Robert Browning Poems
The Insanity of Blindness: The Narrators in Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”
With “Porphyria’s Lover” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” Browning provides two dramatic monologues of madmen in which the narrator’s sheer ignorance of his own insanity is a basic premise integral to the work. Throughout both these poems, the narrator is consistently unaware of the hypocrisy, absurdity, misunderstanding of others, and cruelty that his tirade belies, while the reader is constantly barraged with these realities. As the narrator in each work reveals more and more of his thoughts, his character reaches unrealistic and absurd levels of insanity for the reader to behold. By their mere inability to declare, recognize, or even behold the painful lunacy of their own actions and thoughts, Browning’s flawed madmen narrators condemn themselves. In “Porphyria’s Lover”, the deliberate violence of the narrator upstages Porphyria’s willingness to commit an illicit act by visiting him that night. Up to the climax of Porphyria’s murder, the narration indicates a romantically sullen yet otherwise well-adjusted narrator. On line 5, he “listened [to the wind] with heart fit to break.” Following Porphyria’s arrival, he remains despondent, yet eventually marvels at her love for him. The fact that the sharp turn created by the murder of Porphyria is recounted nonchalantly, unexpectedly, and as a supposedly logical consequence of this romantic love is an early indicator of the true depth of the narrator’s insanity. As if very little has happened, the narrator’s monologue continues, and he recounts the rest of the romantic scene. He fondles her body and treats her as if she were still animate, claiming on line 52 that she smiles, even. There is no doubt that the narrator registers Porphyria’s death, yet his perverse sense of righteousness casts doubt on his sanity. In lines 41-42, he declares that Porphyria felt no pain, indicating that he sees his act as a form of euthanasia, as well as his belief that he is empowered to take such measures. In the closing lines of the poem, the narrator indicates his belief that by entombing Porphyria, he fulfills her desires, that she “gained instead” (55) him in death.In one interpretation of these lines, the narrator speaks of Porphyria’s “darling one wish” (57) with deliberately sadistic irony and selfishness. In another possible reading, the narrator has only the purest of intentions with his mercy killing. Both potentialities would indicate the presence of an abnormal mind. The closing line fits into both conceptions, as well. If the narrator had committed his act with evil intentions, the implication would be that since he had not faced divine retribution for his acknowledged vicious action, he possessed a divine power of his own – thus, the reader would be led to recognize the narrator’s hubris. If the narrator had committed his act with pure intentions, however, the implication would be that God had condoned the murder by virtue of His lack of retribution – thus, the reader would be led to recognize the narrator’s flawed sense of self-righteousness.In “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, rather than narrating a full scene as the narrator of “Porphyria’s Lover” does, the speaker delivers a purely self-addressed monologue of his innermost thoughts. There is no plot or climax in this soliloquy, only a patchwork of recollected scenes. Additionally, unlike in “Porphyria’s Lover”, this poem contains no plot turn to drastically warp the reader’s perception of the narrator. Instead, the monk delivering this soliloquy is presented from the start as a hypocritical and insane figure. This element of Browning’s dramatic irony – the narrator is totally unaware of his own shortcomings – is cultivated from the very first stanza. Already, the idea of a brusque, revenge-hungry monk is inherently flawed and naturally ironic. Thus, the monk doesn’t become more desperate as the poem goes forth, nor does the tone become darker – he remains extremely desperate, and the tone stays remarkably morose throughout the entire soliloquy.As each stanza passes, the damning indicators of the narrator’s hypocrisy, cruelty, insanity, and ignorance pile up. In the first stanza, the reader is introduced to a monk consumed with hatred for another man of the cloth, innocuously named Brother Lawrence as a contrast to the nameless, faceless narrator. Already, the narrator is portrayed as ridiculous and mildly insane. The narrator’s anger indicates impiety, and the introduction of this acrimony towards a gardening monk before any sort of justification is offered signifies the illogical nature of this hatred. The next stanza gives a weak explanation of the narrator’s hatred. The narrator introduces us to Brother Lawrence’s conversation, which, although painfully innocuous, drives the monk into a frenzy. In stanza five, he takes issue with Brother Lawrence’s supposed impiety in his inability to follow the ridiculously elaborate table manners supposedly practiced by the narrator. The forceful delivery of the reasoning indicates that this inane material the best justification the narrator has, and signifies a continuing lack of logic and the persistence of an all-consuming animosity. The hypocrisy and false piety of the narrator is further revealed throughout the rest of the poem. In the fourth stanza, the narrator’s own extensive description of a girl whom he accuses Brother Lawrence of glancing at indicates his own prurient focus. The dramatic irony of the narrator’s inability to recognize his own hypocrisy borders on the absurd. In stanzas seven and eight, the narrator’s revelation of a plan to expose Brother Lawrence to heretic thought or pornography inadvertently, yet clearly, reveals the fact that he himself dabbles in both sins. When introducing his plot, he refers to his item as “my scrofulous French novel” (57). The hypocritical implications of his plan to plant his own pornographic novel in Brother Lawrence’s items is pathetically obvious to the reader, yet somehow completely unrecognized by the narrator. Likewise, the narrator is unable to realize that he is being consumed in part by his jealousy, which is made fully salient to the reader in stanza six. The narrators of both works share the absurd inability to recognize the overt implications of insanity and hypocrisy that their own words belie. Discussing their insane machinations in tones of powerful frenzy leads both men to overlook these clear interferences, and this same ignorance further condemns them in the eyes of readers as insane, and ultimately wicked characters.
