love” show that love and the relationship it creates between men and woman is ambiguous. The poet’s most used language device are rhetorical questions, these show his passion and reflect on the relationship he had. Rhetorical questions imply he is talking to himself, he is contemplating everything that has happened, and he is confused and is trying to work things out. He also uses a lot of pronouns,

“My face turned pale as deadly pale” and “as that I stood before”.

These pronouns make the poem a lot more emotional as it makes the poem more personal to him and that love and the woman were important to him.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses endless amounts of repetition to get her message across in “How do I love thee?” Repetition has helped bring the poem alive and made it more enjoyable for a reader. Additionally Elizabeth Barrett Browning has used abstract and concrete nouns to describe the feelings she has for her husband. The use of nouns emphasise the passion and purity of love which comes from the poem.

In “First Love” each Stanza represents a different mood, a different stage of emotion. The first stanza the man is obsessed with love, in the second stanza the love is unrequited and it’s hurting him and in the third stanza it portrays intense sadness.

“Flowers” and “Loves bed”

These are connotations, they are positive words associated with love and passion. Flowers are colourful, he feels loved but she doesn’t. Flowers are dead in winter and so is his love.

“And can return no more”.

The poet doesn’t know if he will ever love again, he feels rejected and it’s painful for him as his young and inexperienced.

“And when she looked, what could I ail?”

The man doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, he is confused again.

John Clare’s first love, Mary Joyce was the daughter of a wealthy farmer, their separation caused Clare great pain and it contributed to the sense of loss which pervades much of his poetry. In 1837, John Clare was admitted to a mental asylum in High Beach, Epping because he had financial worries and other problems that put tremendous strain on his mind. However, he escaped from the Asylum in 1841, and walked home under the delusion that he would be reunited with Mary Joyce. A few months later he entered Northamptonshire General Asylum, where he lived for the rest of his life, still writing poems when his mental health permitted. The asylum poems are among his best known works, but the haunting descriptions of rural landscapes in poems such as “Decay” and “Remembrances” are more typical of the true character of his poetic voice.

In the poems the attitudes vary and different expectations about the relationship between men and women are presented in the poems. In “First Love” the mood is bleak and barren, but in “How do I love thee?” the relationship is overly pleasant and there is a sense of gleeful love. “My Last Duchess” is rather different from the other two poems as it is unemotional and the Duke doesn’t show he is mournful towards his last Duchess but instead he boasts that she is gone.

The Duke speaks in the poem “My Last Duchess” and he is addressing an envoy. The Duke is having a conversation with the envoy trying to organise a marriage. However, he ends up hypothesising how the conversation went between Fra Pandolf and his wife. It is set in Italy and all the events happen in the Duke’s mansion or castle. The poem is not being read, but spoken in the form of enjambement. Enjambement is used to represent a conversation and the lack of voice from the listener suggests that the Duke is in control of the conversation. Dramatic monologue is a big part of this poem as there is an imagined listener who remains silent. The poem is written in the voice of an imaginary character, the Duke is not real but it is written from the perspective of him. The character and personality of the speaker is revealed through his speech, the situation is not stated openly or directly but emerges as the poem develops.

The Duke is angry as he believes his wife had an affair although he portrays himself as calm even though his angry underneath. The very first word of the poem “That’s” makes the poem sound like an everyday speech, which possesses the informality of construction found in a conversation. Browning captures the authentic speaking voice of the Duke well, the speaker talks about his last wife pointing to a painting of her on the wall. Robert Browning is being critical of the Duke through the way he portrays him, this poem is ironic because it says more than what is actually been said.

The Duke wanted to bring the Duchess’s beauty and behaviour within his control, and he was willing to destroy her to do it. The irony in this poem allows the reader to question themselves and desire to know the hidden message. Robert Browning shows the reader how the Duke needs to have control and complete power, and he causes a weariness to overcome the reader through irony. This is typical of wealthy, high status Renaissance men. The Duke is shown as commanding, attentive and very arrogant. The imagery in this poem produces the desired haunting effect. The painting of the Duchess will always live long after her death, as men will continue to look and admire the Duchess, who in turn will continue to smile down at them.

