Robert Browning utilized the format of the dramatic monologue, the creation of expectation and surprise, and extensive use of figurative language to support the theme of possessive love in his works “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”. The dramatic personae in these works provide surprising accounts of their tormented and often jealous love and the results of their actions determine the startling revelations within each monologue. Their possessive love not only drives them to violent acts, but provides them with seemingly rational excuses for their behavior.
Though Browning utilizes the format of the dramatic monologue in both “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”, there are a number of important distinctions between the monologic persona and the implied audience in each of these works. It is important to note these differences because they demonstrate the interactions that lead each persona to distinguish and excuse their actions relative to possessive love. In “My Last Duchess”, it is clear that Browning intended to demonstrate a relationship between the monologic character and the perceived audience, while in “Porphyria’s Lover” there is a determined lack of a pre-designed relationship between the dramatic persona and the audience, allowing for a completely impersonal format (Jones 301).
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The dramatic persona in “My Last Duchess” is developed through the use of a monologue which is actually a non-responsive dialogue between the Duke of Ferrara and an agent, the man he hopes will negotiate his marriage to the niece of the Count of Tyrol in Austria (Bain 373).
The history behind this poem suggests the presence of two individuals, and the direction of the work demonstrates this interaction. The dramatic persona, the Duke, presents the painting of the Duchess to the agent, and asks that the agent observe the painting: “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” (line 5).
Through the single-sided discourse that Browning creates, the Duke almost appears to answer questions presented by the agent: “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.” (lines 11-13).
The use of this second-consciousness that never speaks allows Browning to incorporate participation by the audience in inferring the response of the agent, and this is an effective means of bringing the audience into the poem (Woolford 74).
In contrast to the situational determinations made in “My Last Duchess”, “Porphyria’s Lover” presents a different perspective on the use of the monologue. Though most monologues lean towards dialogue because of the expected relationship between the auditor and the speaker (Nichols 31), the monologue in this poem is presented without a determined audience, and the discussion that takes place in regards to the actions of Porphyria are the considerations of the dramatic persona and not representative of a continued discourse with another person. This impersonal format allows the monologic persona the leeway to present any idea without the repercussions of response from an actual discourse (Jones 301).
The use of the monologue allows for the surprisingly frank presentation of information that increases in emotion and dramatic significance through out the poem.
The setting in “My Last Duchess” is very formal and is representative of the discourse that would be displayed between the Duke of Ferrara and the agent when considering what information should be presented to the Count of Tyrol. The Duke of Ferrara presents the painting of his first wife as a means of beginning the discourse, and the setting and situational elements presented suggest the necessity for formality in explaining his actions that resulted in the suspicious death of the Duchess. Fra Pandolf is presented as the painter of the portrait, and the Duke discusses the “spot of joy” or the flush that is painted on her cheeks as a means of reflecting on the actions of the Duchess in concern for other men or other lovers. He states: “’twas not/Her husband’s presence only, called that spot/Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek…(Lines 13-15).
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Though the painter may have made her blush from his compliments while painting the portrait, the suggestion made in this passage is that there were other men, other lovers, and even Fra Pandolf himself could have been one.
In contrast to the formality of “My Last Duchess”, Browning provides a more dramatic setting in “Porphyria’s Lover” that supports actions that occur, while also determining the surprise that is elemental to his representation of the possessive love. The night is tumultuous, much like the feelings that her lover, the monologic persona, has for Porphyria. The personification of the wind in the first three lines, and the suggestion of its spiteful and vexing nature creates a backdrop for comparison with Porphyria’s qualities. “The sullen wind was soon awake,/It tore the elm-tops down for spite,/And did its worst to vex the lake” (lines 2-4).
The ability of Porphyria to enter the house and shut out this raging storm demonstrates her control at the onset of the poem.
Porphyria is also able to change the essential elements within the house, and her ability to build a fire that warms the entire cottage is important to an understanding of the relationship between the dramatic persona and Porphyria:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm; (lines 5-9).
He marvels at her ability to change the surroundings and change his feelings from concern and disdain for the storm to marvel at the warmth within the cottage. The setting created, including the distinction between the outside rages of the storm and the warmth inside the cottage are utilized to support the expectations that the reader has in regards to the actions in the poem, and ultimately supports the surprised that is felt when the lover, the dramatic persona, in an act of possessive love, murders Porphyria as she sits beside him.
