Browning Monologues Essay, Research Paper
Consider the range of characterisation in Browning’s dramatic monologues and the poetic methods he employs to portray his speakers. Some are written in rhyming verse, use metaphors, et cetera, but for what reason? What is the writer trying to achieve and how successful is he?
Robert Browning (1812-1889) was an English poet noted for his mastery of dramatic monologue. He was born in London, the son of a wealthy clerk at the bank of England, he received scant formal education but had access to his father’s large library of about 6,000 volumes. Though initially unsuccessful as a poet and financially dependent on his family until well into adulthood Browning was to become a celebrated Victorian poet. In some of his finest works people from the past speak their thoughts and reveal their lives to the reader through the ……?
The poems I will be taking into account will be:
‘Porphyria’s Lover’ from Dramatic Lyrics, 1842
‘The Laboratory’, 1844
‘My last Duchess’, from Dramatic Lyrics, 1842
‘Andrea del Sarto’ from Men and Women, 1855
‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ from Men and Women, 1855
All these poems are presented from the viewpoint of an individual explaining their actions. The speakers all consider their actions justified, though only Fra Lippo Lippi has reason to explain himself to anyone.
These poems use different poetic methods to form the character of the speaker. The rhyme schemes vary from obvious, as in the rhyming couplets of ‘The Laboratory’, to subtle, as in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ to an absence of a rhyme scheme as in the blank verse of ‘Andrea del Sarto’.
Also there are many uses of alliteration, assonance, enjambment and onomatopoeic words to draw our attention to areas of the poem. Similes and metaphors are employed throughout to create images that reflect the speaker or their conduct.
The speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is possessive, a psychopath without conscience over his actions, though this is not entirely evident to the reader at first due to the steady structure and poetic language used at the beginning of the poem. Browning has used the rhyme scheme to help form the reader’s impression of the speaker, it is a rigid 5-line scheme but well concealed by using enjambment to lead one line into the next, and by the absence of separate stanzas to divide the poem. This presents a slow constant rhythm, which tells the reader the speaker is calm. The poem flows like a continuous train of thought, the speaker is obviously contemplates and is deliberate in his actions. This is why we are shocked when the speaker, in the same tone, tells us,
‘…all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around
And strangled her.’
The lack of emotion which the steady rhythm conveys is very important in the characterisation of the speaker as it shows the speakers state of mind. Had the rhythm broken and quickened at dramatic moments the speaker would seem more impulsive and insane, but instead his calm mediated manner makes him almost a pathetic figure. He arouses pity, it seems as if he cannot recognise that he has done wrong, he is a man at peace with his actions.
Though Browning surprises the reader with the murder of Porphyria, the imagery used at the beginning of the poem does give us a hint towards the mental imbalance of the speaker,
‘The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm tops down for spite
And did its worst to vex the lake’
The speaker’s view of the storm, that it was spiteful, helps to form the character. The fact that he feels this shows he is sulking for some reason and is transferring his feelings to the storm.
Assonance is used to draw attention to other imagery such as,
‘As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids’
The short vowel sounds in ‘shut bud’ give the simile a harsh sound and betray the murderer’s superstition that in her eyes he will see the last vision of her murderer ready to affront him like an angry bee. Alliteration is also used in this way to draw attention to moments that say a lot of the speakers character such as’
‘…her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss’
The alliteration draws attention to the forceful kiss he gives her, strong enough to raise blood to the surface of a dead person’s skin, which he interprets as her blushing with happiness. It shows that the character does not seem to grasp what he has done, he simply thinks he has found a way of preserving their happiness forever.
‘The Laboratory’ is also a poem about a murderer, but a different type to Porphyria’s lover. The murderess in ‘The Laboratory’ has a very different reason for murder, to eliminate a rival at the King’s court. This killer premeditates the murder and means to hurt her rival, but like Porphyria’s lover does not seem to consider her actions fully and takes a childlike approach to the murder. These differences in character are reflected in the poetic methods that Browning employs to portray his speaker. The rhyme scheme is the first most obvious difference. Like ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ the rhyme scheme is rigid but it is unconcealed by enjambment and less complex. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ has an ABABB rhyme scheme whilst ‘The Laboratory’ uses rhyming couplets and separate stanzas. Also the rhythm of the poem changes, as the speaker becomes excited. Long slow vowel sounds are used at the beginning,
‘Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
May gaze through these faint smokes curling whitely’
When she begins to become excited at the prospect of the poison that is being created for her the pace quickens and the vowel sounds shorten,
‘But to light a pastille, and Elise, with her head
And her breast and her arms and her hands, should
This helps to characterise the speaker as impulsive and erratic along with the contradictions of her desires. Onomatopoeic words are also used to add to this impression of excitement such as,
‘Brand, burn up, bite into its grace’
The speed of the rhythm at times along with the rhyming couplets at times makes the speaker sound quite childlike at times.
Onomatopoeic words are used though in ‘Andrea del Sarto’ to create a completely different effect,
‘There’s the bell clinking from the chapel top’
This time the onomatopoeic word is an anti-climax, Andrea’s life is anti-climatic and the onomatopoeia has been used as a reflection of this.
