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Jason Leite

British Literature II

Dr. Marck

Critical Essay #2

Even though certain works are designated to certain periods in time, many works from say, the Victorian period have similar controlling images when compared to works from the Twentieth century. Each writer presents an image that is repeatedly used throughout the work. The same image is used in each work even though they were written during different periods in time. Sometimes, even the location of the image, where it was placed in the text, helps to develop the image within the work. It may be used to convey the writer’s opinion on the subject but a lot of images are familiar and carry over from generation to generation and are continually discussed in works of literature. The only thing that changes is the way in which it is being presented and discussed.

Two works that we have studied this semester that possess similar controlling images are, William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’a Lover.” Both discuss the idea of “love gone bad” and the suppression of women by men.

Starting with the earlier of the two, “Porphyria’s Lover” is a poem written at the end of the 1830s during the Victorian Period in England. How it is categorized with the rest of Browning’s poems, Dramatic Romances, tell us that nothing good will result of any love that is to occur in the poem. Porphyria is introduced as the dominant partner with agency, while her lover is reticent and inactive. When the lover suddenly inverses the roles, it appears as if he is achieving some sort of revenge because this woman has manipulated him. Yet the entire time, we only see Porphyria through the eyes of the lover. The speaker uses Porphyria to rationalize his own shortcomings and recasts her as a reflection of himself to help compensate for his weaknesses. The fact that he retains his voice and Porphyria lacks hers puts him in the assertive position. Why is it that such a passionate woman is unable to get a response from the man that she loves? Why is the narrator of this poem unable to respond to his lover when she calls out his name? Is the narrator unable to deal with her intense love for him? Is this why he murders her, is he murdering the entire concept of desire and love? Was their love a forbidden love, and if so, forbidden by whom? It is obvious that even after the murder takes place that the narrator still burns for his love, “her cheek once more/ Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss,” (47-48) which forces me to believe that there was some deep motivation for the strangling. Perhaps he wanted to keep her weak. He regains his dominance upon strangling her. Also, I find it interesting that the narrator does not get a sign from God even after he commits this crime. Does this imply that God, and perhaps the entire institution of religion supports this act of passion, that it was justified in the eyes of a higher being? By this, Browning may be saying that religion supports male dominance and suppression of female passion.

In “Leda and the Swan,” written during the 1920s, Yeats deals with an ancient Greek myth that Zeus came down from the land of the Gods and basically raped a mortal woman named Leda. According to Yeats, the poem was inspired by the situation of world politics in Ireland. There are several power images within the poem, not only of the swan’s initial power in taking Leda, but of a loss of some of that power before the poem ends. At first, overwhelmed by the suddenness of the attack, Leda is held “helpless breast upon breast” (4), “her nape caught in his bill” (3). The power and results of this attack continues it effects long afterward as “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower” (10) of Troy as well as Agamemnon’s death are occur there. But the swan, even though it has taken complete control of Leda throughout the entire poem, is not in full mastery of his victim by the end. Leda has put on some of the swan’s power before his “indifferent beak could let her drop” (15). Despite these brutal images, we can see more than brute force at work. Leda is unable to push away the “feathered glory” (6) and gives in.

In both poems, women function as tools, which the male constituents utilize in an attempt to feel more whole. In “Porphyria Lover,” Porphyria is trying to seduce the narrator; she is in control of the situation. He wants to be with her but she will not give herself completely to him. However, she still wants to continue this “affair” with the narrator. He knows that she has an unmatched love for him, “I looked up at her eyes…at last I knew…Porphyria worshiped me” (31-33), but he wants her to be his completely. He realizes what he must do, he will kill her, if he cannot have her, then no one will have her. He has no consideration for what she wants, he only thinks about what will make him happy. At this point is where a beautiful thing like love goes bad. In “Leda and the Swan,” the swan (Zeus) has an uncontrollable attraction toward Leda. Instead of asking for her permission or perhaps even trying to court her, he disguises himself as a swan and forcefully grabs hold of the back of her neck and has sex with her. He does not think of her feelings, he just decides what he is going to do and does it. In the midst of everything, Leda does not struggle to be free but instead gives in to his dominance. By doing this she gets something in return, she gets some of his knowledge and power. In doing this, Zeus makes his love turn bad because the children that she gives birth to start a war and end up destroying each other. At the time, the poem was denied by many Irish periodicals “because it was indecent and dealt with rape.”


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