Browning, Robert: My Last Duchess And Porphyria's
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Browning, Robert: My Last Duchess And Porphyria\'s Lover
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 56)
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
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