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How Effective an Evocation of Menace are the Dramatic Monologues ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’

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‘How sad and bad and mad it was – but then, how it was sweet! ‘ (Robert Browning – Confessions). The very form of these poems – dramatic monologues – lends itself to an exploration of psychology. In both ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the character of a solitary speaker gradually reveals his actions and personality to an unnamed audience. In both cases, the narrators have committed the crime of murder.

A menacing premise for speech in itself, it is the tone in which they reveal their misdemeanours, the circumstances surrounding their actions and their responses to their crimes that make these poems particularly chilling. However, the similarities between the two poems are skin deep. Both trace the history of a jaded man’s relationship with a woman that culminated in murder. To see the differences, first you must look at the characters of the men. The poem ‘My last Duchess’ is loosely based on historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara who lived in the 16th Century.

This poem tells of a Duke telling an emissary who has come to negotiate the Duke’s marriage. The Duke then begins reminiscing about his previous Duchess, and his musings give way to a diatribe on her disgraceful behaviour, and as the monologue continues the reader realizes with ever more chilling certainty that the Duke in fact caused the Duchess’s early demise. The poet, Robert Browning, reveals the Duke’s character to the reader through numerous devices. From the offset of the poem, the Duke is established as a very materialistic, proud, even boastful man.

One can ascertain this from his immediate boasting about the picture of the duchess: ‘I call/That piece a wonder now: Fra Pandolf’s hands/Worked busily a day, and there she stands. ‘ (Lines 2-4). The pride of the Duke furthers at the beginning of the poem when he talks of the ‘depth and passion of that earnest glance’, attempting to convey just how good the painting is, and in turn conveys to the audience his pride. This pride ties in which another character trait of the Duke prevalent in the poem, possessiveness.

The fact that the Duke keeps the portrait behind close curtains and deems it a privilege to view illustrates the possessiveness and greed of the Duke: ‘… But to myself they turned, since none puts by The curtain I have drawn for you, but I’. (Lines 9-10) This character trait of the Duke’s echoes throughout the poem, finally culminating with the blunt statement: ‘Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed/At starting, is my object’ (Line 52-53). The evocation of menace in this instance is particularly effective, as the audience can automatically make the assumption of the future of the Duke’s next Duchess.

An aspect of the Duke’s character that is particularly obvious is his superior intellect and linguistic abilities. This is shown through his speaking in clever, subtle euphemisms: ‘I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together’ (Line 45-46). This just makes the story more sinister, as we can conclude the murder was cruel and calculating, rather than spontaneous. The arrogance of the Duke is portrayed both by his cold, formal mannerisms as well as his blunt assertions of superiority.

The Duke’s cold formal manners are revealed to the audience by the way that he talks at the envoy of the Count, rather than to him: ‘ Nay, we’ll go Together down, sir’ (Line 53-34) His blunt assertions of superiority are frequent throughout the poem, but the most poignant assertion of superiority is: ‘… as if she ranked My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name With anybody’s gift. (Line 32-34). This line lends the Duke an impression of an egocentric man who places himself above other men. Another example of the Duke’s arrogance would be when he states how ‘I choose never to stoop’.

This tells the audience that the Duke believes that by telling her to stop, he would have to lower himself to her level, and because of his arrogance he would rather have stopped her altogether than to change her. In this sentence the Duke conveys his pride, one of the most prominent traits in his character. The Duke unwittingly informs the envoy of his true motives for marriage in the denouement of the poem, by making reference to the Count’s wealth: ‘The Count your master’s known munificence Is ample warrant that no just pretence

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed. ‘ (Lines 49-51) This has the effect of giving the Duke a very materialistic quality, suggesting that his whole raison d’etre in marriage is to profit financially. His egotism is conveyed to the reader through his fiscal desires, and his marriage for money: ‘… no just pretence/Of mine for dowry will be disallowed’ (line 45-46). What is also brought to note is that the Duke is a keen art collector: ‘Notice Neptune, though,/ taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity… ‘ (Lines 54-55).

However, the narrator in the poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ bears many different qualities in his character. In this monologue, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the audience is given a dramatic insight into the mind of an abnormally possessive lover. One of the first points that should be noted is that the lover has no defined identity. The audience knows him by his affiliation with Porphyria, as ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. His speech is very irrational, and changes direction very immediately. This gives the impression that the speaker in the poem is a very unstable character, which makes the poem a lot more harrowing.

