Terminology and Concepts

Terminology and Concepts

Robert Browning was one of the most prominent poets of the 19th century. He made famous the dramatic monologue, a form written in the first person where there is an implied auditor who is silent. Due to the use of the first person throughout, the reader relies on inference to piece together the whole story.

Suggestion and inference– In ‘My Last Duchess’ the duke tells us that his previous wife was ‘easily pleased’ and that she would smile at everybody. But he lets his emotions overcome him when he says that when she smiled at him, it meant nothing, because she gave the same smile to everyone. When he talks like this about her he is implying that she was promiscuous and his jealousy is a key theme of the poem. As the listener we must use our imagination to complete the real story because the duke is an unreliable narrator. Because it is in the first person, we cannot find out the truth!

Control and Possession– In ‘My Last Duchess,’ the duchess was murdered because the duke had no control over the way she behaved and felt that she had little respect for what he could offer her- his ‘nine hundred year old name.’ To us it seems as though she was a pleasant friendly person, however, to the duke, she appeared promiscuous and out of control. The painting immortalises her smile and yet he keeps it behind a curtain and is the only person allowed to reveal the smile, so now her smile is always on his terms and only for him.

Just like in ‘My Last Duchess’ the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ feels he must kill his love in order to fully possess her. Notice how when she first arrives he rests his head on her shoulder, yet when she is dead he places her head on his own shoulder reversing the role of support and need so that she appears reliant on him in his image of perfection. Again like the duke, Porphyria’s lover immortalises his lover’s smile by killing her.

Madness– The speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is another unreliable narrator because he is clearly mad. There are clues for the reader that he might be mad such as when she comes in and speaks to him he does not reply. We, the listener, know that he is thinking that, despite her loving words, she does not love him at all. He contradicts himself consistently saying that she is tied down by vanity and pride and yet she does nothing but think of him and tell him how much she loves him. He has a ‘heart fit to break,’ showing him to be anxious, emotional and paranoid.

Sex and Death– The speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ claims that strangling Porphyria is an act of passionate love so that he can possess her fully. He talks at the beginning of the poem about how she is unable to give herself to him and this can be interpreted as sexual. The flushed cheek he believes he can see when she is dead is suggestive of female orgasm. Therefore the way he describes her is as if she has given herself to him sexually as opposed to in death. The association with having an orgasm and dying is one which inspired a great deal of literature, particularly in the Gothic genre made popular before the 19th century and continued in novels like Dracula. The speaker is a sadist– someone who gains pleasure from the suffering of others.