Hatred in Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
Poetry can often be described as “painting with words.” It is a poet’s attempt to give linguistic form to thoughts and emotions, to create vivid imagery with only a minimum of language, achieved by any number of creative methods. In the lyric poem “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” the poet Robert Browning uses a dramatic monologue to express emotion, such as intense rage and hatred, which is conveyed by the persona of a bitter and spiteful monk. By inventing a fictional character, which acts as the speaker in the lyric poem, and expressing that character’s hatred in a dramatic situation, Browning has created a sense of heightened emotion within the poem. An analysis of Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” will enable readers to understand how the themes, context, form, and mechanics help to give the impression of violent hatred felt by that of the speaker.At first glance it seems that Browning’s main purpose in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is to present us with the picture of a jealous monk who does nothing but complain about a fellow monk by the name of Brother Lawrence. While the mutterings of an ill-tempted monk are in fact highly entertaining to read the reader later comes to discover that Browning’s true purpose is to show the reader that behind the face of spiritual righteousness lurks the heart of a corrupted and conceited man.Throughout the poem the speaker accuses Brother Lawrence of several sins, such as greed and lust, but later in the poem it becomes obvious to the reader, through the detailed examples of these particular sins, that it is the speaker who is guilty of greed and lust, and not Brother Lawrence. For example, in stanza 4 the speaker describes to us the scene of two local women who come daily to the fountain outside of the cloister to wash their hair. Here the speaker uses the phrases, “Steeping tresses in the tank / Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs” (27-28) to describe the scene at the fountain, and it is evident by the rich detail that it is the speaker, and not Brother Lawrence, who has been looking at the women. This assertion is further backed up by lines 30 and 31, where the speaker says, “Can’t I see his dead eye glow / Bright as ’twere a Barbary corsair’s?” This simile clearly tells us that the speaker is referring to the stir of passion that he himself has felt upon seeing the women at the fountain. What makes the speaker so interesting is that instead of admitting his own guilt the speaker instead projects his own lust for the women onto Brother Lawrence in the effort to make the innocent monk look blameworthy. Browning has allowed the speaker to unintentionally, through his attitude and malicious words, reveal to the reader his corrupt and evil personality.From the very first two lines of “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” the object of the speaker’s hatred is revealed. “Gr-r-r—there go, my heart’s abhorrence! / Water your damned flowerpots, do!” The speaker then goes on to list a series of accusations against Brother Lawrence, which range from the way the innocent monk tends to his garden to his enlightened table conversations. Never once does the speaker’s hatred towards Brother Lawrence diminish, but instead it increases with each disturbing remark, so much so that by the last stanza the speaker is willing to take the ultimate risk and sell his own soul to the devil in exchange for Brother Lawrence’s damnation. But what is amusing about this contract with the devil is that the speaker is careful to make an escape clause for himself. “Or, there’s Satan! One might venture / Pledge one’s soul to him, yet leave / Such a flaw in the indenture / As he’d miss till, past retrieve” (65-68). The irony in these lines is that if any one single soul should suffer from damnation it is the speaker’s soul. It is the speaker who lusts after the women at the fountain, and it is the speaker who is the owner of the “scrofulous French novel” (57), which he plans to tempt Brother Lawrence with by putting it among the monk’s possessions. Finally, the very fact that the speaker is the one who wishes to “trick” the devil implies that it is quite apparent that the speaker is the one who lacks morality, and not Brother Lawrence.Perhaps the most fascinating element about the speaker’s personality is the animal-like quality that he shows throughout the poem. He opens and closes the poem with a beast-like sounding “Gr-r-r”, which certainly makes us thinks of him as a wild animal. Another example of the speaker’s carnal nature is the setting of the poem. It is in the monastery garden where the speaker secretly watches Brother Lawrence, who is tending to his plants, much like the way a predator would watch its prey. He slinks around in the background, observing and criticizing his enemy, and then vents his hatred out of the earshot of Brother Lawrence. These types of actions present clear evidence that the speaker has a carnal nature, making the reader question the sanity of this bitter monk.Another method used in the poem that helps to emphasize the malice the speaker feels is the use of the end-stopped lines. Instead of letting his sentences continue uninterrupted into the next line, Browning uses punctuation marks, such as a question mark or an exclamation mark, to create a break in the speech of the speaker and the structure of the poem. Here is an example of how Browning uses the end-stopped lines in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”:”Oh, those melons? If he’s ableWe’re to have a feast! So nice!One goes to the Abbot’s table,All of us get each a slice.How go on your flowers? None double?Not one fruit-sort can you spy?Strange! And I, too, at such trouble,Keep them close-nipped on the sly!” (41-48)Few people realize that the poem is not just structured in iambic tetrameter, but that each stanza is also structured as a list of complaints. Stanza by stanza the speaker begins to list each dislike he holds of Brother Lawrence, and in doing so tries to expose the monk’s immorality by listing each of the sins he has supposedly committed. This type of structure created by the speaker brings us to the conclusion that the speaker has long passed the point of being merely annoyed with Brother Lawrence, and that the rage he feels towards the innocent monk has been long endured.Despite all the grammatical structures that help the speaker to express his anger and frustration with Brother Lawrence, what sets this poem apart from Browning’s other works, and also helps to bring a humorous life into the narration of the poem, is the sarcasm used by the speaker. The use of sarcasm within the poem gives strong presence to the speaker’s ridicule of the poor monk, and also helps to express his utter disgust with Brother Lawrence, or perhaps his disgust with himself. One can’t help but smile when the speaker releases a bitter outburst, such as the phrase, “Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished, / Laid with care on our own shelf!” (18-19).Browning emphasizes the sarcastic tone of the speaker by using a great deal of punctuation, which strengthens the speaker’s heated tone and the humorous way in which he expresses these malicious words. When the narrator wishes to lash out at Brother Lawrence, Browning uses an exclamation mark. “God’s blood, would not mine kill you!” (4), or “Hell dry you up with its flames!” (8). When the speaker wants to criticize the object of his intense hatred Browning uses both a question mark and an exclamation mark to emphasize the emotion the speaker is feeling, and to also heighten the sarcasm in the poem. “What? Your myrtle-bush wants trimming? / Oh, that rose has prior claims / Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?” (5-8) or “How go your flowers? None double? / Not one fruit-sort can you spy? / Strange! And I, too, at such trouble, / Keep them close-nipped on the sly!” (45-48).Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” uses several poetic techniques to convey to its audience the rumblings and bitter outbursts of a corrupted monk, who is less holier than the man he despises. Written as a dramatic monologue, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is Browning’s attempt to bring the language of hatred to life by using a cynical persona as his speaker, sarcastic language, and punctuation to emphasize all these strong elements in the poem.
