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The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies
????????*Cultural Studies Dan Negrut
Robert Browning and the Dramatic Monologue
The present paper makes a text-based analysis of My Last Duchess, one of the most representative poems by Robert Browning in order to illustrate the dramatic monologue technique, starting from the premise that what is un-said in the poem and what can be inferred from within are a lot more important than what is said.
Keywords: The dramatic monologue technique, engagement, detachment, the said, the unsaid.
1. Sources of Inspiration
Robert Browning first published the poem in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics as My Last Duchess and gave it the present title My Last Duchess. Ferrara only in 1849, in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. The poem is illustrative for the official Victorian position on love as the supreme experience of life, a pure, soul-saving feeling, oriented towards marriage and children. While researching the historical background of his poem Sordello, Browning discovered the Este family of Ferrara, particularly the figure of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, the real-life model for the duke in My Last Duchess. His sources most likely included Biographie universelle (1822) – a reference text Browning had consulted on several previous occasions – and Ludovico Antonio Muratori?s Della Antichità Estensi, both of which Browning had also used for Sordello. R. H. Wilde?s Conjectures and Researches concerning the Love Madness and Imprisonment of Torquato Tasso, of which Browning was writing a review in spring of 1842, may have provided further details on Alfonso II, who was Torquato Tasso?s patron. On July 3, 1558, Alfonso II married a 13 year-old young lady, Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici, and left her after two years. Lucrezia was not well educated, and the Medicis? status could be termed “nouveau riche” in comparison with that of the venerable and distinguished Este family (“My gift of a nine-hundred- years-old name”). The Duchess died at the age of 16 and her sudden death caused rumours that she had been poisoned, although a more probable cause of death was tuberculosis. After the death of Lucrezia, the
Duke sought the hand of Barbara, eighth daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and Anna of Bohemia and Hungary and the sister of the Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II. Supposedly the count is the one referred to in the narrative of My Last Duchess as he was in charge of arranging the marriage. The chief of his entourage, Nikolaus Madruz, a native of Innsbruck, was his courier. Madruz is presumably the silent listener in the poem.
The Athenauem reviewer of Browning?s Dramatic Lyrics (1842) in which My Last Duchess first appeared expressed reservations about his style, actually considering that Browning?s strongest points were his weaknesses, complaining about the limitations and the unintelligibility of meanings in the poem.
2. The Dramatic Monologue Technique
Browning?s poetry is primarily dramatic, consisting of a few stage plays and a multitude of dramatic poems of a kind or another, a thing which is reflected by the titles of his shorter collections: Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Dramatis Personae, Dramatic Idyls, etc. Literary critics Woolford and Karlin (1996:38-39) observe that:
Browning himself never used the term „dramatic monologue?. The term seems to have been first used by George W. Thornbury in a collection of poems published in 1857 and first applied to Browning?s poetry in William Stigand?s review of Dramatis Personae in the Edinburgh Review, Oct. 1864. (…) Browning did distinguish between „dramatic lyric? and „dramatic romance?, the former
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????????presenting an emotional or psychological state and the latter telling a story of action. The two categories are present as „Lyrics? and „Romances? in his Poetical Works of 1863, and as „Dramatic Lyrics? and „Dramatic Romances? in the Poetical Works of 1869 and 1888-1889”.
My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue, a form that Browning helped make famous. The dramatic monologue as executed by Browning and others was characterized by a single character – obviously not the poet himself – who delivers his speech in a specific temporal and situational context while interacting with one or more silent auditors.
Browning?s dramatic method is diverse as he worked with a number of dramatic methods. As Woolford and Karlin (1996:41) mention: “there is certainly no such thing as an archetypal dramatic monologue which dominates the field.”
Browning?s taste for the theatrical often led him to choose particularly dramatic situations for his characters: thus, the avaricious bishop in The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed?s Church is on his deathbed, the rebellious monk in Fra Lippo Lippi has just been apprehended in the red-light district by the night watchman, and the duke of My Last Duchess is on the brink of remarrying.
As Robert Woodrow Langbaum (1957:75) mentions:
“The usual procedure in discussing the dramatic monologue is to find precedents for the form in the poetry of all periods, and then to establish, on the model of a handful of poems by Browning and Tennyson, objective criteria by which the poem is henceforth to be recognized and judged”.
The formal criteria for pure dramatic monologue include three features, commonly agreed upon by critics (Woolford and Karlin, M. H. Abrams, Glen Everett):
1. A single person, who is not the poet, using a case-making, argumentative tone, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment. This critical moment is called by Everett the point of entry. Woolford and Karlin (1996) consider that another important characteristic of Browning?s dramatic monologue is the fact that the poem begins in the middle of its action.
