An analysis of the language and imagery in Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess

So, you’ve read the last two posts on the context, form and structure of Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess and now you want to know more about the language… this post will help you understand some of the main ways in which the poet is using language.

There are two real purposes in Browning’s use of language in the poem. One is to create the portrait of the Duke through what he says, and one is to create a verbal portrait of the Duchess (as opposed to the artistic portrait mentioned in the poem)

As always, I’m interested in what Browning is doing and why he might be doing it. I’m conscious always of what it makes me think about the aspects Browning talks about in the poem. On former exam papers, we called this technique and purpose and although the language might have changed a bit, the ideas are the same.

From the beginning of the poem, it’s clear we’ve entered in mid-conversation and that this is one side of a discussion. The word “That” is a pronoun that indicates an object  – a pointing word if you will – that refers to something that has been mentioned before. Thus, it’s clear from the word that there is some preceding context that we’re not aware of as a reader, but it also puts us into an active scene where the Duke is indicating something. Think of “this” and “that” and how they ‘point to’ an object. “That” doesn’t just refer to an object, it can refer to a person as well, in this case, and the first line makes it clear that he is indicating the Duchess, rather than the painting. Browning’s using it as an indicator to talk about something we can’t see, only imagine: the Duchess, not the painting. I don’t know about you, but it feels kind of dismissive and desultory, insulting even, calling her “that”.

We also get the possessive pronoun “my” which sets out his stall straight away: she belonged to him. Or rather, she didn’t. As we learn later, she never truly belonged to him. But the possessive pronoun shows a kind of interesting idea of ownership and belonging, which is picked up through the rest of the poem.

And then “last” – also a little rude, kind of throwaway. It’s like when men refer to their wives jokingly as “The current Mrs Jones” implying that there will be others. It implies an unspoken time limit in a way, which is what makes it sound throwaway to me. Forget all of this “in sickness and in health” business, or mourning periods that went on for years like Queen Victoria’s. It’s careless and there isn’t the remotest sense of grief, sadness or guilt in that word “last”.

It becomes clear that not only is Browning taking on a role, but he’s also inviting the reader to take on one as well: that of the person he is speaking to in the scene. We don’t know whose part we are playing yet – that only becomes clear at the end – but it’s like we’ve been transported onto this stage, in front of this painting, and the Duke has suddenly come to life, talking to us.

In the second line, the phrase “looking as if she were alive” also tells us part of the story: it perhaps refers to the quality of the painting, but also refers to his wife’s life. On the one hand, the painting is so realistic that it literally looks like it might move any minute. On the other, it reveals to the reader that his wife is dead. We actually need this information if we are going to play the part of the marriage broker (which we later realise that we are), since I’m pretty sure the marriage broker for the “next” Duchess would be aware that his previous wife was dead. This kind of double meaning is evident through the whole poem, and you can take many things in a dual way, especially the threats.

Funnily, I said last time that the Duke reminds me in some ways of Hannibal Lecter, and he does here. All these double meanings remind me of Hannibal saying that he was “going to have an old friend for dinner” – normal, obvious meaning is that he is having an old friend around to eat dinner with. Psychopath crazy meaning is that he is going to eat an old friend for dinner.

Here, it prompts a re-reading, a reassessment, as we find out more about the Duke and can see the way he plays with words. (Or, the way Browning makes him play with words).

You might, for instance, on first reading, think that the Duke calls the “piece” a “wonder” because he is grieving and it allows him to remember his wife. Often, people keep photographs of their dead loved ones and the photograph or painting reminds them of how much they loved their husband or wife. They get great pleasure from it because the person is no longer with them. Those paintings or photos are wonderful to them because they allow them to ‘see’ their loved one again. On second reading, we wonder who “that piece” refers to… and it seems to be the painting (well, the way he feels about his wife as we later see, he certainly wouldn’t be calling her “a wonder”) which is our first hint that there is something a little hinky about him. Why on earth would you think the painting was wonderful in itself and not because it reminded you of your late wife, unless the painting has come to mean more than your wife ever did?

Imagine the scene: your loved wife has died. The photographer who took your wedding photos gives you a photo of your wife. Your first reaction is “what wonderful lighting and I love the way the shot is composed!”

You just wouldn’t, would you?

Browning shows us that the Duke certainly appears to be more interested in the painting itself than he is in what it captured. We even get that in the next lines where he says “she” and “her” – it seems fairly ambiguous at points that he’s even talking about his wife and not the painting (some people do use gender-specific pronouns for inanimate objects, like calling cars and boats by female pronouns) If you like, apparently, you can even use “she” to talk about a country, like “Mother Russia” or even your gun. I don’t think that the Duke is using it to talk about the painting, but even so, there’s a real sense that he’s more admiring of the woman immortalised in the painting (and more pleased by the painting itself) than he is about his actual wife. Again, it smells like a psychopath to me, someone who seems to appreciate art, but not life.

On line 3, we have the first name-dropping. Browning creates a real portrait of a man who loves to name-drop artists. Who does that and why would Browning give us this detail? One reason is that it shows the Duke to be more obsessed by names and status, than by his wife. He wants to impress the marriage broker. It’s all: “Look at me, with my original artwork by arty geniuses”. You look at the people who have artwork on their walls… it’s often a status symbol rather than actual art appreciation. Let’s face it: all the people who really love art aren’t likely to have a genuine Picasso or Van Gogh on their wall. You can look at all the people who own original artwork by famous artists and you’ll see that it’s a) rich American business men b) rich Saudi business men c) Kings and the likes d) rich Russian business men or e) massive great big businesses. You can add rich Chinese, Japanese and Mexican businessmen to the list as well. So who owns fancy artwork? People who want to show their power, their wealth and their culture. Not people who truly appreciate art.

That’s exactly what that “Frà Pandolf” reference is designed to do: show the marriage broker how powerful, how rich and how cultured the Duke is. He doesn’t just namedrop once though, he repeats it with “I said/’Frà Pandolf’ by design” as if the negotiator might not have heard him.

And what does it really do? Show us how vain, possessive and foolish the Duke really is. It shows us a man who pretends to have this cultured side, this appreciation of art, this delicacy and ability to recognise fine art, yet it reveals him to be a crass snob who is more bothered by status and possessions than he is by any actual appreciation of art.