Shelter From the Storm
In Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, “Porphyria’s Lover,” the love-stricken frustrations of a nameless speaker end in a passionate, annihilating response to society’s scrutiny towards human sensuality. Cleverly juxtaposing Porphyria’s innocent femininity and her sexual transgression, Browning succeeds in displaying society’s contradictory embrace of morality next to its rejection of sensual pleasure. In an ironically tranquil domestic setting, warm comfort and affection come to reveal burning emotional perversions within confining social structures. The speaker’s violent display of passion ends not with external condemnation, but with the matter-of-fact sense of a duty fulfilled. Porphyria’s lover sits next to his murdered love without any regretful aftermath or consequence; from the narrator’s viewpoint, a perception wholly distorted by the forced internalization of his feelings for Porphyria, not even the ultimate hand of God can rob him the serenity of a moment free from judgment.Browning’s presentation of an unreliable narrator is necessarily so, for in the ironically ordinary setting of Victorian simplicity, the speaker’s insanity is justified and accounted for. With traditional notions of nature’s wrath and God’s omnipotence framing the start and finish of the scene, Browning employs the narration’s natural poetic flow in order to heighten the blow of the unexpectedly unorthodox turn of events. The speaker’s great passion comes to parallel that of God, nature, and ultimately, social expectations, thus embodying the force of the “sullen wind” (Line 2) itself. Browning’s poem cannot be seen merely as a character analysis of a nameless speaker; its events frame not only the speaker’s apparent insanity but the primary source of his distorted emotions. The narrator’s own “struggling passion” (23) impedes his ability to think and act in a way that society views appropriate; yet, paradoxically, it is society’s limited notion of what is appropriate that kindles the ultimately fatal fire of his passionate endeavor.Browning grants certain credibility to the narrowness of the speaker’s viewpoint in that it displays the most extreme result of lifelong subservience to the world’s own confining expectations. Introducing nature’s unpredictability at the onset of the poem, Browning suggests the detrimental effect of an outside force and foreshadows the speaker’s equally spiteful gesture: “It tore the elm-tops down for spite, / And did its worst to vex the lake: / I listened with heart fit to break” (3-5). Here the speaker muses about his apparent powerlessness to weather’s force, the symbolic obstacle of the outside world that keeps Porphyria away. Importantly, “When glided in Porphyria” (60), the narrator’s weakened heart has already been broken many times if not once, both by social restrictions on his love affair, and the subsequent limitations on Porphyria’s love for him. Therefore, the speaker’s distance from the world outside becomes also an inability to respond to Porphyria upon her entrance; he sits in the cottage wanting only her love, without need of explanation, so that when he is spoken to, “no voice replied” (15). Soon, Porphyria’s gift of comforting warmth within the storm exacerbates his obsession to the point of insanity-driven violence.Paradoxically, the warmth of Porphyria’s love appears to the narrator to be so temporary that it incites his own predominant passion. Innocently seeking to comfort her afflicted lover, Porphyria forces him to embrace her and makes “her smooth white shoulder bare” (17). Abruptly, Browning’s scene of chilling weather interrupted by warm companionship becomes a picture of overt sexual expression amidst the cottage’s roaring fire. The initial presentation of traditional domesticity, a comforting shelter from a raging storm, turns quickly now to unstoppable, passionate pace. The reader cannot presume to know whether Porphyria’s expressed love for the speaker is true; what is important is that Browning’s speaker sees murderous action as the only way to preserve the moment and eliminate social barriers.The speaker’s lust for precedence over other forces in Porphyria’s life evidently leads to her fatal end. His ecstasy at her new, momentary devotion leaves him at the gate of attaining his dream, but without any sense of trajectory: “Porphyria worshipped me; surprise / Made my heart swell, and still it grew / While I debated what to do” (33-35). On the instantaneous realization of Porphyria’s love, the speaker’s requited passion and rational mind still stand separate to some extent. However, it is not long before his heated desire to keep her “Perfectly pure and good” (37) lead him to find “A thing to do” (38). The narrator’s being situated above social law, if but only once, proves to be so stunningly empowering that he loses rational ability to decipher anything but a self-centered whim.The complacency of Browning’s speaker in carrying out his murderous deed ironically reflects the complacency of society towards the sexual, aesthetic, and sensual pleasures of life. Exhibiting no definite regret beyond the weariness of having taken what was the only available path, the speaker points to the painlessness of his lover’s necessary death: “No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain” (41-42). However, Browning’s presenting the reader with an unreliable narrator serves only to intensify the psychological effects of his unrequited love, and says nothing for the supposed convictions and yearnings of Porphyria. While Porphyria finds her way to the speaker through the symbolically oppressive weather of the outside world, the speaker kills her upon realizing not only society’s restrictions on their relationship, but Porphyria’s own unwillingness to love him fully but for the present moment. He proclaims somewhat vehemently, “Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how / Her darling one wish would be heard” (56-57). Browning presents the justifiability of the murder only through the stricken eyes of the narrator; while the poet points to social confines as the cause of the speaker’s insanity, he does not discount the narrator’s moral responsibility for the deed.The narrator perceives to some degree the selfishness of his decision, for “As a shut bud that holds a bee” (43), he limits Porphyria’s sexual freedom by ending her life. Yet in freezing the moment and liberating the two of them from social structures, he distorts the deed to a point where it appears to be a divine event foreseen even by God. In toying with Porphyria’s dead body, the narrator relates not the coldness of sudden death, nor the warmth of sitting with his love, but the blazing, untouchable serenity of enacted passion: “her cheek once more / Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss” (49). In the moment of Porphyria’s death, the existence of her heated love for the speaker appears to him to be so infallible that God cannot even intervene: “All night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” (59-60). Browning presents the viewpoint of a speaker educated in the divine workings of an ultimate force, yet the long-stifled yearnings of an unjustly socialized man color the intensity of the situation. In Browning’s dramatic monologue, God’s hand of judgment shifts away from the murderer himself and onto the culture that first inhibited the speaker’s rational thought.Browning’s characterization of a nameless speaker in “Porphyria’s Lover” forms an unexpectedly conclusive response towards the sensual numbness of Victorian society. While the suggested insanity of the speaker would traditionally indicate the narrator’s unreliability in a moral sense, Browning constructs the isolated scene such that the lover’s emotional internalization is not only understandable, but divinely justified. The musings and actions of this unreliable narrator serve to illustrate the consequence of society’s confines in a shockingly violent release. Through naturally flowing language, this poetic account of burning emotion within a setting of tranquil domesticity presents the all-consuming power of human sensuality in its bleakest attempt to override social structures.
“Her Darling One Wish would be Heard”: How Dramatic Monologue Illustrates Distorted Rationality in “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”
Of the consequences of maintaining an obsessive nature, its ability to cloud rational judgements and encourage humanity to surrender to his darkest, innermost impulses serves as one of its most tragic aspects. Robert Browning explores this concept through his poems “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess.” Following the entry of Porphyria into the narrator’s cottage in “Porphyria’s Lover,” she verbally affirms her love for the him; as he believes Porphyria’s love will inevitably fail, the narrator turns to murder and necrophilia thereafter in an effort to preserve this moment for which her affection felt genuine. In a similar vein, the Duke of Ferrara at the beginning “My Last Duchess” reveals to his visitor, whose purpose is to negotiate the Duke’s marriage with another family, a portrait of his former spouse, who he had killed due to her inability to, in his mind, stay faithful and maintain affection towards him. Browning illustrates how the inherent obsessive and contradictory nature present in both narrators dismantles their sanity, encouraging them to rationalize their decisions, no matter the extent they violate morality.
Browning employs lustful, contradictory diction with dramatic monologue as the lens in “Porphyria’s Lover” to exhibit the underlying manic mentality within the narrator, and how he perceives his own crime as an ultimate testament to his love towards Porphyria. In the opening lines, the narrator describes her as having “made her smooth white shoulder bare…spread o’er all, her yellow hair,” and that she “worshipped” him (17-20, 33). The narrator’s unnerving focus on the minute details of Porphyria’s sensual behavior as she undresses characterizes her as an object to satisfy his lust, which from his perspective, she approves of. Following her verbal admission of affection to the narrator, he strangles Porphyria using her hair (41). The narrator, in support of his own personal yearning for Porphyria, turns to murder in the moment that she declares her love in an effort to bind her to himself eternally. This exemplifies the major contradiction within the narrator, in that while he is pleased that he has obtained Porphyria’s affection, he hates the possibility of her eventual feelings towards him weakening, and has chosen to preserve this ideal version of Porphyria instead of having to face that potential reality. The narrator additionally claims that this was a fate that Porphyria herself desired (57). The narrator interpreted her assertion of devotion to him as a definitive truth that it was her wish to be sealed in that instance of purity; this emphasizes how the narrator’s obsession with Porphyria has convinced him that his murder is a gesture that illustrates his love for her.