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The same type of possessive love that causes the death of Porphyria is demonstrated in the essential considerations presented by the Duke in “My Last Duchess”. He creates suspicion for the actions of the Duchess, demonstrating that he was both jealous and obsessive. He notes first “She had/A heart–how shall I say?–too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/She looked on, and her looks went everywhere (lines 21-24).
He then goes on to make a list of those things provided for her by others that impressed her, and suggests that she repaid these favors with favors of her own. “She thanked men, –good! but thanked/Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift” (lines 31-34).
It is clear that the Duke was wounded by her ability to trivialize his nobility, respectability and their marriage by sharing in the gifts of others.
It is not surprising that the Duke in “My Last Duchess” had his wife murdered. He does not describe the event, and this is also an element of the formality of the situation. Because Browning presents his actions through the discourse with the agent, it is implied that there would be a reaction or response to his description of the events, and this would not be appropriate within the scope of their discourse. He simply states: “I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/As if alive” (lines 45-47).
This statement does not incriminate the Duke, but instead gives a means through which he can explain her death while also reflecting on his need for respectability and honor. The same nobility that he believed was being tarnished by her actions is saved through his order of her murder.
The murder of the Duchess suggests the possessive nature of the Duke of Ferrara’s actions, and this is an elemental theme to the poem as a whole. He recognized that his wife was not only sharing her smiles with him, but also with other men, and the jealousy that developed created the necessity for her murder. The Duke’s ability to transform the Duchess from a person to a painting allows him to retain both her beauty and her virtue, and gives him the ultimate opportunity–to possess her forever. He personifies the painting, suggesting that the painting itself is his Duchess: “There she stands” (line 46), and this also supports the possessive nature of the Duke.
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The same considerations–the need to possess her beauty, virtue and attention, appear as an important element in “Porphyria’s Lover”, though this dramatic persona appears more based in the immediate need to halt the progression of actions–to use murder as a means of stopping change and determining that Porphyria’s love for him will be her last. The desperation expressed by the lover in this poem is directly linked to Porphyria’s relationship with other men, and his perception of the temporality of his importance:
Murmuring how she loved me–she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavor,
To set its struggling passions free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever (lines 21-25).
This passage suggests that Porphyria cannot give up her pursuits of wealthier men, and that her lover, though he represents her true feelings, will never prevail in winning her in marriage. As a result, the lover, the monologic persona, perceives the necessity of her death as a means of keeping her in his possession forever. “Porphyria worshipped me: surprise/Made my heart swell, and still it grew/While I debated what to do” (lines 33-35).
He could not stop with recognizing momentary love, and his actions reflected his possessive love: “That moment she was mine, mine, fair” (line 36).
As a result of his possessive love for Porphyria, he kills her, strangling her with her own hair. Then just as she had propped his head on her shoulder in a loving act, the lover props Porphyria’s head on his shoulder, stopping the course of time and the events that could change their love. His wish is granted, and Porphyria’s love for him is the last she ever feels: “Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how/Her darling one wish would be heard./And thus we sit together now (lines 56-58).
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Browning effectively presents the theme of possessive love in both “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” but demonstrates the different ways in which the dramatic monologue, the use of surprise and the language can change the perceptions of this theme. While the Duke of Ferrara appears to suggest the necessity of his actions in the preservation of his name and his nobility, Porphyria’s lover is depicted, in the end, as almost demented, and the vision of him sitting for hours with a dead woman on his shoulder demonstrates the different outcomes of attempts to possess love.
Bain, C., Beaty, J. & Hunter, J.P. The Norton Introduction to Literature. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982).
Browning, Robert. Robert Browning: The Poems. Pettigrew, J., ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981).
Corson, Hiram. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry. (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970).
Jones, A.R. “Robert Browning and the Dramatic Monologue: The Impersonal Art.” Critical Quarterly (1967): pp. 301-28.
Garratt, Robert F. “Browning’s Dramatic Monologue: The Strategy of the Double Mask.” Victorian Poetry (1973): pp. 115-25.
Nichols, Ashton. “Dialogism in the Dramatic Monologue: Suppressed Voices in Browning.” Victorians Institute Journal 18, (1990): pp. 29-51.
Woolford, John. Browning the Revisionary.
(New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1988).