On line 5, Browning is using mock-polite language in an interesting way… look at that question, “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” Do you think the marriage broker is of an equal status to the Duke? I doubt it. I doubt too that this is a genuinely polite request, more a “sit and do as you’re told whilst I make it clear to you how it’s going to be…” kind of question. I don’t think there’s any point at which the audience (or in this case the reader) is supposed to say, “no, thanks. I don’t want to look at a painting of your dead wife, thanks.”

However, the way the question is asked makes it seem as if we – the marriage broker – have a choice. I think it’s that question that reveals the Duke’s thinly-veiled threats. He has the ability to make everything seem charming, but really you don’t have a choice.

It also reiterates another very important point: the Duke is clearly in control of who looks at his wife (well, the portrait of her) and it’s his decision who sees her or not. This is seen again when he adds the aside later of “(since none puts by/the curtain I have drawn for you, but I)” which again shows how now the Duke has absolute control over who sees his former wife and who doesn’t. He is in absolute control over her (or the image of her). Ironic, really, since he could not control in real life who looked at her or who appreciated her.

When he says, “for never read/Strangers like you that pictured countenance”, the Duke is reiterating his control: this portrait and the look it captured is very much under his control. He chooses who sees it and who doesn’t.

What I find particularly interesting in the poem is this “pictured countenance” as it seems the Duke is obsessed by the look on his wife’s face, her “earnest glance” and “the spot of joy” on “the Duchess’s cheek”. Either it captures the blush of a woman who is flattered by the attentions of the painter, or the feelings of the painter for his subject, but it captures this very intimate moment between the painter Frà Pandolf and the Duchess.

Now that’s a bit weird.

Either the Duke thinks they’re cheating on him, or he’s angry that his wife was so easily flattered…. whatever was going on, or not, between the painter and the Duchess, it’s a painting that captures a private moment between the two of them.

And this is the painting the Duke chooses to keep.

I kind of wonder if he keeps it behind the curtain so that people won’t ask him why his wife had “a spot of joy” on his face, or if he himself can’t bear to look at this image that is in essence a private moment between the Duchess and the painter. Either way, it’s a weird thing to keep around.

Like… say for instance a famous rock star wrote a song about your girlfriend or boyfriend, when it was clear there were pretty intense feelings between the two, would you buy the limited edition and keep playing it?

That’s a weird, weird thing to do. Whether the Duke thought they were being unfaithful or whether he just thought his wife was a dumb social climber who wasn’t discerning enough to ignore the flattery of a poor artist, why would you keep around an image that reminds you of the one thing that really annoyed you about them?

The only reason I can think the Duke might do this is that the painting by itself (or even the person who painted it) is more significant than the feelings he had for his wife. It emphasises that the painting in itself may well remind him of how much his wife irritated him, but the value of the painting is more than the irritation. Or, he likes being reminded about how much that wife annoyed him. Kind of like keeping a photo of your ex-husband on the mantlepiece just to remember how much wrong they did by you.

Either way, not particularly healthy behaviour.

In Line 11, we also get the little embedded clause “if they durst,” which hangs at the end of the line, meaning that most people are too terrified to ask anything about the painting, or the circumstances in which it was painted. We get the feeling that Browning is giving us an image of a man who wants to paint himself as frightening, how most people “dare not” ask about the painting. It shows a little of the terror that we also see in Ozymandias. Not only that, we see an artist who captures the true qualities of his subject. Instead of capturing the terror that the subject instills in people in this case, the painting manages to evoke the terror that the Duke himself instills in people.

Still, also a bit weird that the Duke thinks that he was in some way responsible for “that spot of joy” even if the rest of it was the annoying flattery by the painter that made his wife blush.

In fact, we then have five lines that depict the relationship between Frà Pandolf and the Duchess:

Frà 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:’

I mean, that speaks to a bit of obsession on behalf of the Duke, don’t you think, to spend five lines speculating about what Frà Pandolf had said to the Duchess to make her blush? And that inane flirtation really needles the Duke. He imagines the kind of compliments the painter might have paid to the Duchess and it really gets on the Duke’s nerves to remember it. In fact, it’s not the compliments that needle him, but the effect they have on his wife. I’d argue that it’s not a particularly private moment between the Duchess and the artist. You’d have to be pretty dumb to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him if he’s the kind of guy that the Duke seems to be. Also, Frà Pandolf says “her throat” which implies that he is not talking TO the Duchess, but ABOUT the Duchess… these are his excuses for not being able to get the exact colour right to the Duke, rather than attempts to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him. Either way, the Duchess finds it flattering, thinking it good manners, “such stuff was courtesy” and the Duke finds it a sign that she is just too dumb to appreciate things as she should. By that, I mean too dumb to appreciate “his nine-hundred-years-old name”.

I don’t know what irks him most: the flirtation, his wife’s reaction, or the fact that the compliments were coming from some lowly painter.

I mean, it’s hardly saucy flirtation, is it? “Your cloak’s covering a bit too much of your wrist, love.” or “that’s a nice bit of light on your neck, darling…”

It doesn’t seem to be the stuff of wildly passionate flirtation, does it? (If you want to see that, dip into some of Spenser’s sonnets where he’s comparing his girlfriend’s nipples to flowers)

And yet… yet the neck and wrist ARE erogenous zones. The Japanese geisha have a whole line of ritualised flirtation involving the nape of the neck and the wrist. And if you think about vampires and which bits they suck… always necks and wrists, the kinky devils. Apparently, and I kid you not, body language experts think that neck and wrist signals can be some of the really flirty stuff.

Now Browning didn’t have body language experts and behavioural psychologists to help him… but those Victorians were also a bunch who covered up and covered up, so that those occasional glimpses of a wrist or ankle were, well, a most massive flirtation indeed.

So whilst at first glance you might think there’s nothing so saucy about what Frà Pandolf is saying to the Duchess, you might find it completely harmless and innoffensive, I think there’s something quite suggestive about it – another story to be told. That said, in the second part of those five lines, he’s quite clearly NOT talking to the Duchess directly, but to the Duke, so the jury’s out on the flirtation or whether it’s just an artist with good manners who wants to see a bit more wrist.

Does the Duke miss this saucy subtext? Does the Duchess? He tells us that she thought it “courtesy”. Either she means just plain good manners, respectful and polite, or that of “courtesy books” which were popular guides to etiquette and behaviour in Renaissance Italy… but the Duke tells us that the Duchess found nothing wrong with this.

All those layers of “he said… she said…” as well, that’s interesting. The Duke is a third wheel in that relationship between the painter and his subject. But we only have his word for what happened, and a many-layered story.