Moreover, Browning utilizes irony in “My Last Duchess” to highlight that while the Duke is unable to possess affectionate feelings towards anybody who fails to fit his ideal standard, he is incapable of quelling his obsession with them. In the initial lines, the Duke describes the painting of his former duchess as having “the depth and passion of its earnest glance” (7). While these comments initially suggest a positive appraisal, the remainder of the poem divulges that these words are ironic; they reveal the Duke’s innermost bitterness and displeasure towards this woman since she did not adequately comply to his view of perfection, and additionally illustrates how prominently she remains in his mind. The Duke presents himself as a captivating and personable individual through his eloquence (13-14). In spite of the Duke’s apparent lack of morality through the murder of his former wife, he still upholds a charming persona while defending his actions, which demonstrates his underlying internal obligation to control his world. Towards the end of the poem, the Duke claims that he “[chose] never to stoop” (43). The Duke chose not to profess his concerns and complaints to his wife in a confronting manner while she was alive as he believed that act would be beneath his standard; however, he instead chooses to communicate them passively following her death, which in reality, is further away from accommodating his standard.
The obsession both narrators have with their objects of aggression and their perceived lack of control over the situation instills within each of them a distorted sense of rationality, stimulating a desire to suspend love in its ideal moment that provides, in their minds, a just cause to take severe measures. The narrator characterizes the murder of Porphyria as a crime approved by God (60). In spite of this clearly amoral act, the narrator himself views it solely as a means of extending his love to Porphyria and preserving her in a state that he perceives as perfect; his belief that not even the highest authority categorizes the act as sinful exemplifies his distorted reality. Similarly, the Duke has turned his former duchess into a painting that he perceives as being an ideal image of her (13-15). As with the narrator’s desire to freeze Porphyria in a genuine condition, the Duke has done same by displaying the most optimal version of his former duchess, which illustrates that while he harbors resentment for the actual woman he had killed, he still maintains an obsession for his version of her ideal-self.
Through the obsessive and contract nature present in both narrators, Browning demonstrates how their skewed perception of rationality encourages them to take extreme measures in an effort to achieve perfection in their lives. The use of language and irony in “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” respectively, illustrate the underlying mental dismay that affects the narrators and the consequences that those have on the women they surround themselves with. The chief failing in both characters lies within their demand for power, a demand that drives them to take any means necessary to satisfy.
Individual against Society in A Doll’s House and Porphyria’s Lover
Browning’s dramatic monologues Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess critique Victorian society’s restrictive patriarchal values which suppressed a female’s endeavors for individualism. Meanwhile, Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House condemns the pretense of an idealistic marriage within a social hierarchy through his female protagonist, Nora. Both composers ultimately demonstrate the implications of their characters’ attempts to subvert society’s expectations.
Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Porphyria’s Lover, challenges Victorian society’s dominant patriarchal values by critiquing society’s tendency to undermine the role of women. The 1800s in England saw a period of misogynistic values imposed upon women, resulting in the stifling of their autonomy. However, Browning subverts these gender stereotypes through his portrayal of Porphyria, who transgresses social conventions when she visits her lover at night. The pathetic fallacy of ‘The rain set early in to-night/The sullen wind was soon awake’ establishes the persona’s unstable state of mind and foreshadows the consequences of Porphyria’s independence. Furthermore, having “laid her soil’d gloves by” and “let the damp hair fall”, Browning characterizes Porphyria as a ‘fallen woman’ who was condemned by Victorian society for being unchaste. Browning asserts Porphyria’s self-determination through the use of polysyndeton in “And made her smooth white shoulder bare…And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair”, evoking a sensual atmosphere, which challenges Victorian constraints on women’s behavior. However, the repetition in “that moment she was mine, mine fair” demonstrates a role reversal, which epitomizes her lover’s objectification of Victorian women and his possessiveness. The consequences of female independence are revealed in “yellow string I wound…And strangled her”, where Porphyria’s hair, initially a symbol of her femininity, eventually silences her, exaggerating the oppression of Victorian women under patriarchal control. Browning ultimately employs the religious allusion, “And yet God has not said a word!” to ironically underline the acceptability of her lover’s actions, unlike Porphyria’s sexual autonomy which was condemned by the patriarchal society. Thus, Browning condemns the suppression of women’s sexuality in Victorian England through examining Porphyria’s unconventional conduct.
Meanwhile, Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House transgresses Victorian expectations of bourgeois women’s subservience towards their husbands through Nora’s failure to adhere to her ascribed domestic role. The male domination that restrained a female’s self-determination is established in Torvald’s patronizing animal imagery, “my little lark…squirrel”, reflecting the preconceived inferiority of Victorian women. This is reinforced in Ibsen’s stage direction of Nora “playing with buttons, not looking at him”, where her childish frivolity reflects her subservient role in her relationship, and demonstrates the patriarchal dominance of late 19th century society. Furthermore, Torvald’s condescending language towards Nora, “Just like a woman!…you know what I think about that. No debt! No borrowing!” exemplifies society’s presumption of a woman’s fiscal irresponsibility. The assumed dependence of women in this era is further epitomized in Nora’s friend Mrs Linde’s generalization, “A wife can’t borrow without her husband’s permission”. Yet Nora transcends social expectations by “working and earning money. Almost like a man” to repay the loan, the simile signifying her subversion of traditional gender roles, which mirrors Porphyria in Browning’s poem. The frenetic tarantella dance along with Ibsen’s stage directions “[Nora’s] hair falls…she pays no attention” symbolize growing independence and reflects her desire to liberate herself from societal expectations. Thus, Ibsen condemns the suppression of female conduct and emphasizes the need to overcome restrictive patriarchal values within society.
Browning’s dramatic monologue My Last Duchess also critiques society’s constraints by examining the consequences of a female individual’s subversion of social pretenses and hierarchy. The Married Woman’s Property Act in 1882 allowed women to retain their belongings after divorce, subsequently exposing the façade of marriage as women abandoned their marital duties. The diminished importance of women is established through the personal pronoun “my last duchess painted on the wall”, where the artwork symbolizes the Duke’s objectification of his late wife, undermining her existence to mere aesthetics. Through the parenthetical aside, “(since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)”, Browning exemplifies the Duke’s excessive hubris towards his envoy when presenting his deceased wife as an object to validate his social status. The Duke’s disapproval of his wife’s metaphorical “spot of joy…too soon made glad, Too easily impressed” epitomizes his patriarchal condemnation of her inherent geniality, which breaches the class boundaries Victorian women were expected to embody. Furthermore, Browning delineates the Duchess’ undermining of the Duke’s social position through the symbolism in “She liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere”, with the negative connotations foreshadowing her downfall. The truncated sentences, “This grew; I gave commands” reflects the Duke’s autocratic behavior, and alludes to the dire consequences of the Duchess’ failure to fulfill her role within the social hierarchy. Browning concludes the monologue with a mythical allusion, “Notice Neptune, though,/Taming a sea-horse”, where the Roman god’s dominance over a fragile creature foreshadows the Duke’s authority over his next wife. Therefore, Browning condemns the suppression of women in a class-conscious society through the repercussions of the Duchess’ unorthodox behavior, and encourages greater female autonomy.
