Dramatic monologues vary in length and tone, but each has something that distinguishes itself as a dramatic monologue is by having a fictional narrator, a fictional setting and a turning point, and written for a reader. The characters betray themselves unintentionally through their actions and the things they say, and very often the writers have a purpose for writing the monologue. Robert Browning was one of these, the poet thought to have perfected the dramatic monologue form. The three that I will be looking at are “Porphyria’s Lover,” “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.”
The narrators are fictional characters, but their motives for narrating the monologues are very different. The Duke of “My Last Duchess” is negotiating for a new duchess, and speaking to someone, presumably a loyal devotee to the new lady’s family. The eponymous “Last Duchess” is a painting on the wall that the Duke chooses who to show to, and often it is difficult to see which the Duke is proud of more – the painting, or the duchess, “I call that piece a wonder now.” This is one of the ways that Browning conveys the Duke’s sense of ownership and materialism, another line being, “Notice Neptune, though,” which shows his love for artificial beauty, usually in the forms of paintings, and now the duchess is just another painting to add to the collection, “Fra Pandolf by design.”
The fictional setting of “Saint Praxed’s” is the bishop on his deathbed, speaking to three monks, revealed to be his sons. This is in itself a way of revealing the bishop’s unchristian nature. He is speaking orders for the layout of his tomb, and it is again unchristian to be so preoccupied with material things. He should be giving advice to these monks, but is instead only speaking to them to give instructions on constructing a magnificent monument to his existence, “Well, go! I bless ye,” only thanking them when he knows the job will be done.
“Porphyria’s Lover,” is the retelling of events that happen on a night between the Lover and Porphyria, seen from his point of view, and despite some attempt to empathise with her, “No pain felt she,” it is a one-sided account of a love story. Because it does not have an implied listener and the Lover is reveals himself by speaking his thoughts allowed, it resembles a soliloquy. Here, the reader takes the part of the silent listener.
Each dramatic monologue has some clear cut themes and some appear in more than one. “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” both deal with themes of possessiveness and patriarchy. The narrators feel they have acted correctly in killing their partners, and from the line, “And yet God has not said a word!” it is the woman is in the wrong. This shows the chauvinistic edge of distrust of women in the men, and that they have corrected the women for wronging them, “Or that in you disgusts me,” and that the Duke sees sin in everything that the duchess does, and none of his own. The Duke does not ever reveal anything about his wife’s personality, which suggests he never made the effort to try and understand her. He sees her as an object rather than a person. The two poems are also themed around murder in love. In “My Last Duchess” the act of murder is not revealed until the end, “As if alive” which increases impact.
“My Last Duchess” and “Saint Praxed’s” concern materialism. In “Saint Praxed’s,” a large amount of what the bishop says, on his deathbed, is to do with material things, such as, “some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,” and “Did I say basalt for my slab, sons?” and the Duke likes to show off his objects as well, “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” The Duke feels he is above everyone that his last Duchess smiled at, “My gift of nine-hundred-year olds name was anybody’s gift,” and essentially, that he is above her, “I choose never to stoop.” The Duke is materialistic in his love for all things elaborate, “Notice Neptune, though, taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!”
Obsession also features. The bishop is obsessed with having the best tomb, and has been planning on it for a long while, and had “fought with tooth and nail” to save the burial spot for it. He is also obsessed with the lapis lazuli for his grave, and he mentions it three times. The Lover in “Porphyria’s Lover” is obsessed with Porphyria, and fixates on her hair, “And all her yellow hair,” in the end, killing her with it at he turning point of the monologue, “And strangled her.”
In “Porphyria’s Lover,” the Lover frequently repeats the word “mine,” and this contributes to the patriarchal theme of men owning their women and that he loves the idea of having her. But, from “she rose, and from her form,” to “And give herself to me forever,” the Lover stays in passive voice, “When no voice replied.” This makes it sound as if Porphyria is doing all the work, “She put her arm about my waist” and she is the sinner. The lover also uses the weather to act as a metaphor for the Lover’s emotions of anger and betrayal in the piece, “sullen wind” and “it tore elm tops down for spite.” But she is also the one who can rid his feelings, “shut the cold out and the storm.”