You have Frà Pandolf, who may or may not be a gentleman, who may or may not be flirting with quite serious intentions… or making excuses for why he can’t get the colour right on the woman’s neck.

Then you have the Duchess, who may or may not believe Frà Pandolf to be a gentleman or to have only honorable intentions.

And then you have the Duke, who may or may not believe what Frà Pandolf’s intentions were in flirting with his wife, or even that the Duchess said these things at all.

Confusing, much?

What we can agree on is that it’s a very biased and one-sided account of what happened, where we are asked to make our own judgements about it. You make up your own sub-story.

So was there anything going on between them?

I think not. I think it better suits the poem that the Duke is jealous and controlling. It suits the story better for the Duchess to be charmed simply by the painter, who is perhaps a little free with his compliments in the presence of the guy paying the bills. I like to see the Duchess as an innocent victim in all of this. It serves no purpose if we think she was up to mischief with the painter. Indeed, it may even make us sympathise with the Duke.

We wouldn’t be the first people to be in doubt over the Duke’s nature though. One critic (B. R. Jerman) intepreted his behaviour as ‘witless’, meaning he is simply stupid and foolish, perhaps not even seeing the affair happening right before his eyes. Another interpreted it as ‘shrewd’ and suggests that the character is cunning, knowing absolutely what it is that he is implying (Laurence Perrine)

And behind all of this you have Browning, pulling strings. What do we know about Browning? He LOVED ambiguity. He adored the fact that you never quite knew. And I have to agree with him… it makes it all the more tantalising as a story if we don’t know if the Duke is just stupid, or if he is really just issuing a veiled threat about the behaviours he expects of his next wife. (Although… if you were a marriage broker, would you advise your boss to let his daughter marry this guy? Even with his “nine-hundred-years-old name”, fancy paintings of dead wives and statues of Gods taming seahorses) I think it is very deliberate that we have this beguiling story that we can’t get to the bottom of. It just makes the poem so much more delicious in its intrigue.

Either way, from line 22, we get to the seed of the real source of irritation for the Duke. “She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad, too easily impressed ;” All those fragments we’ve discussed before. This is a seasoned speaker, who speaks easily and fluently (compare it with lines 7 and 8 which end with “countenance” and “earnest glance”) yet here, his speech falls apart. He stumbles. The dashes show us his pauses, his hesitation. Is he trying to find a polite way to talk about her?

And what does he mean? The Duchess liked stuff. She liked things and she was happy. How utterly appalling. “She liked whate’er she looked on”. She liked everything. Oh my word, well, that would make a man miserable! Kind of ironic how many men complain that they can’t choose the right present for their wife and here’s one who likes everything. No pleasing some husbands. We really sense the Duke’s indignation in “Sir ‘t was all one!”

Those monosyllables truly reveal his feelings. He is insulted that she likes everything and treats everything the same. He finds that disgusting. The Duke is deeply offended by the Duchess’s happy nature and the way she likes stuff.

Browning uses a list of things that the Duchess liked (I can imagine her on Facebook, ‘liking’ everything and the Duke watching her in his feed, getting more and more cross with the stuff she’d stick a heart or ‘thumbs up’ on!) and we get a sense of the Duke’s growing frustration and indignation. She liked the Duke’s compliments about what a nice rack she has (as so she should, because he is obviously not a man who finds favour in many things) but she liked sunsets, cherries, her pony… Good Lord, how is a man to cope with a wife who likes watching sunsets, eating cherries and riding a horse?! His list of things she likes seems pathetic when you think that IF he had her murdered, these are the reasons he had her murdered. She liked all of these things, ” – all and each/would draw from her alike the approving speech,”

And he doesn’t stop to think that the Duchess herself might just be being courteous or polite.

Now for the thing that REALLY gets his goat. As if cherry appreciation wasn’t enough. Look at how fragmented this bit is as he struggles to keep his temper in, even now, despite her being dead,

“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.”

Outrageous isn’t it? She just wasn’t grateful enough, wasn’t appreciative enough of his “gift” of a surname. And the Duke is so cross about that. We can see his anger building up through those fragments (which I’ve deliberately put on separate lines so that you can see clearly) The way that ‘MY’ falls at the beginning of a line, even though it is the object of the verb “ranked” and belongs with it in that phrase, on that line, it really emphasises it. It is a personal insult, he feels, that she treats everything the same.

The Duke finds this absolutely and utterly incomprehensible, with the rhetorical question, “Who’d stoop to blame/this sort of trifling?” and becomes even more angry. We see in the poem the way that this anger played out and built up.

So it’s her graciousness in receiving compliments, her appreciation of nature (and perhaps even true “beauty” – unlike the Duke with his obsession with manufactured art) of sunsets and cherries, white horses and the likes, that sets him off, since she doesn’t seem to appreciate his name as much as she should.

So the Duke becomes dictatorial, when he says “to make your will/Quite clear”, to “make your will”… that in itself sounds like a massive euphemism for what the Duke may have done to the Duchess in order to point out what he considered to be the error of her ways. The way he calls her “such an one” I think really stresses his frustration with her, and his loathing of her behaviour. The way the Duke repeats what he said to her, “just this or that in you disgusts me ; here you miss or there exceed the mark” reveals him to be a control freak who wants to ‘iron out’ all the ‘imperfections’ that he sees in his wife. If it is indeed “just this or that” and he finds minor aspects of her behaviour to be irritating, it reveals him to be a very pathetic kind of guy indeed, especially by our standards of relationships. It reminds me very much of a petty, pathetic armchair dictator, who wants to ‘direct’ all of his wife’s behaviour, just as the painter does when he says her coat hangs a little too low on her wrist. It’s like the Duke is trying to ‘mould’ or ‘shape’ the Duchess – despite the fact that Browning paints her as a remarkably lovely person, with her “spot of joy” on her cheek and her love of ponies and cherries. She is a woman who prefers the simple things in life. Although the Duke finds her behaviour to be lacking, his despotic behaviour when pointing out his wife’s every flaw reminds us that our characters and personality, like art, is all a matter of opinion. He is an autocrat who wants everything his way.

