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Unraveling Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess and other poems.

Robert Browning’s, My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue, entailing the duke’s feelings for his last Duchess and her fate which he sealed when he, “gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.” Browning’s Dramatic monologues were intriguing, the duke narrates not only his actions through the description of the painting of his last wife by Fra Pandolf but also narrates his psychological state and the prejudices and male jealousy which guide his Id. Interestingly the obsession with possession and control is spelled out through his words, the poem starts with “My Duchess” and ends with “cast in bronze for me”, the man establishes his authority, the duchess whom he finds to be too free and gullible did not conduct herself according to his will so now he has taken her freedom away and has her painted on the wall, with her immortal smile and blush which he ironically goes on to be the most detested about throughout the monologue. The mastery of irony is strongly reflected in the structure of the poem, written in iambic pentameter, the standard for love poetry. This is odd because this man proudly admits to the probable murder of his wife. But it is also what John Milton uses in Paradise Lost, Satan says in his first speech, “All is not lost; the unconquerable Will, And study of revenge, immortal hate, And courage never to submit or yield” Similarly the duke says, “My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame This sort of trifling?” he is hateful towards the duchess and wishes to control, like Satan who felt defeated and pledged revenge. The Duke of Ferrara however isn’t exactly extracting revenge but asserting his right over his wife who was not allowed to smile and submit to the happiness of anything else or herself but of her husband only.


 The realism of the Dramatic monologue leaves his listener in the most morbid realization making him startled but also fits perfectly in the paradigm of the controlling and narcissistic duke who tells him when to sit, to stand, and where to look. Joshua Alder says, “The structure of the poem thus corresponds perfectly to its content: just as the monologue is cramped in and the listener held down, so is the Duke attempted to confine his wife within the bounds imposed by his inflexible will.” The matter of gaze is very important to the duke, the fact that his wife was happy looking at the sunset makes him angry, he was most disgusted by her smiling at other men’s petty compliments, the matter of class and social status concerns him, how could she be so easily happy? And his envy does not end there, Alder says, that he was envious of the inferior species, the duchess’ mule!


Browning’s dramatic monologue, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is quite similar to My Last Duchess, the men suffer from a complex of sorts and make the women ultimately submit to them. U. C. Knoepflmacher says, “But Porphyria and the Duchess have lost more than a freedom motion. Imprisoned as they are within a male's rhetoric of justification, have also become bereft of a voice”, which is so remarkable in Porphyria’s Lover, where the man says how he had fulfilled her “one wish”, the narrator here is unreliable, he exclaims what he did for his lover was mercy killing which is suggested as the woman is named Porphyria, a blood disease, but then the stark comparison of the position of the mighty gaze sheds light on a totally different argument. When Porphyria enters the cottage, she is the one who delivers the action, and the lover is the one resting his head on her shoulder and he, “looked up at her eyes”, pondering on his internal debate. Finally, when he kills her, she is the one now who is resting her head on his shoulder and, “Her head, which droops upon it still.” The lowering of the head is a symbolic gesture of acceptance of inferiority, a Christian practice of bowing one’s head when praying. U. C. Knoepflmacher further says that the devouring male ego, “reduces that Female other into nothingness.” But what is most unsettling is that Porphyria’s lover and the Duke of Ferrara have achieved the ultimate form of objectification of the female body. The duke who is a connoisseur of art has his wife now trapped in a painting as if she were alive, no longer bothering him with her overly flattered self. She is now under his will, frozen. Porphyria is belittled, even infantilized by her lover, who refers to her bodily parts as, “rosy little head” and “her little throat.” He even goes on to switch pronouns, using ‘it’ for ‘her’, “its utmost will.” Knoepflmacher states that these monologues “portray the deamination of a female by the speaker's narcissistic desire to control the world around him, a desire that makes the woman and the external world into images of himself rather than realities” While the lover becomes Porphyria’s “mental arbitrator” and the duke well, frames her in a work of art says, Tyler Efird.


 Browning’s ‘The Last Ride Together’ offers a different perspective, the lover here accepts his lover’s wishes but nevertheless wishes to be in her company, the element of psychosis is missing while that of unrequited love and indifference remains the same. He even compared the woman to heaven, and that the only thing he wishes to do for the rest of his life is to ride with her. Pure love is glorified and is reflected as an ever-winning force of nature that brings man comfort. Similar to Matthew Arnolds, ‘Dover Beach’ where amidst all the chaos in the world, the narrator tells his lover, “Love, let us be true To one another!” ‘The Last Ride Together’ is almost like an antithesis to the sinister tones of My Last Duchess and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. Where the woman is only a construct of masculine speech.


The duke ends his monologue by asking his listener to look at the bronze statue of Neptune taming the sea horse, a very grim implication. Neptune rules the sea and binds the sea horse, a symbol of freedom. Joshua Alder says the “rarity” as the duke calls it, is, “the possession of which is an instance of his prowess as an art collector, is obviously an emblem of his own condition.” He controls everything but especially his last duchess he has dominance over, something he couldn’t assert when she was alive, but her literal objectification, that is her “living” painting is completely motionless, without words, but with her smile and her gaze which ultimately led to her probable murder.


Imitation of God and his consequent defiance is common to Satan and to the Duke and Porphyria’s Lover. The Duke wishes for control and submission but also is proud, as for the lover, after killing Porphyria says that even God was silent, his implication being that the murder was necessary or even acceptable to God, but Knoepflmacher says that “God's voicelessness recalls the Lover's own deliberate silence when "called" by Porphyria. He and God and now she remains unstirred” The notion of “man” being in the image of God and the woman being a mere appendage resonates heavily with God’s non-verbal attitude. However, the man here says what he thinks is just. But the actual debate is of authority and its amalgamation with psychosis and obsessive nature. Alder points out that because the idea of female submission is distorted by the woman for the man, the man does everything to ideal the ideal objectification of the female either through preserved art or through distorting reality itself and rendering a woman dead and motionless. For Knoepflmacher, The "curtain" the duke removes for the Count's emissary thus gradually unveils a mind that is more disturbed than it would admit. But at the same time, it is completely aware of the effect it has on the listener. Afterall, his bronze Neptune statue immortalizes his ideal marriage with his Last Duchess of which he is proud.


 


Image used is- Lucrezia de' Medici by Bronzino or Alessandro Allori, generally believed to be the subject of the poem.


 


 


 


BIBLIOGRAPHY


 


Arnold, Matthew, “Dover Beach”, Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach


Browning, Robert, “My Last Duchess”, Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43768/my-last-duchess


Browning, Robert, “Porphyria’s Lover”, Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46313/porphyrias-lover


Browning, Robert, “The Last Ride Together”, Englishverse.com. https://englishverse.com/poems/the_last_ride_together


Milton, John, “Paradise Lost: Book  1 (1674 version)”, Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45718/paradise-lost-book-1-1674-version


Joshua, Adler, “Structure and Meaning in Browning's "My Last Duchess”, Victorian Poetry, Autumn, 1977, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 219-227, West Virginia University Press.


Tyler, Efird, “Anamorphosizing" Male Sexual Fantasy in Browning's Monologue”, Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, September 2010, Vol. 43, No. 3 (September 2010), pp. 151-166, University of Manitoba.


U. C., Knoepflmacher,Projection and the Female Other: Romanticism, Browning, and the Victorian Dramatic Monologue”, Victorian Poetry, Summer, 1984, Vol. 22, No. 2, The Dramatic "I" Poem (Summer, 1984), pp. 139-159, West Virginia University Press.


 


 


 


 


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