2. This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people (the implied listeners or interlocutors); but we know of the auditors? presence and what they say and do only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker. According to Woolford and Karlin (1996), even where the speakers of the poems are nominally alone, they often imagine an audience. (Here, Glen Everett proposes that the reader should take the part of the silent listener, often
perceiving a gap between what that speaker says and what he or she actually reveals and completing the dramatic scene from within, by means of inference and imagination.)
3. The main principle controlling the poet?s choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker?s psychology, nature, temperament and character at a certain moment in his life and the dramatic situation in which he finds himself.
Consequently, as Woolford and Karlin (1996) observe, we cannot reduce the dramatic monologue to a set of generic and general rules, but it remains the case that Browning, as a poet, was concerned with the creation of dramatic speakers and dramatic situations.
Fittingly, My Last Duchess, written in iambic pentameter couplets, marked what was to be a rewarding new direction in Browning?s poetry. Literary scholar William Clyde DeVane (1955:109) observed:
“The poem far surpasses its source in subtlety and suggestiveness. In the character of the Duke, Browning makes his first brilliant study of the culture and morality of the Italian Renaissance … „My Last Duchess? though one of the earliest of Browning?s dramatic monologues, has always been considered one of his greatest…”
This great subtlety and suggestiveness, his obscure references and difficult syntax were actually responsible for some extreme charges of unreadability brought by the critics of 1830?s, „40s, and „50s who said that it was impossible to make sense of his poetry and that he must have gone mad. Referring to these accusations, Glen Everett comes to the conclusion that his contemporaries reacted as if they were facing something new and alien, not knowing what strategies to use in reading Browning?s poems. According to Everett (2003), the rules for reading Browning?s poem are the same rules that apply to schoolboys? games: the participant has to infer the truth without actually being told it, from a set of governing rules.
Thus, the unsaid in Browning?s poems is a lot more important and fascinating than the things that are said, because the unsaid reveals the actual psychology and character of the speaker. Woolford, Karlin and Phelan (2007:735) quote a December 1855 “thank you” letter to Ruskin, a letter which is highly suggestive of Browning?s poetic practice:
“For your bewilderment more especially noted — how shall I help that? We don?t read poetry the same way, by the same law; it is too clear. I cannot begin writing poetry till my imaginary reader has conceded licences to me which you demur at
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????????altogether. I know that I don?t make out my conception by my language, all poetry being a putting an infinite within the finite. You would have me paint it all plain out, which can?t be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you”.
As Woolford and Karlin (1996:55) observe: “Browning?s poetic voice impresses itself on a multitude of differing dramatic situations and psychological states”. The purpose of Browning?s style is to give the impression that someone is simply talking, over-riding and dissolving the versification of the poem, the voice of the speaker being often modulated in such a way as to disguise the effects of metre and rhyme
The powerful, aggressive speaker of My Last Duchess starts very abruptly and violently, taking control of the interlocutor, by asserting his possessive attitude regarding, ambiguously, either the portrait or the woman, or both. Using enjambment, Browning makes verse imitate, as much as possible, the diction and rhythms of human speech, speech which consists of ordinary words in their natural order of utterance:
“That?s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive.
The speaker is a connoisseur and an
aristocrat, obsessed with rank and privilege and control. The Duke of Ferrara, as we can infer from the title, alludes, for the first time in the narrative of the poem, to the fact that his Duchess might be dead, by using the words last and as if she were alive.
The Duke brings ambiguity to a whole new level in the next lines:
I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf?s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. Will „t please you sit and look at her?”
as we do not know whether by the word
piece he refers to the woman or the painting. Unconsciously and involuntarily, calling the piece a wonder now, the Duke reveals more than he wants, the fact that his insistence on control is better satisfied by the portrait, by the artistic representation of the woman, than by the person herself. He prefers the fixity and eternity of art to the mutability of real life. The Duke also mentions his superior status as an aristocrat who is able to command an artist (Frà Pandolf) to work busily a day so that the portrait is finished.
He proves to be even more ambiguous as we do not know who he is addressing, who that you is: is it a second self he is talking to, is there someone in the room and is that someone a substitute for the reader, or is it us, the readers? In order to understand
the poem, we have to employ what Glen Everett (2003) calls engagement, that is to get actively involved in the narrative of the poem, to assume that that you is us, to passively participate in the scene and
listen to
the monologue of the Duke.