What becomes clear is the Duke finds that he is socially superior to his wife, that he finds he has to “stoop” or lower himself to her level. When he says he chooses “never to stoop”, he makes it pretty clear that he himself is perfect, that he finds he has no need to modify his behaviour or compromise in any single way at all, revealing his deep arrogance and vanity. The story then becomes a lesson for us, in the place of the marriage broker. It is an account that reveals that the Duke is making it clear that he will make no compromise and that he expects his next wife, whom you are representing, to be perfect. Like the dictatorial Ozymandias, he “gave commands” and “all smiles stopped together”. That, for the Duke, is the end of the story. He moves from “all smiles stopped together” back to the painting, or the Duchess’s images, “There she stands/As if alive” which not only refers to the quality of the painting, which is incredibly life-life, but is an ambiguous reference to the Duchess’s fate and what happened to make “all smiles” stop.

So what did happen to the Duchess?

Did the Duke order her murder? Are those “the commands” he “gave”?

Is she actually dead? Divorce wasn’t a regular thing in the time that the poem is set, but a marriage annulment could be possible. Another possibility is that she could have simply been to send her to a nunnery. When he was asked about what had happened to the Duchess, Browning said, “the commands were that she should be put to death… or he might have had her shut up in a convent.” (Corson, 1886. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry)

So what does Browning reveal about the Duke?

He is an autocratic monster, who has a façade of an art connoisseur or collector, who collects wives as he collects art. He comes across as a Victorian Bluebeard, a monster who cannot see his own flaws, despite noticing every single flaw of his “Last Duchess.” Browning has chosen someone whose “nine-hundred-years-old” name is about to become extinct, which I find deeply ironic. But did Browning do that on purpose or not? Who knows. It is certainly ironic that this man who finds himself to be such a “gift” is a footnote in history books, completely forgettable except to Italian Renaissance history buffs, except for Browning’s poem. It’s deeply ironic too that Browning, like the sculptor in Ozymandias and Frà Pandolf, has the power to keep the Duke alive and to breathe life into him. Perhaps then, the real power lies in the hands of the artist, the writer or the sculptor, who has the power to immortalise (well, sort of, and if they are lucky!) their subject as well as how they are remembered. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare here, who is largely responsible for how we view Richard III or Macbeth, despite the fact his art is fiction.

What Browning does in the poem is skilfully create an image of a petty, autocratic monster who cannot see beauty where it truly is. Browning’s use of language creates deliberate ambiguities which leave us wondering if the Duke is just stupid and ill-bred, despite his family name, or whether he is indeed a man who has ordered his wife’s death, a petty tyrant who is using the painting to give a subtle threat to the marriage broker that the ‘next’ Duchess better be more biddable and more appreciative of his “gift” of the family name.

The end of the monologue ends in a very business-like way, with a discussion about the bride-to-be. The Duke asks the marriage broker to come with him, putting an end to the viewing, “Will’t please you rise?” And the Duke says that they will meet the rest of the group downstairs. When he says, “I repeat,” he seems to be picking up something he was talking about before, the generosity or “munificence” of the Count, whose daughter the Duke is arranging to marry. It is like he is flattering the broker, saying that the Count is known for his generosity. The mention of the dowry, the money, property or goods that a wife brings with her as a “gift” from her family to the husband shows this to be a business transaction, despite the Duke saying that he is interested in the Count’s “fair daughter”. He comes across as mercenary. His discussion of business and money in such an overt way also comes across to me as being crass and ill-mannered. Goodness only knows who instilled upon me the rudeness of talking about money. Emily Post, one of the most famous people who decided on good manners and wrote books about etiquette and manners, said that it is very vulgar to talk money. Maybe that’s why I find it very vulgar of the Duke to be discussing money. But then he is a very vulgar man. Mind you, I’m of the generation that finds it rude and unthinking to give money as a present, so I’m no doubt hideously old-fashioned and that view of the vulgarity of the money talk at the end is mine and mine alone!

The Duke can’t resist, as he goes, a final show-off moment. Have a look at my wonderful bronze statue of a God taming a sea horse, if you will. I think it remarkably telling, revealing much about the Duke. Perhaps it acts as a metaphor for his relationship with the Duchess, that he too tried to “tame” her or “break” her. Either way, the moment leaves us in no doubt that the Duke is a collector of fine art and likes to show off about it.

What I think, then, is that we have a man who thinks he is cultured, a collector if you like, who has no true appreciation of what is beautiful. He is ill-mannered and snobbish, the worst of the aristocracy. He has not merited his title and his ugly personality is far from refined or cultured. He is a boorish show-off. If you ask me, I don’t think his last wife died of anything in particular. I don’t think the Duke’s words show that he cared about her, only in that she was his possession, in return for his name. He is a colossal snob, who doesn’t realise that his artwork as well as his speech reveals him very perfectly. He is a petty dictator, but he couldn’t even manage to get his wife to bow to his bidding. Kind of ironic that her painting, which he may choose to only reveal to a very select few, is a depiction of her ‘defiance’.

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An analysis of the form and structure of My Last Duchess

Last week, I looked at the context behind My Last Duchess, as it’s such an interesting background to the poem. Although based on historical characters, Browning’s selection of the character and time period is interesting in itself. I think it represents a real shift from the Romanticism of the earlier poems in the new AQA English Literature GCSE syllabus. Browning brings to it his particular skill in bringing characters to life – particularly the ones who are just that little bit twisted!

So… let’s look now at the form: a dramatic monologue.

That in itself gives you a clue. You could have lifted this out of any play.

The purpose of a soliloquy in a play is to share with the reader things that wouldn’t have been revealed to any of the other characters, creating a sense of dramatic irony at times, or revealing deeper insights into the mind of the character. Think of what Macbeth’s soliloquys do. They reveal all those innermost thoughts and fears that he couldn’t reveal to anybody else. They show a character’s preoccupations, desires and fears. It’s kind of like talking aloud on stage.

A dramatic monologue is a little different. It’s one person speaking. There IS an audience, but they don’t reply. You get monologues in a lot of the plays – they’re part of other scenes usually. For instance, Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida gives a very long monologue. Henry V does as well to motivate his men before battle.Their purpose is a bit different. A soliloquy, by and large, reveals the real person. A dramatic monologue might not do so since you can still do a lot of talking and be wearing a kind of disguise or façade to the people you’re talking to.

BUT… there is an audience (onstage). And the person speaking wants something from the audience. They want their support, their forgiveness, their courage, their loyalty. Or they want to impress their power and their wisdom. Either way, the speaker has a very clear purpose, and it’s still a conversation, even if we only get one side of it. That’s the same here. It’s a one-sided conversation. There is a very clear audience (in this case a marriage broker who is here to arrange the marriage of the Duke to his ‘next’ Duchess).