However, unlike the submission of the Duchess in Browning’s dramatic monologue, Ibsen denounces the pretense of marriage within social hierarchy which suppresses autonomy and advocates for a woman’s subversion of her domestic duties to strengthen her identity. While Nora’s costuming as a “little Capri fishergirl” represents youth and sensuality, conventional for 19th century women, the stage direction of “dancing more and more wildly” symbolizes her desire for liberation from her marriage facade. Nora’s stage directions as she secretively “puts the macaroons in her pocket and wipes her mouth” demonstrates her forbidden consumption of sweets which signifies her wish for independence within a restrictive marriage. Furthermore, Nora realizes the pretense of her marriage, epitomized in the symbolic “Changing. No more fancy dress”, where the clothing motif reveals the subversion of social expectations leading to her empowerment, unlike the Duchess who fails to liberate herself from societal confinements. Nora’s epiphany that “I’m your dolly-wife, just as I used to be Daddy’s dolly baby” exemplifies her recognition of social hierarchy that objectifies the female individual and restricts her autonomy. Nora ultimately abandons her maternal and marital duties through her use of personal pronouns, “I think that first I’m a human being, just like you” which delineates her self-determination to strengthen her female identity. The final slamming of the door symbolizes Nora’s emancipation from domestic duties in her confining marriage. Therefore, Ibsen challenges the societal restrictions enforced on females through Nora’s individualistic pursuit of her ideals.
Both Browning and Ibsen expose the consequences of their characters’ individualistic attempts to subvert social expectations. While Browning shocks his audience with the unpredictable consequences of his female individuals in their intentions to transgress female propriety and ascribed domestic roles, Ibsen reveals the empowerment that women obtain after abandoning social mores.
Criminal or Victim: an Analysis of Victimhood in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘The Laboratory’
In the case of Robert Browning’s two poems ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘The Laboratory’, victimhood is complex – in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the victim is very clearly Porphyria, but in the case of ‘The Laboratory’, whether there actually is a victim or not is much more debatable.
In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the lover “strangled her”, and in his way of killing her, she is undeniably the victim. However, in ‘The Laboratory’, no murder actually ever takes place. The entire poem is plotting, structured in quatrains with a regular rhyme scheme, and although this arguably emphasizes the narrator’s intent on the murder as well as her calculation, there ends up being no actual victim of her crime – only intended ones. However, the narrator attempts to justify her actions and makes it appear as if she is a victim. “They believe my tears flow / while they laugh, laugh at me.” The epizeuxis of “laugh” emphasizes not her malice, but that of her intended victims – and through this presentation it can be argued that the narrator of ‘The Laboratory’ is actually the true victim.
However, in the two texts, perhaps the suggested victims are not the only victims represented in the two poems. For example, in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, she “kneeled” to warm the cottage for her lover and Browning writes that “she loved me.” The pronoun “she” is active, but “me” is passive as the love is not returned. When her lover murders her, she is left staring up at him in “worship”, immortalized in her love. Since her lover is deviant (due to his criminal nature) but not in prison, but in isolation, he is likely from an upper-class family as in the Victorian era if an upper-class family had a deviant family member they could simply send them away to live in isolation. But the way Porphyria does everything for him implies she is like a servant, lower-class, and this is emphasized by how he kills her with her own “yellow” hair. Yellow typically connotes wealth as it is associated with gold, so in turn could suggest a connotation of the upper-class. Through this description Browning could be presenting how the bourgeoisie abuse the lower classes, and Porphyria becomes a victim of classist society, and Browning shows how lower classes are also victims to Victorian society.
Although the implied antagonist in ‘The Laboratory’ is plotting murder, she could hold some status of a victim. It is interesting that in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the lover, an upper-class male, is able to commit his crimes but the likely lower-class female narrator of ‘The Laboratory’ is unable to. This suggests that the narrator of ‘The Laboratory’ is unable to commit her crimes because she is a female in a patriarchal society, thus being completely powerless, and perhaps is a victim of class like Porphyria. Although her criminality is undeniable, the fact that she is so easily betrayed by a man and replaced with other women emphasizes how she is a victim of her own patriarchal society; through this, Browning also suggests that it is women who are victims as they are at the hands of these patriarchal societies and so, contextually, would have been considered less than men.
Porphyria’s status as a victim is emphasized through her lover’s success in possessing her. It is ironic that the title of the poem is ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ as the possessive “-s” implies ownership whilst in the end it is Porphyria’s lover who ends up possessing her. Through killing her in her moment of “worship”, she is objectified forever and is owned, in this sense, by her lover completely. However, in ‘The Laboratory’, there is no actual possession. The narrator is unable to possess the men or the two women as she never kills them. Although, her plotting is driven by the fact she is jealous; she no longer holds any ownership over the man and wants to do so again – and realizes the only way she can own him as well as get justice would be to kill him and the two other women, but she is restricted by her gender and class, shown through how she describes herself as a “minion”. Her powerlessness is emphasized by how she goes to “pray God in” – she has no power and can only rely on God – so she cannot possess him or the two women so they ultimately cannot be victims.
The psyche of the two narrators of their respective dramatic monologues complicates the idea of who the victim is. In late Victorian times, criminals were actually thought to be mentally ill as it was ridiculous to think that crimes could be committed by regular, sane people. So Browning presents both characters as mentally unstable – the narrator of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is narcissistic and appears unstable, shown through the fact that in order to keep Porphyria’s lover forever, he murders her; he also sees her love as worship, which suggests he could likely be psychotic. In ‘The Laboratory’, the narrator is obsessive – she is so dedicated to her plot through her obsessive mental state that she sees it as the only solution for justice. So in this way, both criminals are victims of their own psyches rather than a crime against them.
To conclude, in crime writing both criminals and victims are commonly present, but the line between criminal and victim can blur, shown through the presentation of supposed criminals and victims in Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘The Laboratory’.
Love and Its Corruption: Never the Time and the Place, Porphyria’s Lover and Andrea del Sarto
In both Porphyria’s Lover and Andrea del Sarto, Robert Browning explores the notions of love and its capacity to corrupt an individual’s character and potential through his signature diegetic form; the dramatic monologue. While the form of these two poems is based around an implied audience, the primary agent and core subject matter is the narrator, rather than the subjects they speak on. The form itself requires that the reader complete the dramatic scene from within, through the use of inference and imagination, using the clues provided by Browning’s narrators in regard to their obsessions and preoccupations. In a differing manner, Never the Time and the Place varies in metrical poetic structure, and consists of both iambs and anapaests, combined by Browning with the varying indentations and use of enjambment to create a sense of the environment present as being a space of alterity.