Unlike the Duchess in my last Duchess, Porphyria’s lover is more than frequently coined with the term ‘mine’: ‘That moment, she was mine, mine, fair,/Perfectly pure and good. ‘ (Line 36-37). This line undoubtedly lends itself to the possessive essence of the speaker. This possessiveness and obsession is also mirrored by the almost cinematic attention to detail in the poem. It is as if the narrator is watching her always, and this is incredibly menacing. The lover is conveyed in the poem as a loner, by the fact that he lives in a desolate cottage in the forest. When narrating the poem, it is like a stream of consciousness.

All of the irrational and rational thoughts in the narrators mind pass into the poem, giving it the sudden changes in direction. When discussing Porphyria, we see that the lover has elevated her to a divine state, to a state of a Goddess. Her very name, Porphyria, is polysyllabic and almost soporific – sleep inducing. When the lover describes her, she is described very divinely. For example, she doesn’t walk but rather ‘glides’. This reveals how infatuated the lover is. A characteristic that is revealed to the reader by Browning is the insecurity of the lover.

We can ascertain this from his uncertainty as to whether she will come or not: ‘So, she was come through wind and rain, Be sure I looked up at her eyes Happy and proud; at last I knew Porphyria worshipped me… ‘ (Lines 30-34) These sudden changes in direction, marked by semi-colons, just further the conclusion that the lover is not mentally sound. His lack of mental stability just makes this poem that bit more sinister. The fact that the two narrators are very different in character leads to the two murders being very different when compared. The first crime is the murder of Porphyria by Porphyria’s lover.

When the murder actually occurs in the poem, it is spontaneous, and even anticlimactic. Porphyria was married to man of a high fiscal power, and yet was having an affair with a man of much lower social standing, the lover. Porphyria had left a party of sorts to visit the lover in his cottage. Realising that she will eventually give in to societal pressures, and wanting to preserve the moment, he wraps her hair around her neck and strangles her. This crime was spontaneous, immediate, and a crime of passion. He then toys with her corpse, opening the eyes and propping the body up against his side.

He sits with her body this way the entire night, the speaker remarking that God has not yet moved to punish him. However, the crime in ‘My Last Duchess’ is of a very different nature. Unlike the nature of the murder in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, this murder was not a crime of passion, but rather a cold pre-meditated murder. The title of the poem – ‘My Last Duchess’ – lends the impression that this was not the first Duchess of the Duke. The poem launches an attack on the Duchesses ‘disgraceful’ behaviour: he claims she flirted with everyone and did not appreciate his ‘gift of a nine-hundred-years-old-name’.

However, instead of asking her to stop her flirtatious ways, he chose rather to stop her altogether: ‘I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together’ Lines 45-46. This euphemism states that the murder was not of his own hands, such as in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, but rather he ordered someone to murder her. The fact that both have committed murder is a menacing premise, but what would possess the two narrators to murder their partners? It is the motives of the two men that make the two poems particularly menacing. Firstly, the clear motive of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. There is no variance or ambiguity with his motives.

His possessive nature entails that Porphyria cannot be shared. He wanted to retain Porphyria’s purity, goodness, and keep her as his possession: ‘That moment she was mine, mine, fair, Perfectly pure and good. ‘ Line 36-37. The narrator, driven insane by jealously, murdered his lover to retain her purity and goodness. There are two very sinister instances of menace in this assertion. The first is that Porphyria’s lover’s holds the believe that not only did he have to murder her, but in murdering her he has done her a favour, that it was her desire to be murdered. This is clearly shown when he states: ‘…

She guessed not how/Her darling one wish would be heard’ Lines 56-57. Either he was using this assertion as a justification for murdering her, or that he truly believes he was helping her. An unsettling statement of his is : ‘No pain felt she;/I am quite sure she felt no pain’ (line 41-42). This lends the effect to the reader of the instability of the narrator. The second premise of menace in the lovers’ motives is that in the ultimate line the lover believes that he has got away with what he has done… thus giving him the idea that what he did was the right thing: ‘And yet God has not said a word’ Line 60.

This motive does not particularly reveal menace… but rather a much more disturbing tale of a mentally unsound man. The motive for the Duke of Ferrara however is much more ambiguous. There are two main schools of thought on his motives, both equally sinister. The first possible motive is that the Duke wanted to marry the daughter of the Count for his ‘well known munificence’ and used her misdemeanours and promiscuity as an excuse to murder her. This is a particularly sinister evocation of menace because it shows just how morally bankrupt the Duke really is, as he can murder someone for something as fickle as money.