In fact, it’s a role that Browning kind of puts us in. Either we assume the role of the marriage broker, where it’s like he’s making us take a role, a bit like street theatre or audience participation in a stage show… or we are unwitting eavesdroppers on this pair. But, as Browning seems to address the monologue at us, putting us in the position of the marriage broker with the second person address, he definitely wants us to get involved. It’s like he pulls us out of the audience to take the part of a character on stage, which certainly pulls us into the poem and gives us a role. You can’t help but be involved in that. At the moment of the poem, then, Browning is giving a voice to the Duke of Ferrara, and we’re giving ears to the marriage broker.

It’s an interesting question as to why Browning chooses so often to use other people’s voices, adopting a character persona. It’s like a mask for him. Behind the mask of the Duke is Browning. Or, perhaps a puppet master pulling the strings. Personally, I like the idea that he is giving voice to the long-dead Duke, rather than just pulling his strings, but Browning certainly does like to play with narrative voice.

It’s interesting to ask why he does this…. and for me there are several reasons that he might choose a voice other than his own.

The first is that it allows you to be someone else. It’s quite liberating to be able to fall into a role and become someone else, if only for the length of the poem. It allows you to explore other characters. Being the character as well also gives you a better insight. It’s more real. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched something in the theatre, cinema or on television where you believe that the actor becomes the character – they’re that convincing. It allows you to be what you are not.

It may also allow you to explore characters that you have an affinity with, or you find intriguing. It allows you to get under their skin. It does beg the question why Browning enjoys so often writing as crazy psychopaths. I like to think he was just being what he never would be in real life, rather than he was secretly drawn to wondering how it would be to murder his wife for flirting with other men. For this reason, I don’t think of his dramatic personae as alter-egos, other versions of himself. I think that’s Browning’s power. He is so good at giving voice to a character that you forget he is at work behind it. It’s like he IS the Duke.

And that is something you must never lose sight of in the poem. Browning is at work behind every single word. We can’t – and shouldn’t – write about the Duke as if he were alive. Ironic, isn’t it, that the painter brings the Last Duchess to life, and Browning does the same with the Duke? That’s what power an artist has! He can bring the dead to life, just as the sculptor brings Ozymandias back to life, and just as Shelley does too. But… we should always remember that Browning is controlling and manipulating these words, and that the Duke isn’t a real person at all. If you find yourself writing “The Duke…” as if he is a real person, take a step back. You’ve fallen into Browning’s trap of convincing you that the Duke is a real person.

So we have not only a dramatic persona to consider, and how Browning brings the Duke to life, but we also have to consider the role he puts us in as his audience.

The monologue form allows us to do that. It was a form explored also by Tennyson, the other heavyweight Victorian poet. He’d published Ulysses in 1833, and had been using poetry to tell stories for a good ten years before this poem of Browning. It’s by no means Browning’s technique alone, but it’s fair to say he’s a master of it. His aim is not to tell a story but to create a portrait of the man through what he says. He’s a portrait of a type of person, rather than the Duke himself, and we must remember that Browning has added a substantial fiction to the poem. The Duke is both a picture of the petty aristocracy at the tail end of the Renaissance, as obsessed by stature and position as any Gothic hero, and a picture of a man with very deep psychological flaws. Kind of ironic, too, that you have a poem that is in itself a portrait of a man, just as Ozymandias is. It might be about the power of the artist/creator to depict an individual just so, but it’s as much a triumph of the poet as it is the painter Fra Pandolf in recreating the Duchess of Ferrara and the unnamed sculptor in Ozymandias.

As for other aspects of the form, it’s fifty-six lines of rhymed couplets written in a very structured way, with ten syllables per line. It gives it a regularity and a control, which is particularly interesting from a character that is quite controlled in his threat, what he reveals and how he reveals it. The form is perfect for such a measured and calculating man.

It’s also one of the ways by which he creates a very eloquant and cultured speaker. I love that superficial veneer of culture, art and all things highbrow, and then he’s just a plain thug beneath. It’s a split we see often in later Victorian literature like Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde and one that we see in later psychopaths such as Hannibal Lecter. Having good taste doesn’t mean you’re not a base villain underneath. Let’s be clear: Hannibal killed a musician for being out of tune. We’ve got here the same thing – someone who thinks (or seems to think) little of life, and considers himself cultured. I love that mix of civilising influence and brute nature underneath. The meter is one way that Browning creates that calm, cool, collected speech from a calculated man.

Still, we see the marks of “normal” speech in the form: the caesura and enjambment that lead us through it. I’ll look more at the effect of those split sentences and the enjambment when we look at the words and their meaning in the next article, but there are a few bits where I find the use of caesura and enjambment to particularly highlight certain phrases, which you can see here:

… 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. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?

Browning is also using the punctuation to help him out here. Look how broken and brittle those lines seem, how fragmented…

… 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.
Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?

You can see it more obviously here. It’s really fractured. It’s like that veneer is cracking here. His emotions seep through and he can’t keep up that smooth and superficial meter that he had before. For me, the caesura, the enjambment, the verbs split from their object, the staccato punctuation of the dashes, exclamations and questions, the repetition, the monosyllables, it all adds up. The cumulative effect for me is that this is the pinnacle of the poem. However, it’s by no means the only fractured part of the poem. You can see a smoothness and regularity to the first lines, the polysyllabic words, the careful rhyming of “countenance” and “earnest glance” and around about line 21, where we have the caesura before “She had/a heart – ” we get these fractured, broken sentences, heavily punctuated, more heavily monosyllabic as his anger at her grows. With line 47 and “Will’t please you rise?” we have a return to control and calculation. This is by no means the same cool, collected meter as Porphyria’s Lover where the guy doesn’t miss a beat when he’s describing how he strangled a girl with her own hair, because the Duke of Ferrara can’t stop his anger and resentment seeping out.

In terms of structure, the poem is one single place and moment in time (which is one of the things that marks it as a dramatic monologue) and perhaps for that reason, it is one single “paragraph” or stanza, like Stealing The Boat. It encapsulates one single moment… where the Duke is showing the marriage broker the painting. It begins with that and ends as they leave the room. The progression that we see is in fact a disintegration: a disintegration of the calm and measured showing off of the Duke, which he comes back to once again at the end. Kind of ironic that the final image is one of Neptune “taming a sea horse” – an image of mastery and domination, power and control – something he didn’t manage to do with his wife, even in her death. This final moment reminds us of the central theme of the poem: power and mastery. It also reminds us of the crassness of this Duke, name-dropping as if the marriage broker is supposed to be impressed. It’s a bitter reminder of the central themes of the poem: you can possess as much art as you want, but your nine-hundred-years-old name will be forgotten, and you with it, unless some kind poet brings you to life. Like Ozymandias, your power and tyranny is useless beyond the grave.

