How does Browning present images about love in Women and Roses?

May 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

Women and Roses by Robert Browning explores the idea of dreams concerning love, in particular sexual love. The speaker imagines the three women of time as roses: the past, present, and future. Though this poem appeared within the repressive Victorian era, through the allusions and dream visions Browning manages to explicitly develop the sexual fantasies that would have been plausible in his time.

Browning depicts love as personal. He begins with the stark —“I dream of a red-rose tree”— which, through the personal pronoun, portrays love as a private, liberating experience, and by ending with another first person pronoun —“to me”—emphasizes the exclusivity of love. However, this tone easily becomes possessive when Browning explores the preservation of women in art —“sculptured in stone.” Though preservation has advantageous connotations, the act of containment implies objectification. This is further explored in My Last Duchess as the Duke says that “none puts back the curtain here but I” to suggest complete possession; not only did the Duke possess the Duchess when she was live, but he even owns her portrait now she’s dead. At the end of the poem, the speaker says that “I will make an Eve, be the artist that began her” which suggests that the speaker possesses not only women, but the first woman of humanity; he has become God. While Browning was writing his poetry, Darwin was uncovering The Origin of Species, which developed ideas of evolution, and would lead to the idea of a ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ who was the first woman to then pass down DNA through mothers. Browning therefore suggests that the speaker sees himself as the founder of all females throughout humanity. Moreover, just like God, the speaker appears outside time. The fact that he imagines owning three women, representing all women over time, implies that he exists throughout in eternity in order to achieve his fantasy. This is similar to the situation in A Grammarian’s Funeral as, in order to achieve the Grammarian’s aim of total knowledge, he believes “What’s time?” Browning here explores the idea that love exists outside time and is totally liberating; it is not confined by social pressure or limitations.

Browning also portrays the women as only being relevant for their beauty. The polysyndetonic liquids and present participles in “Living and loving and loved to-day” suggest life and youth and then, with “the multitude of maidens” having the dual sense of women and virgins, seem to celebrate fertility. However, while Browning first appears to enjoy and love the liberty and youth of these women, the speaker then suggests that he only enjoys fantasizes with these figures; they are born solely for fulfilling that fantasy—“Beauties yet unborn.” The irony is though, that as the speaker has sex with more “maidens,” and then seems to dispose of them, fewer exist for him to enjoy. By such actions, the love he can hold deteriorates.

This destructive nature is continued through the metaphor of pollination of the flowers. “Bees pass it unimpeached” provides an image of men as bees, fertilizing the women but also sucking the life out of them. While it may seem like the men are satisfying a need, by their objectification of women they corrupt and blacken love. This theme of nature is also discussed in Two in the Campagna in “Feathery grasses everywhere…Rome’s ghost since her decease” with the imagery of overgrowth; while beautiful countrysides are enjoyed, like fertility, everything does die, especially if it is not respected or truly loved. This conception then also suggests the fragility of love, which parallels the fragility of flowers. The “Roses” in the title, though connoting passion and romance, also connote delicacy and fragrance and, once plucked, die instantly. By juxtaposing this idea of love with “Women,” Browning seems to indicate that virginity and what the speaker sees as true beauty are finite. The speaker, through his possession and containment, ruins what he encounters. This theme is further emphasized in My Last Duchess in the terse and monosyllabic “I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together,” as simply because the Duke did not allow his wife to smile when she was complimented by other men, he killed her.

Browning does, however, imply that women do also desire sexual fantasies. “The bee sucked in by the hyacinth” suggests that the women are luring the men in, and, while it could imply that such attraction is the women’s fault, more likely Browning means that women too enjoy sexual dreams. During the Victorian epoch, women were not allowed to make noises during sex but simply had to lie motionless. Browning here explores the frustration in sexual pleasures left unfulfilled, pleasures that had to be enjoyed through dreams —“So will I bury me while burning.”

Through these devices, Browning discusses the idea of sexual tension. He seems to suggest that while on the surface and in society people deem such fantasies as stigmatic and overtly immoral, in dreams and visions everyone enjoys them. Though the Victorian era tried to repress these feelings, if anything the very act of restraining them was harmful and escalated such impulses in dreams. Hence, Browning could imply that, at that time, love took on a perverse form in which sexual restraint caused objectification, possession, and fantasy.

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