Along with the aforementioned alterity, Never the Time and the Place establishes the concept of the intransient nature of love and its spacio-temporal limitations upon the narrator, doing so within the title (and first line of the poem) itself. The negative adverb of time “never”, when used as the first word in the poem, highlights the frustration of the narrator on the nature of his love that is to be explored. The epexegetic conjunction “and” is used by Browning to connote the inseparable nature of space and time, strengthening the totality of which the two are impossible to experience in tandem, and the concluding anapaestic foot “and the place” rushes rhythmically, indicating the desire of the narrator to speak upon the “place” in question. After it is revealed to be a house he lives in with his lover within the liminal spatiality of the dream, this rush illuminates the narrator’s fixation upon experiencing the pleasures of a love that is disallowed to him in waking consciousness. The paratactic hyphenations used by Browning following “This path” and “This May” suggest the inherent hesitation of the narrator in divulging details of the dream, due to his awareness of its transient nature and its inevitable conclusion, forcing his return to the reality of life without his lover. Once the narrator enters the world of the dream, the environment is described by Browning in such a manner so as to indicate it as a force conspiring against the lovers. The pejorative descriptions of the “rain” and “wind” as “hostile” and having “malice”, depict the natural environment as a malign and malevolent entity, providing an existential perspective of the universe itself preventing the love he wishes to attain from being fulfilled in reality. A similar breakdown in cosmic harmony is used by Browning in Porphyria’s Lover with the “sullen wind” that “tore the elm-tops down” and “vex[es] the lake”, a personification of the environment as a destructive force. Similarly destructive traits are noted within Porphyria herself, however, with the incendiary imagery of “blaze up” and “warm” indicating the narrator’s perception of the damage being caused by his lover.
Unlike the contriving universe of Never the Time and the Place, Porphyria’s Lover documents a unique barrier to love that is similarly insurmountable; the jealousy of the narrator. The title of the poem itself adumbrates this concept with the use of the apostrophe of possession, and is reiterated throughout the piece. Combined with the preponderance of the first person pronouns “me” and “my”, the forceful demand for Porphyria to “give herself to me forever” is used by Browning to draw attention to the narrator’s egotistical nature, and his desire for total and unwavering commitment from his lover. Whilst demanding such unequivocal love and loyalty, the narrator remains solely focused on the physical form of Porphyria, rather than deeper emotional or mental connections, evidenced by repetition of her “yellow hair” and commenting upon her “smooth white shoulder bare”. Further to this, Browning employs a syntactical hierarchy when the narrator references that “she put my arm around her waist” in order to contextualize the physical connection of the pair with the possessive disposition of the narrator. Dissimilar to this, the eponymous narrator of Andrea del Sarto is devoid of the same capacity or willingness to exercise control upon his wife. His comment to “bear with me for once” is used by Browning to imply to the reader that the narrator is in fact submissive within the relationship, as opposed to the dominance of the narrator in Porphyria’s Lover. However, the two are united in their shared experience of relational frustration, yet it is addressed in starkly distinct manners. Whilst the narrator in Porphyria’s Lover opts to ensure his ultimate possession of Porphyria through ending her life, Andrea’s remark in iambic pentameter “So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!” is used by Browning to allude to his acceptance of the fleeting nature of time within his relational dynamic, and emphasized through the use of the exclamation mark.
Much like Andrea del Sarto, the concept of temporality as a force working in opposition to the narrator in question is explored in Never the Time and the Place. The failure of the narrator to grasp and operate within the limits of time with confidence is explored in the three-line series “Do I hold the past / Thus firm and fast / yet doubt if the Future hold I can?”. The effect is achieved structurally with the third line, which does not feature the two metrical feet with two iambs and an anapaest of the first two lines. Instead, the third line incorporates tetrameter, along with a syntactical inversion. The combination of these devices is employed by Browning in order to create a disjunctive reality for the speaker, as well as to undermine his confidence in operating within the temporality of waking reality. Instead, he yearns for the liminal spatiality, free from the bounds of time that can finally unite him with his lover; death. The euphemism for death, “sleep”, is depicted by Browning as being a position of positivity for the narrator through the use of the tricolon of adjectives within the semantic field of comfort, “close, safe, warm”. The narrator of Porphyria’s Lover experiences a comparable relational harmony with his lover in death, as instead of the disjunctive pronouns of “I” and “she” from earlier in the poem, the narrator unites himself and Porphyria with the inclusive pronoun “we”. Whilst objectively depriving both himself and his lover of a functioning relational dynamic and the emotional and physical pleasures it affords, Browning uses such pronouns to suggest that the narrator has reached his moment of true connection with Porphyria, despite the process of culminating at this point being imbued with violence and domination of personal agency.
Exploring Love and Its Corruption: My Last Duchess, Andrea Del Sarto & Two in the Campagna
In both My Last Duchess and Andrea del Sarto, Robert Browning explores the notions of love and its capacity to corrupt an individual’s character and potential through his signature diegetic form; the dramatic monologue. While the form of these two poems is based around an implied audience, the primary agent and core subject matter is the narrator, rather than the subjects they speak on. The form itself requires that the reader complete the dramatic scene from within, through the use of inference and imagination, using the clues provided by Browning’s narrators in regard to their obsessions and preoccupations. In a differing manner, Two in the Campagna varies in metrical poetic structure, and consists mainly of iambs, but as this consistency disintegrates, a parallel symbolism is created, as the ideas and love of the narrator, as well as the language required to express them, are each identified as unobtainable.
Variant perceptions and attitudes regarding the nature of loyalty and jealousy within relational dynamics are explored in both My Last Duchess and Andrea Del Sarto. The overwhelming jealousy and possessive nature of the narrator (the Duke) in My Last Duchess is adumbrated within the title of the poem, with the possessive pronoun “my” used by Browning to reveal the Duke’s disposition, and his regard for the Duchess as being an object within his control. In contrast to this, the eponymous narrator in Andrea Del Sarto, whilst being aware that his wife is in an adulterous relationship with the “Cousin”, opts to revert to the comfort of his relationship, rather than oppose dominance and control within the marital dynamic. The pleading tone of “Must you go?” is used by Browning in order to highlight the desperation of the narrator in maintaining the status quo, but his ultimate inability to enforce the boundaries he desires upon his partner, evidenced by the use of a question, rather than a commanding imperative form. While the disloyalty of the partner in Andrea Del Sarto is objectively present, the Duke in My Last Duchess notes the same trait within the Duchess, but with a distinct absence of empirical proof. The adverb “perhaps” presupposes the imaginative nature of the evidence for the Duchess’ unfaithfulness, therefore corrupting the credibility of the Duke’s suggestions that the “spot of joy [on] the Duchess’ cheek “ was brought about by other men. When confronted with the adultery he perceives, the Duke acts violently, ordering the execution of the Duchess, asserting his ultimate control over the Duchess, literally objectifying and constraining her to the bounds of a painting. Conversely, the narrator of Andrea Del Sarto, despite his hesitations, uses his only imperative of the poem “Go, my Love” in a manner not asserting control within his relationship, but instead allowing her to continue behaving in the same manner as previously. This command is used by Browning to highlight that the control exercised by the narrator is entirely facile, and that within his own relational dynamic, the power remains with his partner.