After all, the Duke claims he is planning to marry out of love, but in mentioning the money he betrays his motive: ‘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’ (lines 49-53) The second motive is that the Duke’s possessiveness just could not tolerate the promiscuity of the Duchess, and rather than putting his pride aside to tell her to stop, he chose to stop her altogether: ‘E’en then would be some stooping ; and I choose/Never to stoop’ Lines 42-43.

One can ascertain that in death the Duke has ultimate control over her as a painting. This is an equally menacing premise as it shows the controlling aspect of the Duke’s character, and his failure to understand his wife’s character. This is the motive he puts forward to the envoy at the end of the poem, yet whether that was the Duke’s true motive is debatable. When Fra Pandolf was hired to paint his Duchess, his sycophantic nature was taken seriously by the Duchess, and this enraged the Duke: ‘… such stuff/Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough/For calling up that spot of joy’ Lines 19-22.

One aspect of the poetry that reveals an evocation of menace is the tone in which the speakers talk. Theirs is vast contrast in the tones of which the two speakers talk. The Duke of ‘My Last Duchess’ conveys his pompous and arrogance through the tone in which he speaks: ‘I choose never to stoop’. It is also ascertained from the poem that the Duke is a very intellectual man, with skill in speech. It is possible to ascertain this from the way that he speaks in euphemisms, as is shown when he says ‘I gave commands and all smile stopped’.

He also acts quite faux self-effacing, as is shown when he says: ‘Even had you skill in speech – (which I have not). ‘ We know this is not true from his speaking in euphemisms. The Duke is quite a performer: he mimics others’ voices, creates hypothetical situations, and uses the force of his personality to make horrifying information seem merely colourful. The rational, methodical tone of the Duke’s voice mirrors his personality, and shows how conventional he is. This is a real effective evocation of menace, as it is alarming how calm and cool a man who has had his wife murdered can be.

However, his tone can be directly juxtaposed to that of Porphyria’s Lover. Whilst the Duke remains at the same level of tone, the lover fluctuates between moments of calm and extreme distress. This is mirrored by syntax and diction, as is shown in : ‘Vainer ties dissevered’. The calm in the poem occurs when Porphyria arrives at the lovers house. She has a soothing effect over him: ‘straight/She shut the cold out and the storm… ‘ (Lines 6-7). However, the irrationality of the narrator is reflected by his sudden change in mood, and the abrupt change in direction.

Whereas the Duke speaks very formally and eloquently, the lover speaks with very narrow vocabulary. He seldom throughout the poem uses words of more than three syllables, indicating that he is of a more simplistic intellect. The sudden changes in direction and tone reveal not so much of menace, but more of irrationality and instability in the narrator. The tone of the poems is not the only contrast in the poems. The sense of audience also varies between ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. The sense of audience is a very powerful medium to convey the evocation of menace in the poems.

The two poems are very different in the sense of audience, yet both are equally chilling. In ‘My Last Duchess’, we are aware that the Duke is conversing with someone, yet that person remains anonymous. We then find that the Duke is speaking to the Count’s envoy, discussing future marriage plans for the Duke for the next duchess. The fact that the audience is only made known at the end of the poem makes this a lot more chilling, as the readers are unsure of whether he is conversing to some one else, or to himself. However, the lover in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ remains a lot more mysterious in his poem.

There is an anonymous listener, and the identity is never revealed. This leaves it up to the reader to decide. Is he talking to God? Himself? A Lawyer? Or even us? This makes the lover much more detached from society, and in turn makes the poem much more sinister. The settings of the poems also lend an evocation of menace to the poems. At first glance the setting of a poem is the psychological and physiological environment in which the story takes place. In some instances, the setting is used to develop the characters. Robert Browning uses the setting to expose the character traits.

My Last Duchess’ portrays the weaknesses of the characters using elements from the setting. The text tells us that the setting in ‘My Last Duchess’ displays a valuable art form that exposes his greed and cruelty. The fact that he keeps the picture behind closed curtains and deems it a privilege to view the Duke’s Last Duchess illustrates his possessiveness and greed: ‘… since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I’ Lines 9-10. Although we are never fully informed of where exactly the Duke and his visitor are, we can come to the conclusion that they are in the Duke’s house, possibly in a corridor or an art gallery.

