Compare and contrast the methods used by Robert Browning to portray the two speakers in ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’

Published: 2021-06-23 18:05:04
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Compare and contrast the methods used by Robert Browning to portray the two speakers in ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ are both poems about men who appear to have a compulsive need for control over the women in their lives. However, the speakers appear to be quite different as we see that the protagonist in ‘My Last Duchess’ is a Duke with a high self-esteem and confidence, whereas the protagonist in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ emerges as a depressed man with no apparent intuitions or social life.
Browning uses different structural techniques in both poems to portray each character; there are contrasting rhyme schemes and meters to capture their complex mentality. The language and literary devices used to portray the speakers also differs with pathetic fallacy in ‘porphyria’s Lover’ and symbolism in ‘My Last Duchess’. The presentation of both these speakers in the form of a dramatic monologue enables Browning to aptly portray them, revealing as much regarding their personal life as possible.
In ‘My Last Duchess’, the Duke is addressing an ambassador, whereas in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, we are presented with the speaker’s thoughts. The fact that he isn’t addressing anybody in particular is already discomforting, warning the reader of his insanity. Browning uses rhyme and meter to present certain aspects of these two very different speakers. Rhyming couplets are used in ‘My Last Duchess’; ‘wall…call’ and ‘hands…stands’. This is initially unapparent due to the use of enjambment.
This could imply that he’s unknowingly in control of everything, or that he’s attempting to come across as modest. The well organized rhyming scheme and iambic pentameter are there to show the Duke’s power he is exerting upon everyone, despite the fact that he denies having the skill of speech, ’which I have not’, giving the reader the impression that he is gloating, whereas the more unusual rhyming scheme in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ jars on the reader’s senses and reflects on the protagonist’s mind and confusion.
Social status also plays a large part in their personalities, as it makes the Duke feel more distinguished and self-righteous, and it makes Porphyria’s Lover feel like he is not important, as she is of a higher status than he is, which makes him seek her attention by trying to make her feel bad for him, as seen when he ignores her. The peculiar ABABB rhyming scheme in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ unsettles the reader, who is not expecting the extra rhyme. Furthermore, the unbalanced rhyme scheme reflects on the speaker’s unbalanced mental state.
The speaker in ‘My Last Duchess’, is less emotionally engaged as there is no empathy displayed. The Duke is jealous over the fact that she ‘thanked men’, as if she thought their gifts were better than his ‘nine-hundreds-years-old-name’. We can see that the protagonist has a dominant personality as he gives ‘commands’. Moreover, the iambic pentameter is used, which is similar to everyday speech as well as making him appear controlled, together with sounding cold and monotonous. On the other hand, in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the setting of the poem seems warmer and more welcoming as Porphyria arrives.
Sexual tension is present, unlike in ‘My Last Duchess’, where everything is cold and distant. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s morbidity is portrayed later on through his quiet and ominous nature as he finds ‘a thing to do’, a subtle way of hinting at the fact that he is going to murder her, as well as threatening thoughts as he is in her arms, ‘that moment she was mine’. It is written in the iambic tetrameter, although the meter falls on the line ‘I listened with heart fit to break’, the first time that the speaker refers to himself, and also suggesting that his heart is breaking.
We see that the vocabulary used is predominantly simple and monosyllabic due to his thoughts being focused on the events that have just occurred. We can also infer that due to his lack of complex vocabulary, he is of a lower social status. The word ‘stooping’ was chosen in particular by Browning to highlight that she is ‘stooping’ down to his level in society. We also saw this in ‘My Last Duchess’ when the Duke wouldn’t ‘stoop’ to endure his Duchess thanking men.
