Victorian poets implement “experimentation with narrative and perspective, the dramatic monologue, [and] the use of visual detail…to represent psychology in a different way” in their poems (“Victorian” 997). Robert Browning meets this claim in his dramatic monologues “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover,” and through his unique insight into his narrators’ minds, he suggests that men value possession and power more than love, equality, and other human life.
Browning uses the dramatic monologue to bring readers closer to his narrators and to express inner emotions that can be hidden in third-person narratives. He introduces his characters soon after a meaningful event has happened in their lives and establishes the main figure’s response to the moment. “Porphyria’s Lover” takes place after Porphyria’s death, and now the lover’s “shoulder bore Her head, which droops upon it still” (51-52). This final reaction to Porphyria’s death confirms the lover’s insanity. He does not show remorse for killing Porphyria; instead, he imagines that she is “smiling” and that he has done the right thing in killing her (52). Without the help of his narration, the reader would not recognize his thought process as easily, which could exemplify his insanity but would hide his disturbing ability to plot and plan what he believes are rational actions.
In “My Last Duchess,” the reader becomes the emissary listener and is directly addressed by the duke. This perspective encourages readers to engage themselves in the dialogue as if they were participating. If the emissary recounted the story, he could easily forget important details such as the duke’s selective memories or his emotional reaction to them, such as the duke’s jealousy and resentment when he remembers how the duchess did not appreciate his “gift of [a] nine-hundred-years old name” as much as her other gifts (33). If it were up to the emissary to tell about the event, the work might not exist. He could view the late wife’s portrait with as much triviality as the duke presents it and barely mention the art or wife at all. If the emissary narrated, he might also focus on details that more directly relate to him. He might remember the duke’s subtle orders disguised in questions when the duke asked, “Will ‘t please you to sit and look at her” and “Will ‘t please you to rise?” (4, 47). He might also be distracted from the duke’s dialogue due to his surroundings, presumably grand if the duke has a collection of art that includes a bronze work of Neptune, or personal thoughts relating to his own life or forthcoming business transaction (50-54). If an invisible narrator explained the story, the focus on the duke would likewise weaken in order to include details such as setting, the duke’s appearance, the portrait, and the emissary.
Though lengthy physical descriptions and elaborate settings might distract from the main action, Browning still uses “detail to construct visual images that represent the emotion or situation the poem concerns” (“Victorian” 997). In “Porphyria’s Lover,” the lover describes the discordant weather outside saying, “[the sullen wind] tore the elm-tops down for spite, And did its worst to vex the lake: I listened with heart fit to break” (3-5). Readers can sense the lover’s tension through his use of words such as “sullen,” “spite,” “worst,” and “vex” and identify the overall mood of the poem from the declaration of the lover’s breaking heart.
Porphyria’s description also illuminates the lover’s emotions toward her. When she is alive, he says that she is “pale” and “white,” making her seem sickly and weak (17, 28). He then justifies her murder by saying her “cheek once more Blushed bright” and she had a “smiling rosy little head,” using warmer and livelier descriptions (47-48, 52). He believes that he brought Porphyria to life by killing her because they can be together without the “sickening” social pressure that he references in line 24 to or her loss of purity.
In “My Last Duchess,” the duchess’s portrait is the visual portal into the duke’s emotions. As he looks at it, he remembers various gifts his wife received such as “the bough of cherries some officious fool Broke in the orchard for her” or “the white mule She rode with round the terrace” (27-29). His memories cause him to admit that he wishes his could have “skill in speech” so that he could tell her, “Just this Or that disgusts me; here you miss, Or there exceed the mark” (35-39). The portrait provokes the duke and causes him to reveal his jealousy for his wife’s affections and faults he had with her.
Browning ends the poem by moving the duke’s attention to another piece of art and leaving the portrait behind to be once again covered by a “curtain” (10). The bronze piece shows Neptune “taming a sea horse” (55). This visual representation summarizes the poem, as it depicts a god taking control, much as the duke believes he nobly controls and keeps his wife by “taming” or killing her.
Browning uses his monologues to indirectly criticize social conditions. One issue that appears in both poems is women’s roles. Victorian women are expected to show “purity and selflessness” (Victorian 992). In “My Last Duchess,” the duke criticizes his late wife and accuses her of being “too soon made glad” and acting indiscreet, her attention going “everywhere” (21-25) He expects her to “create a place of peace when man could take refuge” and devote herself to his happiness (“Victorian” 992). The duchess defies this “ideal” to enjoy attention and fawning from admirers that bring her gifts (25-29). When the duke stops all smiles, he demonstrates man’s need to extinguish female rebellion or freedom in order to uphold masculine pride and his preserve power in domestic life (46).
Porphyria’s lover also attempts to preserve female norms, and in Porphyria’s case, he succeeds. He proclaims, “at last I knew Porphyria worshiped me: surprise Made my heart swell, and still it grew when I debated what to do. That moment she was mine, mine, fair, Perfectly pure and good” (32-37). His surprise and delight illustrate men’s hunger for dominance and ownership, and he praises her feminine purity and goodness. He combines these desires and praises into violent action in order to preserve Porphyria as he knows her at that moment and prevent her from straying from him or lose her angelic qualities.
Dramatic monologues challenge readers to interpret how a poet’s personal opinions project through his narrator. Browning’s allusions to female roles in society are not violent, metaphorical ideas of how he thinks gender discrimination should be addressed. Instead, he uses aggressive narrators to shock his audience and impress on them sexism’s horrific absurdity.
“Porphyria’s Lover” also parallels working conditions for the impoverished working class. Victorian “men, women, and children toiled in the mines and factories were unimaginably brutal” (“Victorian” 983). Like the workers, Porphyria “kneeled and made the cheerless grate” and worked to please her lover (8). The lover is like the mine and factory owners. He does not reply to her when she “called me” and he makes no effort to return her devotion, much-like the mine and factory owners who expect their weaker, smaller, innocent child workers to “open and close ventilation doors” and “drag heavy tubs of coal through low-ceilinged mine passages for sixteen hours a day” (“Victorian” 983). Like many of the young workers, Porphyria’s work ends brutally. Her lover remembers, “all her hair In one long yellow string I wound Three times her throat around And strangled her” (38-41). As Porphyria endangers herself by revisiting her estranged lover and dies by her own hair, the workers continue their labor until it kills them, pursuing an income to live off of as Porphyria pursues love.
Porphyria’s lover reassures himself that he does the right thing by saying, “No pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain,” by thinking that death is what she wanted so that they could be together, and by observing that “God has not said a word” and therefore his sin, if a sin at all, was not so bad (41-60). As the lover clears himself of blame, so do the mine and factory owners. They “regarded themselves as innocent of blame for such conditions, for they were wedded to an economic theory of laissez-faire, which assumed that unregulated working conditions would ultimately benefit everyone” (“Victorian” 983). They justify their greed by ignoring problems that could negatively affect their own profit.
Robert Browning uses dramatic monologues and visual details to present unique insight into his narrator’s minds. Though the duke and the lover act unrealistically or irrationally, their simplified actions are Browning’s social critique of Victorian life, corrupted by man’s need for control at any cost.
Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1255-1256. Print.
Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1252-1253. Print.
“The Victorian Age.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 983-997. Print.