Unlike the other two speakers though who we pity more than dislike Andrea is an antipathetic character, which is an achievement of Browning’s because unlike the other two speakers he has done nothing wrong. He is even referred to as ‘The faultless painter’ in the subtitle, though we realise that there are no errors in his hand with its matchless skill, there is in the soul that directs that hand. The reason we detest Andrea by the end of the poem is because although he recognises his faults of character he doesn’t address them or take blame and adopts a very fatalistic attitude to his life,
‘All is as God over-rules’
Similarly as in the other poems the rhythm also says a lot of the character. Andrea’s sentences are often short and break off and the verse is blank which make the speaker seem dull and not very articulate, unable to structure his thoughts. This is backed by the imagery when creating the impression of Andrea; Andrea is often linked with the colour grey, which is bleak and dull. Colour is also used to highlight Andrea’s greatest fault, when he stole the money the king of France gave him for artwork to build his house,
‘The walls became illuminated, brick from brick
Distinct, instead of mortar fierce bright gold’
The brightness of the gold is a strong contrast to the grey his achievements are associated with in his mind and highlights the greatness of his misdemeanour compared to his moderate achievements.
Fra Lippo Lippi though as a character is like the reversal of Andrea, his paintings are criticised for the amount of life in them rather than lack of it. Lippi paints a world of perceptions rather than the intellectual abstraction of it which is seen as far to realistic to be inspiring religious feeling. Lippi, unlike Andrea believes in his painting, whilst Andrea aims to achieve merely technically perfect paintings Lippi can be considered a great painter as his paintings contain soul and inspire the viewer that the beauty of a higher reality is made manifest through the appearances of the world.
The tempo and rhythm characterise Lippi as highly articulate with highly strategic changes in tone towards the watchmen and he has the ability to quickly swap between pleading to cheeky to slightly aggressive depending on the reaction he receives, unlike the monotone Andrea. The life and gaiety that Lippi is depicted with is implicit in the jigging refrains, which run though the poem.
Lippi is the only character from any of the monologues who is in a situation where he has been forced to explain himself, yet he is the only character who manages to explain his actions. We sympathise with his mistakes and can understand that a man forced into religion through poverty may be excusable of his misdemeanours, Porphyria’s lover is the only other character who arouses our sympathy, though he because of his state of mind rather an understanding of his actions. The Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ though is the character hardest to relate to, he is the one character not to repent his actions, be able to explain them or to seem to have the inability to grasp them. The Duke is portrayed as arrogant, callous and solipsistic.
One of the key poetic methods used to characterise the Duke is the repetition of certain words. The words; I, me, mine, my and myself begin to stand out as you read the poem because they are used so much in the Dukes speech, this immediately reflects to the reader the Duke’s self-centred view of the world. This is backed up with the use of assonance to draw attention to certain phrases,
A heart- how shall I say?- too soon made glad’
The long slow vowel sounds sound emotionless and flat, which is a cold tone to take when talking of his late wife’s happy nature. The language used also reflects his character well,
‘…Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt
Whene’er I passed her’
The use of the word ‘passed’ shows how little time the Duke spent with her, yet he still fully expected to be the only receiver of her attention. The ending shows fully though how power-mad the Duke is, he finishes by name-dropping and showing off one of his prize art-works. The Duke finishing in this way is reminding the listener of his power and wealth and how he is unanswerable to anyone for his actions. This also makes us dislike the Duke more, all the other speaks desperately need something to fulfil themselves, whilst the Duke has everything, power, money and a pleasant wife yet he still demands, and gets, more. The Duke is abusing power whilst the other speakers have no power to abuse.
Browning’s characters are very different in their natures but are also very similar. Three killers as different as Porphyria’s lover, the speaker in ‘The Laboratory’ and the Duke are similar as they are all killers due to jealously, but this jealously provokes very different feelings in the different characters. They vary from a megalomaniac to a psychopath to someone acting on childlike ideas and whims. The two painters are similar also has they both live from means which they have no rights to use, though one deceived people out of need and the other stole due to greed. The reason these characters can be so distinct simply due to their speeches is because of the various poetic methods used to represent them. Browning made his poetry compete with prose, and used idioms of ordinary speech in his text. He was also highly skilled at concentrating his meaning into very few words, using imagery to reflect the character. Such as how Andrea’s compliments to his wife are all backhanded and add to the impression of him being a poor conveyer of his feelings and how weak he is. Such as his compliment to Lucrezia,
‘My serpenting beauty’,
though Andrea is presumably referring to her curves and suppleness of youth the serpent is also widely recognised as a manipulative and deceitful. A true master of the arts would be expected to have a better imagination and grasp of imagery. This poem also particularly demonstrates Browning’s mastery of dramatic monologues as he has written in blank verse and written in the tone of a dull and lifeless man but still creates a deep dramatic monologue that reveals a lot more through it’s poetic methods employed in it than the speaker actually tells us. The way such different portrayals are formed of each character show us how successful Browning has been in using different poetic methods to convey each characterisation as a lot can be established simply from the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the poem and other poetic methods used before even analysing the speaker.