The Duke speaks more conversationally throughout, and when revealing his crime, “Then all smiles stopped together,” he almost treats the line as a joke. He does not take the murder seriously, and obviously feels no remorse towards it, “Herself be lessoned with,” seeing hers as a child that needs correcting. Whilst he speaks to the silent listener, the Duke’s arrogant personality is conveyed through his cold formality, and his unfulfilled desire for his wife to be just as aloof, “too easily impressed”. When the implied listener finally reacts by rising to leave, “Will’t please you rise?” the Duke does not realise that they are leaving due to fear and disgust. He also switches topic easily, from talking about how he gave orders to kill his wife to the meeting with the next proposed wife, showing he has no reservations about disposing of the next one if he needs to.
The bishop is a character who wants his legacy to live on after he has died, and he realises he is losing time. In his monologue, he uses many “ands:”
“And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long…”
This builds a hurried atmosphere, and we understand how the bishop feels. When he begins to reminisce, “Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,” religion is far down on the list, “Saint Praxed at his sermon the mount.”
Browning presents each of the three narrators as sinful, corrupt characters, and this is apparent in what they say and the things in do. One of the biggest similarities between poems is that both the Duke and the Lover, have committed murder, and the bishop is clearly not celibate, which is what he should be. “So fair she was!” shows he once had lusted after a woman. The Duke was not even the one who murdered his Duchess, as he felt too superior for that. Instead he “gave commands.” He speaks of the how she angered him, “She thanked men, good! but thanked …” and it is revealed that all she did was act pleased at simple gifts, and for him to get angry at this, shows his lack of self-control.
The men killed for different reasons. The Duke did so because he grew jealous of the simple action of the Duchess smiling in times of gratitude, “Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked…” This type of behaviour would usually be overlooked, but not with the Duke, who is very possessive of his things. His actions seem more shocking when he reveals the Duchess’ young age, “the white mule.”
Although it is not certain why the Lover murdered Porphyria, it seems most likely because he couldn’t have her, being in a lower social status, “From pride, and vainer ties dissever”. After she has died, he pretends she is living, “I propped her head up as before,” and perhaps in this he finds Porphyria’s presence most reassuring, and that he loves her so much that he would still want her after death. However, he is slightly afraid to touch her at first – he compares opening her eye to “shut bud that holds a bee” - he still finds her beautiful, but is afraid of her “sting,” because she is the wrong.
The Duke in “My Last Duchess” is reassured by manmade items of art such as paintings, or his title. He feels threatened by things he cannot control, such as nature or the Duchess’ smile, “she had a heart – how shall I say? Too soon made glad,” and will dispose of them.
The way in which the bishop speaks changes says something about his disposition - he begins with a quotation, “Vanity saith the preacher, vanity!” then moves on to reminiscing, and towards the middle begins to plead with the monks for the sake of his tomb, “My sons, ye would not be my death?” The bishop clearly has much to say, and knows that there is not enough time to say it all, so will not waste any of it being religious. Some of his lines are shocking because of the way he sexualises objects that are seen as holy: “Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ...,” and his pagan attitude becomes apparent through, “and one Pan/ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off,” and similar lines. He obviously does not have a true bishop’s best interests at heart, and wishes to be remembered for his tomb rather than his achievements.
Most of “Porphyria’s Lover” is written in the poetry form of ABABB, which creates a less tense, more spirited atmosphere. Rhymes are used effectively in the lines, “In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around,” making the subject appear almost as a joke. “My Last Duchess” is in rhyming couplets, which conveys the Duke’s education and desire to perform rather than tell. The poem has enjambments, and when the ends of sentences do not come, this shows that the sentences have to be altered in order to rhyme, and that the Duke is a performer, out to impress. He also asks rhetorical questions and has sudden pauses, which increases the dramatic impact of his monologue.
Unlike the other two, “Saint Praxed’s” features iambic pentameter but blank verse - no rhyme patterns; instead it has interrupted sentences, which builds to his sense of dementia and confusion. By speaking without flowery dialogue, Browning uses the bishop’s lack of sophistication to convey how the bishop is running out of time. This makes it more like a natural speech, and at the moments where the bishop is at his most confused, the poem resembles a soliloquy.
All three men in the monologues are also greedy in their own ways – the Lover, for Porphyria’s love: “And give herself to me forever,” the bishop, for a tomb better than Gandolf’s: “I fought/With tooth and nail to save my niche” and the Duke, for his duchess, the painters, and his material objects: “Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” Browning had opinions on the male-dominated society of Victorian times, and, whilst he does not always write his messages clearly in the poems, explicitly, or implied, he manages to convey the character of his narrators well. Each character has a secret which they reveal in the monologues, and they are dark, disturbing secrets which reveal dark, disturbed characters, but I feel these poems have just reached the surface; there is much more about these characters to learn.