The Lover and the Duke
The creation of a plausible character within literature is one of the most difficult challenges to a writer, and development to a level at which the reader identifies with them can take a long time. However, through the masterful use of poetic devices and language Browning is able to create two living and breathing characters in sixty or less lines. When one examines these works one has to that they are quite the achievements for they not only display the persona's of two distinct men but also when compared show large differences while dealing with essentially the same subject.
A brief examination of the structural aspects of "Porphyria's Lover" is needed before further analysis is done. One can break the poem up into twelve stanzas with an ababb stanzaic rhyme structure, though it is most often printed as a block poem. This would make it an alternately rhymed quatrain with a fifth line attached to create a couplet ending. The majority of the lines contain four iambic feet, though a few are nonasyllabic. Five of the twelve stanzas spill into the next stanza, thus detracting from their free-standing integrity. These stanzas are not syntactically self-containing and therefore the end-couplet value is undercut. If we examine the end of the eighth stanza we see that there is enjambment into the ninth stanza.
In one long yellow string I wound,
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.
(Browning, Porphyria's Lover", Lines 39-41)
This does detract from the couplet though it emphasizes the tone, making the understated nature even more sociopathic. This is one example of how this simple tool in itself masterfully accentuates the overall tone of understatement and the impression of lackadaisical unaffected speech. The majority of the words in this poem are monosyllabic which adds to the mood. However, what is more important is that the words that are polysyllabic are quiet and unassuming. They do not break the tense tranquility of the piece. Burrows points out that,
Much of the force of the narrative lies in its almost naïve simplicity and in the corresponding quiet, matter-of-fact tone of voice, a tone which in effect is not shouting Horrible murder! Read all about it!' but murmuring, I am going to tell you a nice little bedtime story.'
(Burrrows, page 53)
Despite the fact that the metrical pattern is often strayed from, some lines contain 3 or 5 stresses, the poem is rhythmically appealing. According to Burrows, "[the poem] suggests the accents and modulations of speech and also remains quietly unemphatic." (page 56)
A similar analysis of "My Last Duchess" is also needed before the two can be compared adequately. The frigid decorum of the Duke is established by the imperceptible, but unfailing, rhyming couplets. The inability for the reader to notice these during recital of the poem is due to the extreme prevalence of enjambment within the work. According to Burrows, "It is decidedly the open' couplet that he uses, and there are many run-on' lines since syntactical pauses rarely coincide with couple-endings or line endings." (page 116) The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter though the rhythm feels more irregular due to the deliberate disregard for the formal couplet pattern. This also creates the sense or beat of regular speech and helps to create the tone of the Duke's voice. The Duke does not seem as formal in this poem (as his created persona suggests him to be normally). This laxness is done in a coldly calculating way creating a visible façade. Burrows realizes that,
The quiet, casual conversation tone prevails throughout the except for one brief moment when the Duke reaches the understated climax of his last duchess's history and his phrases harder into a lapidary laconism.
(Burrows, page 120)
This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
(Browning, "My Last Duchess", lines 45-6)
There is a literary implement that this poem has not contained within "Porphyria's Lover" to any knowledge. This is the use of historical allusion. Louis S. Friedland, through his research, has shown that the Duke is most likely based on Alfonso II, the fifth Duke of Ferrara. (DeVane, pages 108-9) He lived in Italy during the Renaissance, and the similarities are impressive. Alfonso II married a daughter, Lucrezia, of the Medici family. She was not well educated and was from what would have been considered by nobility an upstart family. She came with a sizeable dowry and they married in 1658. Three years later she was dead, and there was a strong suspicion of poisoning. The Duke then went to seek the hand of Barbara, the daughter of Ferdinand I of Spain, and the niece of the Count of Tyrol. The count was in charge of arranging the marriage and used Nikolaus Madruz, a native of Innsbruck, as his courier. The mention of Claus from Innsbruck in the poem is most likely the Duke's method of softening him up, of saying, "I know your people and respect their work."