(This statue is from a different time period, but I think it happily illustrates the kind of statue we end the scene with)

In the next post, I’ll explore the use of language and imagery in My Last Duchess. If you want to make sure you get regular updates, make sure you subscribe to the blog. That way, you’ll get all of these posts delivered to your email account as soon as they’re published.

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An Analysis of Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning

It’s the turn of Mr Browning this week, with a poem that is quite a bit different than that of his wife, Elizabeth. Porphyria’s Lover is no I think of Thee! And talk about love gone wrong. Even Byron’s bitter misery of When We Two Parted has nothing on this twisted love story.

If you ever thought that Psycho was slightly demented, keeping the corpse of his mother around the place, Porphyria’s Lover is not much different. It’s a very interesting poem, not least because of the questions it poses about the context and how audiences would have reacted to it.

Most simply, the poem is a narrative that recounts the night a young girl comes to light up a man’s life, he strangles her and sits with her corpse the whole night. It’s one of his darker monologues, but Robert Browning is the master of the macabre monologue. Whether it’s psychopathic husbands, women who want to poison their lover or men sitting with their dead girlfriend’s corpses waiting for God’s judgement, there’s something for every Gothic taste.

The poem was first published in 1836, making Browning a maximum of 24 years old. It was some nine years before he would meet Elizabeth. Browning is often heralded as a Victorian poet, with Victorian sensibilities, but the “Victorian Morality” was yet to come to life. In reality, Browning sits between the Romantic and the Victorian at this point, and the poem has elements of both.

So what does Romantic mean? This is Romantic with a capital R. Not poems about love. Well, maybe, but that’s not what the word means when we use it to write about poetry. There have been big movements in poetry. The Pastoral painted a picture of a rural life, an idyll free from the constraints of civilisation. The Metaphysical poets tackled God and Angels, and all those big questions about life, religion and love. The Romantics picked up the Pastoral baton and wrote about nature, feelings, those overwhelming feelings that burst forth from you and cause a poem to be written. And the Victorians put paid to all of that with moral ditties about the dangers of women, sex and anything remotely immoral. So this poem, in 1836, falls neatly between the two. Perhaps it is the spontaneous outburst of emotion – and there are certainly lots of Romantic features in the images, which we’ll explore later, but you can also read it as a poem that is overshadowed by Victorian sensibilities and the dangers of lust. If you felt like it. Plus, it has a great and epic question about God. Where is he in all of this?

Let’s explore it a little further.

First, we notice the form of the poem. It’s a dramatic monologue. That’s a marriage of drama and poetry for a start. It reads like a man on stage narrating events, albeit a man on a stage narrating events while his dead girlfriend sits next to him looking at us all. The drama part reminds us that this person is a character, a persona, rather than Robert Browning himself. This isn’t autobiographical (well, let’s hope) and in that way it breaks with the form of many of the other poems in the anthology. In that it is not based on personal events, it is different. It allows Browning to adopt a persona in order to explore the darker sides of love. Much of the poem’s success rests on how he creates this persona, which we’ll explore more thoroughly in exploring the language.

And for that we also pick up on another theme: the Gothic. The Gothic had hit its heights around the 1790s and runs vaguely in parallel with the Romantic. These are runaway thoughts gone mad. Horror, death, insanity, immorality, the unnatural… the Gothic explores all of these. Keats, one of Browning’s Romantic predecessors, wrote a few, including Lamia, The Eve of St Agnes and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Coleridge’s creepy Rime of the Ancient Mariner picks up on weird supernatural elements within a story, just as Browning’s poem does. The point is that Browning was in good company with texts about all that is weird and dark and creepy.

The poem is also a narrative – the persona narrates a story. In that way, it is also different than many of the other anthology poems.

What we don’t have is an audience. There’s no sense of anyone on the ‘other side’ of the poem. It is not addressed to a specific reader and we feel very much that we are eavesdropping on a man, we are his captive audience. Whether or not he is even conscious of us is a question we cannot answer. This is a man speaking without any real sense of anyone listening. That in itself is also different than many of the other poems in the selection. It is worthy of comparison to explore how other poets create an individual voice, albeit their own, and Browning creates something that is much more constructed and much less ‘him’.

When we come to analyse the structure, we find it to be sixty lines of mainly narrative past-tense story-telling that comes to the present tense in the last three lines. That shift to the present tense, with “thus we sit” is particularly powerful at giving the poem both a timelessness (it’s happening now whenever that might be) and yet also a sense of immediacy. It is happening right now and there is not usually the same sense of reflection when we write in the present tense. Indeed, the last line contains the idea of reflection, when he says, “And yet God has not said a word” though it is an event (or non-event). The last line allows us to reflect on the significance of this: the character has done something deeply immoral and yet he has received no judgement, no punishment, no divine retribution. It is a fabulous line because it just makes us really think about how and when evil-doers are punished. We’ll talk more about this line later, but it’s a hell of an ending point. It really provides a springboard into some quite complex theological argument. Is there a God? If there is a God, how can he allow this to happen? He is supposed to see everything, and yet he seems to have missed this. Or, if he has seen it, can he do nothing about it? He, in that case, cannot be the all-powerful deity we believe him to be. Those are some massive theological questions it finishes with. What a way to end.

The beginning is very much given to scene description, which we will explore in more detail when we discuss language and imagery, and from Line 6 onwards, we have the story and some commentary from the persona about his state of mind at each point. We have no idea when the poem starts in this way that it will go on to reveal such horrors. It’s a very “Romantic” scene: Wordsworth’s natural scenes with cottages and all this pathetic fallacy is very much in keeping with the Romantic poets.

The other thing to notice about the structure is that it has indentations every so often. The pattern of these is very regular. Line 1 is to the left, Line 2 is indented, Line 3 is to the left, Line 4 and 5 are indented, and thus it repeats every five lines. It forms quintains of a sort, not unlike Coleridge’s creepy gothic masterpiece, Rime of the Ancient Mariner and like Shelley’s Ode To A Skylark. With its ABABB rhyme scheme, it’s an English quintain, just not set out in blocks.