This means that the Duke will not be able to control her forever. At the end of the poem, it feels as if the Duchess was just an object to the Duke. When the Duke shows his guest the painting of his last Duchess and tells his story, he then just moves on to another artefact, as if the Duchess was not important to him anymore. However, at the time of this poem woman were not viewed as people, but as property. This would make the Duke just another dignified Italian royal of the time.

It was written in the Victorian era (19th century) but set in Renaissance (16th century). The poet wanted to show that the Duke wanted to re-marry again, the Duke was ready for a new wife and was going for a counts daughter. The poet created a colourful character and placed him at a historical scene, this being the Renaissance. The setting of “My Last Duchess” influences the way the reader sees the narrator, as the Renaissance was a time when morally corrupt men like the Duke exercised complete power. The poem keeps the reader involved because you have to piece the story together on your own. The narrator forces the reader to become involved in the poem in order that you can understand it. This makes the poem really amusing to read.

In “My Last Duchess” the Duke is speaking in the poem and it is addressed to an envoy.

“Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said”.

The Duke is obviously talking to someone, as he wouldn’t be talking to himself. The Duke is bragging because he isn’t letting the other person speak. In “First Love” the man is talking, he uses rhetorical questions to involve the audience. In “How do I love thee?” the woman is talking and she is happily married, but unwell. Elizabeth Barrett Browning developed a lung ailment that plagued her for the rest of her life. She also had to deal with a lot of emotion in her life, which included her mother dying, her brother drowning while out sailing, and then her father wouldn’t speak to her again after she had a son. Elizabeth Browning must have had a very emotional life.

The poems differ slightly as in “My Last Duchess” the Duke is in control and he is proud and of high status. Whereas in “First Love” the woman is in control as she has changed John Clare’s ideas about love, and he is now being controlled. The man loves the woman with great passion which is painful to him as he also knows nothing is going to happen. The poem includes clich�s which represents the man’s youth and inexperience. Love is new to him and he is really enchanted by the woman.

“My life and all seemed turned to clay”.

Clay is soft and malleable meaning his life is in her hands. In “How do I love thee?” there is a bit of authority from both the man and the woman. Elizabeth Barrett Browning loves her husband abundantly and she loves him more and more each day. Robert Browning is the one secretly controlling her as she needs him but doesn’t reveal it to him.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses sonnet form to describe her love to her husband. This is because it is a traditional way to write a poem with the theme of love. This poem is really simple but the heart pours out its emotions with every word. The sonnet includes iambic pentameter with a reinforcing rhyme scheme, quatrains and sestets. The rhyme scheme is positive and this helps to create a happy and passionate mood.

The Duke begins reminiscing about the portrait sessions, then about the Duchess herself. His musings give way to a diatribe on her disgraceful behaviour, he claims she flirted with everyone and did not appreciate his nine hundred year old gift. He must have been really angry with her for not showing him she loved him and appreciated him. Perhaps the Duke felt lonely and like she had betrayed him. As the poem continues we realise that the Duke in fact caused the Duchess’s early demise.

“When her behaviour escalated, I gave commands, and then all smiles stopped together”.

The Duke shows he has bad feelings towards the Duchess, but he is still cheerful and being boastful about everything.

“First Love” was a rather ambiguous poem where John Clare saw a beautiful woman and he felt for the first time the emotion of love. He went in to great detail and described how his emotions were in total turmoil and left him unable to walk.

“My legs refused to walk away”.

The girl has a real physical effect on the man.

The poem “How do I love thee?” presented a positive relationship. The woman reinforces how much she loves him, and nothing can get in the way. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is realistic about love and this makes the poem even more powerful. The poet explores her feelings and shows a lot of emotional confidence. It’s like she is trying to convey her love towards the man in a serious but passionate way.

The poems “My Last Duchess”, “First Love” and “How do I love thee” are all concerned with the relationships between men and women. The poems all portray the relationships in different ways and present love and the consequences falling in love has, in different ways. The language and imagery created gets the reader involved in the poems. The social, culture and historical context all play a part in how the poem is presented.

In “My Last Duchess”, the Duke is a proud man, he is confident and very arrogant, and the relationship is portrayed as unequal and is dominated by pride and not love. In “First Love”, the woman is in control and the man is broken hearted because his first love is over, and it has not been sustained. It is unrequited. The poem “How do I love thee” presents a positive relationship and the woman reinforces how much she loves the man.

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Love & Gender Portrayals in Poetry. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Love & Gender Portrayals in Poetry
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