Porphyria, the Damozel, and the Duchess: Control of Victorian Femininity through Murder and Artwork

Student: Kaitlyn Bush
Mentor: Pamela Buck
Major: English

In my senior thesis, I examine the relationship between death, femininity and artwork across a spectrum of four Victorian era poems. In all of these poems women are unrealistically idealized by men. When the women ultimately deviate from this ideal, they are punished with varying degrees of violence and remade into perfect women through artwork. The first poem that I examine is D.G. Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel.” In the poem, the damozel is stuck in heaven while her lover is still alive on earth. The damozel is a nameless woman who is beautiful, pure, and completely focused on her male lover. The male lover has not acted violently towards the damozel, however by writing this poem about her, he is taking control of her image and remaking her into the perfect woman. The second poem that I look it is Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio.” In this poem, the reader is brought into an art studio in which a painter has obsessively painted a young woman. The woman is depicted as perfect, pure, and royal in the different paintings. The speaker of the poem suggests that the painter’s obsession is almost vampiric, and therefore slightly violent. In this poem, a male painter has an idyllic conception of his female model, so he paints her obsessively to remake her into a perfect woman. The third poem that I look at is Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” In this poem, the Duchess was too gracious with other men, and this angered the Duke. The Duke had the Duchess killed, and then had her remade into a painting to perfect her femininity and keep her in his control at all times.

The last poem that I examine is Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover.” In this poem, Porphyria is a sensual woman of a higher social class than the speaker. As a result, the speaker strangles Porphyria and sits with her body all night to create the sense of a living painting. The speaker murders Porphyria to take control of her and perfect her femininity. In all of these poems, death should have been an escape for these women who were so greatly constrained during life. Ultimately, not even death could release these women from the restrictive ideals of Victorian femininity.