They don’t make verses though. You can’t put line breaks every five lines: it doesn’t make sense. What does happen is that lines 2, 4 and 5 rhyme, with “awake, lake, break”, and lines 1 and 3 rhyme, with “to-night, spite”. This creates a very measured rhyme scheme. It’s ordered, symmetrical, unchaotic. We’re talking a time when poetry rhymed – it just did – people didn’t write unrhyming poems – but even so, it implies to me a sense of calculation, reflection and calm that is at odds with the violent action within. That’s the same with the words. I think this is Browning’s first way of creating a creepy persona: he seems to be very balanced and even despite all of the things that he has done. The syllabic meter is also very regular: the vast majority of lines are 8 syllables, iambic tetrameter, often used in ballads, nursery rhymes and hymns among other things. Where the meter doesn’t fit this pattern, there is nothing unusual or particularly noteworthy about the lines where it changes. Couple the meter and the rhyme and you’ve got something that seems, on the surface, very, very ordinary. Nothing to see here, just a guy and his regular, metered, balanced scansion and rhyme. Move Along. Your question to reflect upon: why has Browning chosen such a form? Because it allows you to focus only on the content? The form is a vehicle for the content, a showcase that is of no particular relevance? Or it’s significant because it’s just so very, very normal? Personally, I’m going with the fact it’s a vehicle for the content, but it certainly adds to the fact that, superficially, there is something very regular and restrained about the poem, which makes the content even more creepy and unexpected. We’re expecting Wordsworth and innocence with the opening, with the cottage, something pastoral and natural, and what we get is… a story of a guy who has killed his girlfriend by strangling her with her own hair.

When we start to get into the language, we’ve got a very atmospheric opening. Here, Browning is using pathetic fallacy to bring the scene to life and give us a sense of foreboding that something is going to happen. Pathetic fallacy is the personification of nature, and we see that very clearly in line two, with the “sullen wind” coming to life. The rain in itself is ominous, but the word “sullen” is very evocative, creating a gloomy, moody wind and a morose and dismal scene. Line three gives us a little more about the wind, how it “tore” the tree-tops “down for spite” which makes it sound malicious and petty. This is a cruel and petulant wind who causes damage for no good reason at all, just because it is frustrated and it can. That continues in line four, with a continuation, as it tries to “vex” the lake, extending this idea of a petty, destructive and cruel creature determined to irritate and annoy those around it for no better reason than it can. “Vex” works on another level as well, just meaning “to stir up” or “toss about” so it works on a literal level with the water of the lake just as it does on a metaphorical level.

In line 5, the main character is introduced and the poem becomes personal with a first-person narrative. We have no idea who this person is. Is it the poet? Is it Porphyria? Is it Porphyria’s Lover. We can only rule out some of these options as the poem develops and we realise it’s a dramatic monologue rather than autobiographical. As for whether it is Porphyria or their lover, we can only guess for now – though our questions are quickly answered in the next line.

The persona in line 5 is moved by the weather, by the wind. Like the Romantics in Wordsworth’s Michael and in The Ruined Cottage, we find a character deeply influenced by his surroundings. The winds have stirred up a passion within him, he has a heart “fit to break”. This, with the weather, creates a gloomy, emotional mood. The wind has stirred up strange passions in his soul.

At this point, Porphyria “glided in”. The verb used to describe her movement suggests that she is light and airy, yet unperturbed by the winds and the rain. She sounds ephemeral and almost ghostly, barely human. Most humans don’t glide. It reminds me a little of the sonnets, where the objects of the poets’ affections often moved in such a way, to evoke angelic movement. Except for Shakespeare’s. She “treads” on the ground. But there’s something that marks her already as something of a goddess, an angel, something not of this earth, just from this verb.

And what does this mysterious woman do? She literallly lights up his life. She shuts “the cold out”, changes his humour. Though she is only warming the room as she lights the fire, we get the sense that she is doing it to the narrator too. Come on baby, light my fire. The fire in our hearts is something of a cheesy cliché these days, but this is what she does. She doesn’t speak, just shuts the storm out and lights the fire. Once again, the lack of speech makes her seem spectral in some ways, not of this earth. This silence is an image that is picked up at the end of the poem.

What follows in lines ten to thirteen is a kind of Victorian striptease. Okay, it’s not very exciting, but she takes her cloak off and her shawl, takes her gloves off and her hat, and lets her hair down. It’s very prophetic, this hair. It becomes the instrument of her death. But she is casting off all of the outside world and becoming herself. When we use the phrase “let your hair down”, we mean to free yourself, to be liberated, to be free from social convention and to be yourself. You’ve all seen the sexy secretary in movies and music videos who unpins her bun and shakes out her locks. This is the same idea. She shakes off society and social convention – to wear your hair up – and she becomes at once relaxed and “herself” again.

This puts the narrator into a kind of trance. She speaks to him, but he does not reply. We get the feeling that it is Porphyria herself who is very much in charge of what is happening and what she is doing. She put his arm about his waist, she presents this bare shoulder to him, encouraging him to put his head on her shoulder. It’s all very flirtatious. And remember, times have very much changed. What we might think of casually provocative would have been incredibly provocative in this age. We’re approaching the age of Queen Victoria where people put skirts on chair legs in case people found a chair leg to be arousing. I’m reminded of the geisha girls of Japan who had only to show the nape of their neck, or a turn of the wrist, to send men into palpitations.

Then she tells the narrator that she loves him. However, she is unable to give in to her passions and we get a sense that her conscience is telling her not to get involved with the narrator. Honestly, it’s a bit hard to know whether she intended only a physical relationship or if she meant marriage or something more moral, but either way, she is “too weak” to set her “struggling passion free”, no matter how much she wanted to. The reasons she gives are “pride” – maybe she is of a higher social class than the man, maybe he is an outcast or a misfit. Either way, she is too proud to give in to her love for him. It also has another little complex bit, “vainer ties dissever”. “Dissever” is simple – it means to sever, to cut, so she can’t cut whatever these “vainer ties” might be and give in to her desire. “Vain” can relate to pride in appearance, which picks up on the “pride” which stops her getting involved, but it also means “trivial” or “pointless”. This, I suspect, is the narrator’s view and his words. It’s his interpretation that what stops her going further is that she is prevented by pride, by social conventions which he finds to be “trivial” or “vain”. There’s no indication that she herself said this to him. It’s just his opinion that she won’t give herself to him because she is too worried about how it will look.