Much like in Andrea Del Sarto, the narrator of Two in the Campagna struggles to exhibit control over both love and his ideas, highlighting their transient nature. In order to experience a spatio-temporal paradigm in which love can be tamed and controlled, the narrator invites his listener to imagine the open fields of the “Champaign”, being the Campagna that surrounds Rome. Symbolically, this land is used by Browning to represent a liminal zone in which social convention no longer applies and permissiveness is possible. The structure of the poem subverts this liminality, however, as even when the narrator speaks of the Campagna, the stanzas remain five lines long, with the first four in tetrameter and the final in trimeter. Browning therefore reflects that even while in the realm of alterity and separation from social norms, the restrictions of the human experience and mortality continue to apply. These notions are reflected in the existential frustration evident at the conclusion of the poem, in which reference is made to the “old trick”, a colloquial expression used by Browning to comment upon the illusory nature of reality experienced by the narrator, due to the deceptive connotations of “trick”. In a differing manner, the narrator of Andrea Del Sarto, despite his temporal considerations, instead accepts the nature of his human experience, commenting, “Since there my past life lies, why alter it?” The use of the question as a rhetorical device by Browning illuminates the narrator’s struggle to overcome the restrictions of time itself, and to instead opt to resign himself to the position of inactive agent in the temporal paradigm.
In opposition to the narrators of Andrea Del Sarto and Two in the Campagna, who each display an awareness of the temporal limitations provided throughout life itself, the Duke in My Last Duchess achieves his ultimate goal only in the realm death, separated from such limitations. Unable to quell the perceived disloyalty of his partner and to confirm her as his prized possession, the Duke’s simile that the painting depicts the Duchess “looking as if she were alive” is used by Browning to demonstrate that his late partner has observing those around her in the same manner as during life. However, her ekphrastic entrapment renders her under the control of the Duke, a control he was not able to attain during the Duchess’ life. The narrator of Andrea Del Sarto observes similar potential to achieve his aspirations in death, commenting “In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance”, with the “chances” being dissonant with the narrator’s previous assertion that he “regret[s] little” and “would change still less”. The narrator’s fantastical consideration of the afterlife is included by Browning to reveal Andrea Del Sarto’s acknowledgement of his failure to achieve his potential artistic greatness in life, but his desire to achieve them in death. The narrator in Two in the Campagna holds a distinctly separate perspective upon the afterlife, stating “heaven looks from its towers!” Emphasized by the exclamation mark, the possessive pronoun “it” embodies heaven itself as a singular force, and the symbolism of the “towers” is used by Browning to suggest that the afterlife serves as a judgement for the narrator and his lover, due to the physical dominance inherent within the height of towers.
Discussion of The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister and Confessions
Robert Browning ubiquitous examination of religious authority and its shortcomings becomes apparent within the very title of The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church. The religious reference to Saint Praxed carries ironic connotations, as whilst Saint Praxed herself was chaste, the monologist subverts his priestly requirements and engages in sexual acts. Therefore Browning here highlights the hypocritical nature of the religious figures of the time. While religious authorities of Browning’s time period espoused values of loving one’s neighbour, both The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church and Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister deconstruct such doctrines as further evidence of religious duplicity. Ironically referencing his own “Peace”, the Bishop of the former poem exclaims “God curse the same!”. Emphasized by the exclamation mark, the vituperative application of the Catholic deity against the Bishop’s nemesis, Gandolf, is depicted by Browning to demonstrate the disrespect and disregard of supposedly devout figures for the very cornerstones of their faith. In a similar fashion, the narrator of the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister refers to Brother Lawrence as a “Manichee”, a non-vocative pejorative epithet used in order to denigrate Lawrence as an adherent to dual religions, and therefore of inferior commitment to Christianity. However, the narrator himself references “Galatians” as a justification for the prospective murder of Lawrence, and is therefore used by Browning to undermine the use of biblical texts as authorities.
Along with this deconstruction of religion, Browning’s poems are linked by their depiction of moral decay, clear within the initial line of Confessions. The “buzzing” in the ears of the narrator is in fact an intertextual reference to Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Due to this, the gerund used by Browning invokes a satanic presence in the death-bed confession of the narrator, and suggests an underlying malevolence in the narrator’s being. In addition to this, the anapaests within the line “Do I view the world as a vale of tears?”, indicative of a discomfort in speaking on the matter at hand, also serve to differentiate it from the other lines in the stanza. This demarcation is used by Browning to suggest that the narrator’s perspective upon life has entered a realm of alterity – solidified by the facetious nature of his unction due to his lack of remorse – and signifying the moral decay at hand. The Bishop of The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church, while idiosyncratic, presents a further example of this aforementioned decay. The simile “Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast…”, sexualizes the Virgin Mary, and the concluding aposiopesis is added by Browning to signify a venture into sexual fantasy regarding the “Madonna”, a notion wholly morally void for a religious figure. This mental and moral corruption is mirrored in the language of the poem, as the Bishop refers to a congregation as a “conflagration”. A symbolic solecism, Browning here highlights that the failure of the Bishop to adequately articulate himself coincides with his failure to acknowledge his immorality. A similar degree of egocentricity and tarnished self-awareness is evident in the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. While attempting to illuminate his devotion in speaking of his focus upon “Jesu’s praise” in the fifth stanza, by the sixth the narrator approaches Brother Lawrence’s flowers and “Keep[s] them close-nipped on the sly!” With the exclamation mark highlighting enthusiasm of the narrator, the adverbial phrase “on the sly” is used by Browning to demonstrate the narrator’s concession to deception, despite his supposedly moral foundations.
Ultimately, Browning explores love in its various expressions, and its ability to be applied to a wide spectrum of divergent human experiences. Confessions narrates a scandalous love story that transgressed the socio-religious boundaries of the time, from this perspective exploring love to exceed hegemonic restrictions. Browning develops emotional weight for the relationship through romanticising its setting; the “rose-wreathed gate” in particular functions as a poetic cliché that nevertheless fortifies the love present between the narrator and the partner. Succeeding this, the tricolon of monosyllabic rhyming adjectives in “How sad and bad and mad it was” is implemented by Browning to reduce the negative experiences of life linguistically. The final line of the concluding stanza, “But then, how it was sweet!” nostalgically emotionalizez the positive memories of love through the exclamation mark. Conversely, the Bishop of The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church bestows superficial and materialistic elements of his life with his love. Browning’s preponderance of references to minerals such as “basalt” and the valuable gemstone “lapis lazuli” highlight that even when confronting his own transience, his focus and adoration remains solely upon the material elements of life on earth. Furthermore, the pathetic fallacy evident in the narrator referring to his “brave Frascati villa” is included by Browning to signal both the narrator’s compromised mental state, as well as adulation for his material belongings, rather than the humanity that surrounds him, such as his illegitimate son Anselm.
The Power of Voice in “My Last Duchess”
“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning is a Victorian poem that demonstrates the power of voice. This poem is narrated by the Duke of Ferrara who uses his voice to gain control of those around him. He even speaks for his deceased wife, only explaining his view of the situation preceding her death. While the Duke has a voice, his former wife is encapsulated by silence and isolation. The Duke determines who is allowed to see her portrait, and decides which part of her story he wants to share. This essay will analyze the silence forced upon the Duchess, and will demonstrate how the form of the poem expresses the controlling voice the Duke maintains throughout the work.