The similarities between the two poems are skin deep. Both the poems trace the history of a jaded man's obsession with a woman that did not meet his expectations culminating in her murder. From this point the poems start diverging. In "Porphyria's Lover" the Lover is not speaking to anyone specifically, and it is quite feasible that he is speaking to himself after he has committed the act, perhaps, for the purpose of self-justification. The Duke is speaking to the representative of the Count whose ward he is trying to marry. There are, of course, the obvious differences in the class situation of each of these men. The Lover is of lower social position than Porphyria, and because of this she is unwilling to marry him. The Duke is nobility and one gets the impression the Duchess might not have been. She is not grateful for his "gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name." The use of the word gift implies that she has just recently become aristocracy. These class differences are easily seen in the diction and the attitude that is characteristic of each of these men. The intent of the Lover, though brought to action in an insane way, is much more noble than that of the Duke.
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free,
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
(Browning, "Porphyria's Lover", lines 20-25)
His murder of her is the only way that he can think of for them to be together. This is what Porphyria yearns for though she is to weak to break social taboo and marry him. The Duke does not kill the Duchess out of love, but because he is insecure. His ego cannot take a woman that is so visibly strong and democratic in nature. The murder is the Duke's way of removing and affront to his perception of aristocracy, and also of eliminating his feelings of jealousy and insufficiency.
The women in both of these poems are definitely secondary though Browning lets the Duchess become a freer entity than Porphyria. The Duchess manages to escape the Duke's possessive "My" while Porphyria is never really able to escape the Lover's, "she was mine, mine." The Lover's murder results from the fact that he is unable to be with his female ideal due to her weakness while the Duke was oblivious to the fact that he already had this female ideal as his wife. The idealness of the Duchess is evident through the description of her personality. She is always smiling, gracious, and kind to all without distinguishing based on class. The symbols that Browning uses, such as "the white mule" and "the bough of cherries" brought to Porphyria by a worshipper, are traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary. Porphyria is not ideal though she does possess many admirable qualities. The Lover refers to her as "perfectly pure and good." Symbolically we see her positive nature through her blazing up the "cheerless grate" and making "all the cottage warm" which both, cottage and grate, represent the Lover. Her name, Porphyria, as Burrows mentions, comes from porphyry, a beautiful red stone with a lovely glow. (page 59) From this we see that her only flaw is her inability to give herself fully to the Lover due to class and pride. Thus Browning leaves the reader with a greater ambivalence toward her. Through the differences he instills in the characters of the Duchess and Porphyria Browning changes the readers conception of the Duke and the Lover. One is horrified by both of their acts, but is much more tolerant of the dejected and hurt Lover than of the snobbish and misogynistic Duke.
"Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess" are two of Browning's impressive monologues that, through the use of poetic devices, develop unique male protagonists. Evident class differences and social issues arise from these works. "Porphyria's Lover" contains the detail and development that would normally be found in a short story while the much denser "My Last Duchess" could be said to encompass an entire novel. Thus we can see that these brief works both show a unique mastery by Browning of creating the fictional psyche. The bizarre interrelationship between man and woman is fully captured within these works. There is pain, jealousy, rejection and happiness. The majority of the spectrum of emotions associated with love and marriage is contained by these pieces. From them we can learn the nature of love should allow people to conquer class distinction and that marriage should avoid sexist male tendencies. Inadequacy is a feeling that pervades both poems, and is evident through the voices of their protagonists. One can see its horrifying effect immediately. Men need to learn to deal with their possessive and aggressive natures in a way that creates a love that is beneficial to both partners not to just one. Browning, in these works, is painting the side the Romantics before him neglected to.
Browning, Robert, Robert Browning: Selected Poetry, (London: Penguin Books, 1989),
pp. 17-8 and 25-6
Burrows, Leonard, Browning the Poet, (Perth: University of Western Australia Press,
1969), pp. 51-61 and 115-121
DeVane, William Clyde, A Browning Handbook, (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,
Inc. 1955), pp. 108-9