This said, over the next few lines, he comes to realise that Porphyria “worshipped” him, and that it is his choice as to what to do. Should he go further and claim her? From being passive, doing nothing, not even speaking, he is now faced with a conundrum. She has come through “wind and rain” to see him, when he looks at her, he sees that she is “happy and proud”

And although the rhythm and scansion stay the same, there are a series of caesura and enjambment that mess with the natural rhythm:

Be sure I looked up at her eyes

Happy and proud; at last I knew

Porphyria worshipped me; surprise 

Made my heart swell,

Those two semi-colons make the lines fall a little wobbly in terms of how you read them. Not only that, but the scansion is a little different

Be SURE i/ LOOKED up/ AT her EYES/

HAPpy/ and PROUD/; at LAST/ i KNEW/

PorPHYri/a WOR/shipped ME;/ surPRISE

Made MY heart SWELL,

I’m not happy with this scansion, but there is one thing that is true: HAPpy and PROUD changes the rhythm a little. We’ve also got a nine-syllable line with “Porphyria worshipped me; surprise” and just that tiny moment, the rhythm is a little different. Just a tiny little bit. It’s like his heart beat adds a beat and just for one tiny second, there’s a change.

At this moment, when she belongs to him, he “found a thing to do”. The way this sounds doesn’t even make it seem as if he wasn’t even in charge of his thoughts. It sounds very strange. He found a thing to do, and that thing was murder her. Normally, you’d think the choice would be “kiss the girl” or “don’t kiss the girl”, not wrap “all her hair” around “he little throat”.

So we then are forced to ask ourselves why he makes this choice. And remember that one of the original titles for the poem was Madhouse Cells. This man is insane. Or, at least he has been taken there because people think he is. The idea might have been that Browning wanted to give a voice to the people who live in the asylum. Even so, we may still speculate that it is at this very moment that he finds her the most beautiful and in killing her, he stops time and preserves the moment. There are whole realms of psychological analysis you can put into his reasons: is he trying to stop her from sinning? Is he himself trying to preserve her at this moment before she “spoils” in kissing him? There are even lines of thought that suggest that she is ill (Porphyria is a blood disease and in calling her ‘Porphyria’ is he saying that he knew it was his time to euthanise her?!) Here’s the thing though. This is not a psychology essay, and this is not a real person (although it is loosely based on a real story) so analysing why he did it is just going to take up time. Why he did it is ambiguous. We just don’t know. I love the fact that we are left to puzzle over it though.

And, if you ask me… a lot of it is to do with “preserving” her before she sins. Those Victorians were well on their way to bizarre consequences of repressed desire. The bit that makes me think this is actually a professor I had… she had this uncanny ability to show you the repressed desire in a lot of Shakespeare, in Victorian poetry. If there was something saucy to be had out of reading a poem, she found it. If truth be told, she ruined a lot of things for me and I can never, ever read Tennyson without feeling a bit yuck. But in fact, Tennyson is a great comparison here. The Lady of Shalott. There she is, sitting in her virginal tower, unable to experience life at all except by proxy (she can only see it via a mirror) and what happens when she sees famous lover Sir Lancelot? Or, more precisely, when she sees Lancelot’s “helmet” and “plume”? (Cough) she goes and throws herself in a river. And what happens here? A woman on the verge of sexual awakening is killed before she can fulfill her desires. By the way, The Lady of Shalott was published three years before Porphyria’s Lover, so it’s entirely feasible they may be preoccupied by the same idea. The blooming of a flower is also a very Victorian symbol for a girl coming to sexual maturity. Sorry, I know. It’s a bit much. Between Elizabeth Barrett Browning wanting her lover to “shake his boughs” and this, you’re probably thinking that English teachers have all got sex on the brain. Not so. It’s the Victorians, I promise you.

So, you can imagine how the simile “a shut bud that holds a bee” works. Birds and the bees anyone? I just can’t read those lines and shake the thought that it’s a rather graphic image that conjures up… well… lady bits. Sorry. Otherwise, what even is the need for this simile? It’s not to do with the previous line – since that’s about her feeling no pain. And he says “as a shut bud that holds a bee, I warily oped her lids”. Well, is he describing how delicately he opened her eyes, like you would delicately open a bud that has a bee trapped inside? That simile makes no sense to me. It’s this very weird and sexually evocative simile that makes me thinks he killed her before she could “blossom” – perhaps to preserve her innocence. Though, with all the shoulder-baring and the murmuring, I’m not entirely sure she’s all that innocent, but hey. She certainly seems ripe for the plucking, so to speak.

That’s my two-penneth about why he kills her.

It makes sense especially when he looks into her (dead) eyes and sees that they are “without a stain”. That works on a literal level – there’s no sign of her having been killed (what CSI would no doubt call petechial haemorrhaging) but on a metaphorical level, she’s still pure.

Only when she’s dead does he kiss her, and his kiss is “burning”. It’s almost like he does it to save her from him. He is now the active character and the roles are reversed. He puts her head on his shoulder, and then it moves into the present tense: here he is, still sitting with her dead head on his shoulder.

But we still are left with other puzzles. Why was this her “darling one wish” to be heard? Surely she didn’t wish to be killed (or maybe, if she was ill already perhaps… maybe) so it’s his interpretation that she was “asking for it” and wanted to be killed? I’m left wondering why her head “once scorned” this scenario – why would she scorn him? Does this go with the fact she felt too good for him, that she was “proud” and bound by “vainer ties”. Has he killed her for this? Who knows.

What we are left with then is a weirdo who killed a woman who loved him, and who is sitting with her waiting for a judgement from God, who hasn’t said anything.

What I love most about this poem is the puzzles it presents: why he killed her, why she was too “proud” to give in to her urges. I love the way it takes some very Romantic pastoral images – the storm, the cottage, the innocent girl, and it gives them a creepy Victorian lesson in morals. I love the way it leaves you wondering if this is some kind of Victorian lesson about why you should never go off with strange men and give into your urges, or whether it’s Robert Browning giving us a bit of Gothic shock-horror. I love the measured voice and the calm of the poem, its neatness and order, and the way that under those very still waters lies a predator. And mostly I love the fact that there is a whole lot to say about the poem. You’ve got to give the Brownings credit: they certainly don’t make it easy for you to puzzle out what’s going on. Love it!

Ultimately, if you ask me, I think it’s something very similar to this song from Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. Innocent young girl on the brink of womanhood preserved at that moment in time before she “spoils.” All very repressed and Victorian.

I hope you enjoy this lovely puzzle of a poem. It’s so very open to interpretation for the whys and wherefores that it will no doubt frighten a lot of students (and teachers) but it makes for great responses.