Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most famous sonnet asks, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?" Sounds lovely, does it not? On the other hand, "Porphyria's Lover," an infamous poem written by Elizabeth's husband, would count the ways in a very disturbing and unexpected manner.
- Step 1) Welcome the beautiful girl into your secret meeting place.
- Step 2) Listen while she declares her undying love for you.
- Step 3) Tenderly wrap her long, golden hair around her throat.
- Step 4) Strangle her.
- Step 5) Sit happily next to her dead body.
The above list is a disgustingly violent scenario, the sort one might expect to find in a grizzly episode of some CSI knock-off or straight-to-video slasher flick. Or maybe it's even darker than that, due to the last nihilistic lines of the poem: "And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!" (lines 59 - 60). If it were read aloud in a creative writing classroom today, the students would probably shift uncomfortably in their seats, and the unsettled English teacher might very well recommend counseling for the poet. Yet, far from modern, "Porphyria's Lover" is a product of England's prim and oh-so-proper Victorian society of the mid-1800s, and the poet was an adoring husband in favor of equality for women.
So why then does Browning delve into the mindset of a misogynistic sociopath, not just with "Porphyria's Lover," but also with the deviously cruel poem "My Last Duchess"? Browning exercises what John Keats referred to as negative capability, an artist's capacity to lose himself into his characters, revealing nothing of his own personality, political views, or philosophies. In order to critique the oppressive, male dominated society of his age, Browning gave voice to villainous characters, each representing the antithesis of his world view. But Browning does not eliminate his personal virtues from all of his poetry. This dedicated husband also wrote sincere and tender poems to his wife; these romantic works, such as "Summum Bonum," unveil the true and benevolent nature of Robert Browning.
Analysis of "My Last Duchess":
Even if readers give "My Last Duchess" a mere passing glance, they should be able to detect at least one element: arrogance. The speaker of the poem exhibits an arrogance rooted in an audacious sense of male superiority. In simpler terms: he is stuck on himself. But to understand the deadliness of the Duke's powerhouse combo of narcissism and misogyny, the reader must delve deeply into this dramatic monologue, paying close attention to both what is said as well as unsaid. It is evident that the speaker's name is Ferrara (as suggested by the character heading at the beginning of the speech). Most scholars agree that Browning derived his character from a 16th century duke of the same title: Alfonso II d'Este, a renowned patron of the arts who was also rumored to have poisoned his first wife.
What sets this poem apart from many others is that it a dramatic monologue, a type of poem in which a character distinctly different from that of the poet is speaking to someone else. Actually, some dramatic monologues feature speakers who talk to themselves, but the monologues with "silent characters" display more artistry, more theatrics in storytelling because they are not merely confessional tirades (as with "Porphyria's Lover"); instead, readers can imagine a specific setting and detect action and reaction based upon the hints given within the verse. In "My Last Duchess," the duke is speaking to a courtier of a wealthy count. Before the poem even begins, the courtier has been escorted through the Duke's palace - probably through an art gallery filled with paintings and sculptures. The courtier has seen a curtain which conceals a painting, and the duke decides to treat his guest to a viewing of a very special portrait of his late wife. The courtier is impressed, perhaps even mesmerized by the smile of the woman in the painting and he asks what produced such an expression. And that's when the dramatic monologue begins:
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her?
The Duke behaves cordially enough, asking his guest if he would like to gaze at the painting. We are witnessing the speaker's public persona. Notice how he keeps the painting behind a curtain, until he feels like showing it to others. He has control over who views the painting, mastery over the painted smile of his deceased wife. As the monologue continues, the Duke brags about the fame of the painter: Fra Pandolf (a quick tangent: "fra" is a shortened version of friar, a holy member of the church. Note how the Duke uses a holy member of the church as part of his plan to capture and control his wife's image). It pleases the Duke that his wife's smile has been preserved within the artwork.