The next lines in the poem:
“I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read Strangers like you that pictured countenance, The depth and passion of its earnest glance, But to myself they turned (since none puts
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they
How such a glance came there; so, not the
Are you to turn and ask thus”.
point to the Duke?s aggressive attitude regarding the portrait and the interlocutor. As Woolford and Karlin (1996:167) observe:
“And, as his Duchess appears from behind the curtain when needed, to retire as punctually when the show is over, so the interlocutor, unidentified at this stage, finds himself being initiated into the ritual prescribed for strangers. (…) Just as the Duchess is the „last? (i.e. the latest) in a series, so the envoy is „not the first? to ask about her: the Duke appropriates and stereotypes their identities, enforcing their subordination to his own”.
Now the Duke starts a long list of things he did not like about his last/latest/late Duchess:
“Sir, „twas not
Her husband?s presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess? cheek: perhaps
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”; such
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough For calling up that spot of joy. She had Aheart…howshallIsay?…toosoon
made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate?er She looked on, and her looks went
Sir, „twas all one! My favour at her breast, The dropping of the daylight in the West, The bough of cherries some officious fool Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule She rode with round the terrace–all and each Would draw from her alike the approving
Or blush, at least”.
?The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies
????????Unconsciously, the Duke reveals himself as a tyrannical husband whose wife should have been made glad only by his presence, a wife whose heart should have been impressed only by him and who should have liked and looked only at him. His verbal aggressiveness builds up being fuelled by remembering the fact that she dared compare the noble name of his family with anybody?s gift:
“She thanked men,–good; but thanked
Somehow…Iknownothow…asifshe ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name With anybody?s gift”.
The next lines have a double quality: first of
all, via remembrance, they bring the Duke to the climax of his fury and secondly, he states one thing and does another. He considers he would lower/humiliate himself if he told his Duchess the things that disgust him, but, paradoxically, he does exactly the same thing in front of a stranger:
“Who?d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech–(which I have not)–to make your
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, Or there exceed the mark”–and if she let Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made
–E?en then would be some stooping; and I
Never to stoop”.
The smiles the Duchess shared so generously make him give commands to put an end to that situation:
“Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene?er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive”.
Robert Browning emphasized the uncertainty of the line: “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together” in his comment to Hiram Corson according to which the Duke might have had his Duchess put to death or he might have had her shut up in a convent.
In the next lines, ambiguity clears with regard to the identity of you; we now find out that
that you is actually an emissary sent by a Count to negotiate the conditions of the future marriage between his daughter and the Duke. In order to attain a detached, critical view of the whole poem, we now have to employ the second strategy, of extracting ourselves from the narrative of the poem, a strategy that Everett calls detachment. Again, the Duke, unconsciously reveals his priorities: he is interested in the dowry, not in the Count?s daughter.
“Will „t please you rise? We?ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your Master?s known munificence Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; Though his fair daughter?s self, as I avowed At starting, is my object”.
Another involuntary gesture of stooping
appears in the next lines in which the Duke offers himself to go down together with a person who is socially inferior to him:
“Nay, we?ll go
Together down, Sir!”
But before they are able to continue
negotiations for the future marriage, the Duke points to another paradoxical work of art, symbolizing the brutal male domination of the feminine, of the beautiful, the natural and the frail, a statue of Neptune taming a seahorse, thus sending a very clear message to the Count?s daughter: she should be submissive or she might become his future “last Duchess”:
“Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for
The sophisticated and cultivated rhetoric of the aristocratic and civilized Duke involuntarily gives away the most horrific example of a mind totally mad despite its eloquence in expressing itself. Involuntarily and unconsciously, the Duke reveals himself for what he is: an aggressive and violent egomaniac obsessed by obedience and control. We find out that the duchess was (probably/likely) murdered not because of infidelity, not because of a lack of gratitude for her position, and not, finally, because of the simple pleasures she took in common everyday life. She is reduced to an object of art in the Duke?s collection of paintings and statues because the Duke equals his instructing her to behave like a duchess with “stooping,” an action of which his megalomaniacal pride is incapable.
3. Conclusion
?The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies
ABRAMS, M. H. (2005), Dramatic Monologue. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th ed., Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.
DeVANE W. C. (1955), A Browning Handbook, New York: Appleton Century Crofts, Yale University.
LANGBAUM, R. (1985), The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition The University of Chicago Press. First Edition 1957 London.
EVERETT, G. (2003), Three Defining Characteristics of Browning’s Dramatic Monologues, at, adapted from Glenn Everett, You’ll Not Let Me Speak: Engagement and Detachment in Browning?s Monologues.
WOOLFORD, J., KARLIN, D. (1996), Robert Browning, Studies in 18th and 19th Century Literature, New York: Longman Group Limited.
WOOLFORD, J., KARLIN, D., PHELAN, J. (2007), The Poems of Robert Browning, Volume three: 1847-1861, Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited.
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