Robert Brownings My Last Duchess and Porphyrias Lo Essay

This essay has a total of 1802 words and 10 pages.

Robert Brownings My Last Duchess and Porphyrias Lover

Mike Sobieraj
English 203
Roger Gilbert

The Lover and the Duke

The creation of a plausible character within literature is one of the most difficult
challenges to a writer, and development to a level at which the reader identifies with
them can take a long time. However, through the masterful use of poetic devices and
language Browning is able to create two living and breathing characters in sixty or less
lines. When one examines these works one has to that they are quite the achievements for
they not only display the persona’s of two distinct men but also when compared show large
differences while dealing with essentially the same subject.

A brief examination of the structural aspects of “Porphyria’s Lover” is needed before
further analysis is done. One can break the poem up into twelve stanzas with an ababb
stanzaic rhyme structure, though it is most often printed as a block poem. This would
make it an alternately rhymed quatrain with a fifth line attached to create a couplet
ending. The majority of the lines contain four iambic feet, though a few are
nonasyllabic. Five of the twelve stanzas spill into the next stanza, thus detracting from
their free-standing integrity. These stanzas are not syntactically self-containing and
therefore the end-couplet value is undercut. If we examine the end of the eighth stanza
we see that there is enjambment into the ninth stanza.

In one long yellow string I wound,
Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.
(Browning, Porphyria’s Lover”, Lines 39-41)
This does detract from the couplet though it emphasizes the tone, making the understated
nature even more sociopathic. This is one example of how this simple tool in itself
masterfully accentuates the overall tone of understatement and the impression of
lackadaisical unaffected speech. The majority of the words in this poem are monosyllabic
which adds to the mood. However, what is more important is that the words that are
polysyllabic are quiet and unassuming. They do not break the tense tranquility of the
piece. Burrows points out that,

Much of the force of the narrative lies in its almost naïve simplicity and in the
corresponding quiet, matter-of-fact tone of voice, a tone which in effect is not shouting
‘Horrible murder! Read all about it!’ but murmuring, ‘I am going to tell you a nice
little bedtime story.’

(Burrrows, page 53)

Despite the fact that the metrical pattern is often strayed from, some lines contain 3 or
5 stresses, the poem is rhythmically appealing. According to Burrows, “[the poem]
suggests the accents and modulations of speech and also remains quietly unemphatic.” (page

A similar analysis of “My Last Duchess” is also needed before the two can be compared
adequately. The frigid decorum of the Duke is established by the imperceptible, but
unfailing, rhyming couplets. The inability for the reader to notice these during recital
of the poem is due to the extreme prevalence of enjambment within the work. According to
Burrows, “It is decidedly the ‘open’ couplet that he uses, and there are many ‘run-on’
lines since syntactical pauses rarely coincide with couple-endings or line endings.” (page
116) The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter though the rhythm feels more irregular
due to the deliberate disregard for the formal couplet pattern. This also creates the
sense or beat of regular speech and helps to create the tone of the Duke’s voice. 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 façade.
Burrows realizes that,

The quiet, casual conversation tone prevails throughout the except for one brief moment
when the Duke reaches the understated climax of his last duchess’s history and his phrases
harder into a lapidary laconism.

(Burrows, page 120)
This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
(Browning, “My Last Duchess”, lines 45-6)

There is a literary implement that this poem has not contained within “Porphyria’s Lover”
to any knowledge. This is the use of historical allusion. Louis S. Friedland, through
his research, has shown that the Duke is most likely based on Alfonso II, the fifth Duke
of Ferrara. (DeVane, pages 108-9) He lived in Italy during the Renaissance, and the
similarities are impressive. Alfonso II married a daughter, Lucrezia, of the Medici
family. She was not well educated and was from what would have been considered by
nobility an upstart family. She came with a sizeable dowry and they married in 1658.
Three years later she was dead, and there was a strong suspicion of poisoning. The Duke
then went to seek the hand of Barbara, the daughter of Ferdinand I of Spain, and the niece
of the Count of Tyrol. The count was in charge of arranging the marriage and used
Nikolaus Madruz, a native of Innsbruck, as his courier. The mention of Claus from
Innsbruck in the poem is most likely the Duke’s method of softening him up, of saying, “I
know your people and respect their work.”

The similarities between the two poems are skin deep. Both the poems trace the history of
a jaded man’s obsession with a woman that did not meet his expectations culminating in her
murder. From this point the poems start diverging. In “Porphyria’s Lover” the Lover is
not speaking to anyone specifically, and it is quite feasible that he is speaking to
himself after he has committed the act, perhaps, for the purpose of self-justification.
The Duke is speaking to the representative of the Count whose ward he is trying to marry.
There are, of course, the obvious differences in the class situation of each of these men.
The Lover is of lower social position than Porphyria, and because of this she is
unwilling to marry him. The Duke is nobility and one gets the impression the Duchess
might not have been. She is not grateful for his “gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name.”
The use of the word gift implies that she has just recently become aristocracy. These
class differences are easily seen in the diction and the attitude that is characteristic
of each of these men. The intent of the Lover, though brought to action in an insane way,
is much more noble than that of the Duke.

Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free,
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
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