The fact that the Duke is showing the envoy his most prized possessions infers that he is trying to impress, and his boastful nature comes out: ‘Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me’ Lines 54-56. What it is possible to ascertain from this poem is that at the time in which the Duke ordered the death of his Duchess, he was not completely sure whether she was actually indulged in an affair or not, as is shown when he states: ‘She thanked men – good! But thanked/Somehow – I know not how… ‘ Lines 31-32.

This just furthers the suggestion that the Duke murdered his Duchess to marry another, instead of so to prevent her promiscuous nature spreading to another man. This is an effective evocation of menace, as it shows just how careless he was about murdering someone. The setting of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is incredibly cinematic. The lover lives in a deserted, lonely cottage by a lake in tempestuous wilderness. Browning uses the objective correlative to dramatically foreshadow what is about to happen in the poem, in the form of the tumultuous storm that rages outside of the lonely cottage.

Browning also uses pathetic fallacy to describe the tumultuous storm, which again dramatically foreshadows what will happen in the poem: The rain set early in to-night, The sullen wind was soon awake, It tore the elm-tops down for spite, And did its worst to vex the lake:’ Lines1-4 What is interesting about the timing in the poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is that from the offset of the poem, Porphyria is already dead. Just as the nameless speaker seeks to stop time by killing her, so too does this kind of poem seek to freeze the consciousness of an instant. This is made noticeable by the narrator’s use of the past tense: ‘When glided in… ‘She rose’ ‘… That moment she was mine… ‘.

This is particularly menacing, as for the whole duration of the poem, Porphyria has been dead, and the reader only becomes aware of this towards the end of the poem, when the narrator switches to the present tense. One of the techniques Browning uses to reveal the character as well as other things to the reader is through the forms of the poems. Firstly, and most importantly, the very form of these poems – dramatic monologues – lends itself to an exploration of psychology. However, when looking closer, more elements of the narrators are revealed to us.

The frigid decorum of the Duke follows the conventional AABBCCDD etc. pattern. However, the inability for the reader to notice these during recital of the poem is due to the extreme prevalence of enjambment – sentences that do not necessarily conclude at the end of lines. The Duke also uses rhetorical devices: ‘Who’d stoop to blame/This sort of trifling? ‘ Lines 34-35. This, alongside with the Duke’s irregular syntax (‘… Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,’ Line 41) mirrors natural speech patterns. The regularity of these patterns tells us that the Duke is in fact a very conventional man.

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 fai?? ade. This is shown by his cool tones when talking. The irrationality of Porphyria’s lover is represented in the irregular rhyme scheme of ABABB, CDCDD. The intensity and asymmetry of the pattern suggests the madness concealed within the speaker’s reasoned self-presentation. The irrational speech is also used as a metaphor for the irrational and abrupt change in direction in plot.

The rhyme changes every 5 lines to mirror a change in context. There is a very loose sense of sentence structure in this poem. Full stops are very infrequent in this poem, which mirrors the rambling tone that the speaker adopts. The build up to the murder of Porphyria was represented not only by the objective correlative, but also by the fragmented syntax that led up to the end of the sentence: ‘That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/Perfectly pure and good; I found/A thing to do… ‘ (lines 36-38). The syntax of the speaker is also very illogical.

This is demonstrated through mediums such as extremely bizarre imagery: ‘As a shut bud that holds a bee,/I warily oped her lids… ‘ Lines 43-44. All of this culminates to the instability of the narrators’ mind, which evokes a very harrowing ambience. Possibly the most ominous aspect of the poems is the response of both the murderers. The first precise similarity between the two narrators is that they react to the murders in very surprising ways. Both of them are not racked with guilt as would be suspected, and even more surprising, both of them believe that they have done the right thing in murdering their partners.

We can see this from the assertion at the end of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’: ‘… And yet God has not said a word! ‘ Line 60. We see this in the Duke in his smug tones when speaking to the envoy: ‘She had/A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad,’ Lines 21-22. The responses of both murderers are the most effective evocation of menace, as the warped morality of both men is both shocking and menacing. The idealness of the Duchess is evident through the description of her. 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. 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 instils 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, hurt, even unstable Lover than of the snobbish and misogynistic Duke. The misguided nature and instability of the Lover lends him a more lenient conviction of evil. However, the evil demonstrated by the Duke of Ferrara is particularly convincing. Here one sees a morally bankrupt man who feels no guilt or shame after ordering his wives death, and readily moves to his next wife. This evocation of menace is particularly effective, and the convictions of evil in the Duke are extremely convincing.

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