“My Last Duchess” is a poem that demonstrates the silence enforced upon a Duchess, emphasized by the isolation created by her former husband. From the very beginning of the poem the Duchess is shown as alone and isolated: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive” (1-2). The Duchess is physically attached to the wall as a portrait, and cannot interact with those around her. She is a strict observer, watching others interact as she merely looks on. The Duke has even limited the amount of people that can see her: “But to myself they turned (since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I / And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, /How such a glance came there; so, not the first /Are you to turn and ask thus” (9-13). She is isolated behind a curtain, and cannot control the amount she is hidden or shown. Though there are some select few that are shown her portrait, she cannot speak for herself. They supposedly have questions about her, but the Duke answers all questions himself. Even while the Duchess was alive, the Duke does not express that she had a voice. He describes her: “Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, /Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without /Much the same smile?” (43-45) According to the Duke, she always smiled, but does not make reference to any words that she spoke. On line 13 he makes a similar statement: “Sir, ’twas not/Her husband’s presence only, called that spot/Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek (14-15). The Duke describes her physical presence, but does not speak about her oral communication. Although it goes without saying that she did indeed vocalise her feelings while she was alive, the fact that the Duke never makes reference to her speaking supports the idea of silence and isolation forced upon the woman. Her words did not seem to matter before her death, nor do they matter now. Because she is never described as having a voice, she is almost forced into being a mere inanimate object even while alive, as opposed to a living, opinionated, or interactive human being. Robin Lakoff explains the importance of language and interaction with women: “Speech about women implies an object, whose sexual nature requires euphemism, and whose social roles are derivative and dependent in relation to men. The personal identity of women thus is linguistically submerged; the language works against treatment of women, as serious persons with individual views” (Lakoff 45). The entirety of the reader’s perception of the Duchess is dependent on the men around her. Every representation of her is linked to the actions or perceptions of a man, and never about her as a human being. The men in her life overshadow any of her interests, thoughts, or accomplishments. Lackoff explains the importance of proper representation:“In appropriate women’s speech, strong expression of feeling is avoided, expression of uncertainty is favored, and means of expression in regard to subject-matter deemed ‘trivial’ to the ‘real’ world are elaborated” (45). By only expressing that the Duchess smiled often, the Duke portrays her in a trivial manner. He removes any of her strong expressions of feeling, and describes her as flirtatious and trivial. Lackoff continues by explaining how this behavior is detrimental to women:“Our use of language embodies attitudes as well as referential meanings. ‘Woman’s language’ has as foundation the attitude that women are marginal to the serious concerns of life, which are pre-empted by men. The marginality and powerlessness of women is reflected in both the ways women are expected to speak, and the ways in which women are spoken of” (45). The Duchess (who is still unnamed) does not have a voice, and cannot control the way that she is spoken of. The Duke spares no words in describing her through his perception, demonstrating the powerlessness she possesses. Shifra Hochberg adds, “The Duchess’ countertext of female desire, as this essay will demonstrate, reveals many of the underlying paradoxes, tensions, and irresolutions of gendered struggles for power and dominance within a patriarchal cultural matrix” (Hochberg 77). While living, she was expected to act with strict virtue and naivety, exactly as the Duke expected of her. Once dead, all memories of her are determined by the man in her life. She did not have a voice when she was living, nor does she have a voice now that she is dead.
The Duke of “My Last Duchess” portrays men as much more free than their counterparts, though also as manipulative and possessive through their manners of communication. This poem is written as a monologue through the voice of the Duke of Ferrara, which signifies that every idea revealed throughout this poem belongs to the Duke himself. In essence, it is one long, uninterrupted ramble of the Italian Duke. Although this monologue is presented as a conversation between the Duke and the emissary who has come to negotiate the Duke’s marriage, the Duke is the only character to speak. The idea that the Duke’s words are the only ones shared could signify that the Duke may consider his words the only ones that are of worth and that he is the only authoritative character. Due to this demonstration towards another male, it is entirely possible to consider the idea that he treated his Duchess in the same-and perhaps even worse-manner. The Duke’s need for control and authority is also represented through the rhyming pattern utilized throughout the poem. The rhymes are formed in couplets, a very structured and concise form of communicating ideas. They appear very controlled, just as the Duke appears through his described mannerisms. The couplets a more controlled and aurally appealing system: they are an interesting representation of the Duke’s character. He speaks so eloquently about his dead wife and his home, and it is almost easy to forget the fact that he killed his wife. Though the words he says are aurally pleasing, the message he portrays is controlling and manipulative. Just like the couplets express, though the events of his life do not flow perfectly he still speaks of them in a very controlled and systematic way. He compiles contrasting ideas together that have little unifying factors, yet he does not break in his speech. While speaking of his former wife, he says: “There she stands / As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet / The company below, then” (46-48). In a matter of three lines, the Duke speaks of his dead wife and then invites the emissary to accompany him to meet his new wife. The Duke demonstrates controlled emotions through the enjambment as he unites many of these contrasting ideas together, sparing any normally present emotion. As Kevin J. Gardner says of the use of enjambment: “Despite his specious claim that he has no “skill/In speech” (35–36), however, the duke is clearly a master of rhetorical revelation: the regular use of enjambed lines throughout the poem may suggest an inability to control either his wife or his own tongue, yet his disruptive caesurae create a rhetorical violence that allows him to reassert his sovereignty and command” (Gardner 170).The length of each line also denotes the circumstances in which the Duke possesses or lacks control in his life. In every short line that the Duke declares, he shares a factual statement. For example, the first line of the poem states: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive” (1-2). This line is very factual and non-expressive: he has a portrait of his previous wife on the wall, and is is a good portrayal of her person. However, he continues to describe the portrait by saying: “Sir, ’twas not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps / Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps / Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff / Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough / For calling up that spot of joy” (13-21). The Duke does not appear to feel in control of the situation; the moment he lacks that feeling, he begins to ramble. He does not possess facts that she was disloyal to him, which means that he does not possess control; thus the unending ramble. The structure of “The Last Duchess” demonstrates the manipulation and power that men held over women during the 1500’s, as told by Robert Browning.
“My Last Duchess” is a poem that exemplifies the power of voice. It contrasts the overbearing ramble of the controlling, manipulative Duke with the isolated and silent Duchess. The silence of the Duchess can represent the silence of women throughout the era, as men control the majority of their lives. In the case of the Duchess the Duke controlled when she died, who sees her portrait, and how she will be portrayed to those who come after her. The Duke uses his voice to gain power and control over his life and the lives of others, as he uses an entire monologue to express his sentiments and opinions. “My Last Duchess” demonstrates how important the power of voice truly is.
Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web.
Gardner, Kevin J. “Was the Duke of Ferrara Impotent?” A Quarterly Journal Of Short Articles, Notes And Reviews 23.3 (2010): Web.
Hochberg, Shifra. “Male Authority and Female Subversion in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 3.1 (1991): Web.
Lakoff, Robin. Language in Society. 1st ed. Vol. 2. N.p.: Cambridge U Press, 1973. Web.