Porphyria’s ‘pride and vainer ties’, and the Duchess’s lack of love for the Duke ensure that so long as they are living, they will not succumb to the power of the men. Ensuing the murders, the Duke and the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ finally have total control over them. Porphyria’s lover trifles with the corpse as he ‘oped her lids’ and ‘propped her head up’, conveying the speaker as mentally deranged, even necrophyllic with their ‘kiss’. In addition to feeling content about being in control, he doesn’t feel guilty as God hasn’t objected to his crime: ‘And all night long we have not stirr’d, /And yet God
has not said a word! ’ Much like the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, subsequent to the murder of Duchess, we see he has finally been able to attain total control over her, in the form of a painting veiled by a ‘curtain’ which only he may draw. It becomes evident that the Duke is notably jealous of his wife interacting with other men; he expresses that it should be solely his ‘presence’ that ‘called’ her ‘smiles’ upon her face, which he depicts as a ‘spot of joy’. The juxtaposition of the two words, ‘spot of joy’, conveys the phrase as a stain, a symbol of her tainted nature.
The repetition of this throughout ensures that the reader is aware, and the Duke is making sure the ambassador knows that this is part of what made her ‘smiles stop’. What further infuriated him was that ‘she liked whate’er? She looked on’, as opposed to focusing all her attention and gratitude on him. Porphyria is a woman with responsibilities elsewhere and the fact that she may be having an affair with the speaker is symbolised when she lets her ‘hair fall’, which is also a synecdoche for her entire being.
This is because the word ‘fallen’ had negative connotations in Victorian times, as it was used when referring to women involved in sexual relationships before marriage. The metaphor of her eyes without a ‘stain’, can be interpreted in one of two ways. First, it could imply that by dying, the ‘stain’ of Porphyria’s sin is gone. Alternatively, it could mean that there’s no ‘stain’ of his sin visible in her eyes. After Porphyria’s death, we see the speaker feeling no remorse, as ‘God’ doesn’t speak a ‘word’. The motive for murder in both cases is due to a ‘stain’ or a ‘spot’, imperfections which the men must remove.
Browning uses different ideas and linguistic techniques to portray the speakers. Symbolism is used in ‘My Last Duchess’ to communicate the Duke’s attitudes and feelings towards his wife; he feels as though he is ‘Neptune… taming a seahorse’, which leads us to think that that is how he feels about his wife; a beautiful, fragile animal over which he should have complete control. He is overly proud of his accomplishment, yet the image of a god taming a sea-horse seems inhumane and strange to the reader as he is praising himself so highly, and degrading his previous wife by comparing her to an animal.
Objectification of women is highlighted again through the ‘Duchess painted on the wall’ with a ‘curtain’ that can only be ‘drawn’ by the Duke, giving himself full control over her. His conceited nature is emphasized as ‘Fra Pandolf’s hands’ paint the picture rather than Fra Pandolf, portraying him as nothing but an object to complete his intentions. We see the extent of the Duke’s jealousy, as he feels aggravated by his wife blushing due to Fra Pandolf’s comments, which is unnecessary as he is a monk, which procures good behaviour.
Both of these symbols are highly derogatory towards women, his Duchess in particular; in one of her representations, she is depicted as a helpless, lesser animal, and the other is her ‘painted on the wall’. We see how imperative the theme of authority and power over women is in this poem, as these two symbols open and close it. In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning uses pathetic fallacy to portray the speaker. The speaker’s state of mind is effectively conveyed as the ‘sullen wind’ awoke and ‘tore the elm-tops down’.
When Porphyria arrived however, she ‘shut’ out the ‘storm’, implying she had expelled his mental torment. Porphyria and her lover’s relationship is an abnormal one, and the way in which Browning portrays the speaker as being emotionally void concerns the reader and makes him quite a disturbing character. In spite of this, Porphyria is the only comfort or felicity in his life, lighting his ‘cheerless grate’ up. To conclude, Robert Browning uses many different methods, both similar and different to portray the speakers in ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.
He has written two monologues portraying seemingly distinct speakers, with one recognizable characteristic in common, being that they both crave and lust for power and possession. Through the use of imagery, style, and pathetic fallacy, the characters are brought to life, allowing us to experience their complexities and insecurities, as well as establishing that despite their differences in terms of personalities and social status, they are both morally twisted and self-interested, as seen with their satisfaction after the murders.

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