The Importance of the Dramatic Monologue
A dramatic monologue is a piece of performed writing that helps the reader to understand how the speaker is feeling. Dramatic monologues are sometimes confused with a soliloquy, so beware of the difference. In a soliloquy the character is speaking to themselves, not to the audience.
Poets chose to write dramatic monologues to express a point of view through the words of a character. What makes them so different is that the actual opinions that the character in the poem has are not the same as the beliefs the author has. Usually, the speaker is trying to be deceiving, and sometimes is even flat out lying. For instance, Browning's "The Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover". Browning is considered to me the master of the dramatic monologue. Sometimes what the speaker doesn't say is just as revealing and interesting as what he or she does say in the poem.
Questions to ask yourself when trying to understand a dramatic monologue:
Who is the speaker talking to and why?
What tactics is the speaker using to make his case?
Does the speaker seem to change his mind during the poem?
Historical References in "My Last Duchess"
The Duke in My Last Duchess alludes to the real life duke Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara as can be surmised by the poem beginning with the word FERRARA (a direct reference to Alfonso II). The Duchess in this case would refer to Lucrezia de Medici, whom the Duke married when she was 14. Two years after they were married, Lucrezia died through what was suspected at the time of being poisoned. Much like the Duke in Browning’s poem, Alfonso II was known as a great appreciator of art. It can be interpreted that Browning uses his fictional Duke to personify Alfonso II as cruel, and someone who objectifies everything around him (Lucrezia de Medici, for example) as objects akin to art (in this case, the portrait of the Duchess). This concept is further stressed by the fact that the reader does not know if the Duke in the poem is describing his actual deceased wife, or the portrait he puts on display. For example, in the line,
That piece a wonder, now Frà Pandolf’s hands
worked busily a day, and there she stands. (3-4)
Here the Duke refers to the portrait as “she,” as if it were a living embodiment of what it is meant to represent. Throughout the rest of the poem the Duke’s discerning between the portrait of the Duchess and the actual Duchess becomes more ambiguous. In the line, how such a glance came there… are you to turn and ask… Sir, ‘t was not her husband’s presence only, called that spot of joy into the Duchess’ cheek (12-15), it is not clearly expressed if the Duke is explaining the glace in the Duchess that Frà Pendolf creates, or the glance created by the Duke in his wife. Even in the very last line of the poem the Duke reaffirms the notion that he holds objects above those living when he explains, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! (55-56). Because of his perceived power, the Duke believes he can do the seemingly impossible- tame a sea horse. Furthermore, this event he preserves in the artificial medium of bronze, strengthen his belief that he has power over all things.
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Symbolism and References in "Porphyria's Lover"
Hair: Porphyria's hair is the main image in the poem. It is the main element in how the story unfolds. One would think that the speaker has a hair fetish, but during the Victorian era, it was common to have an "obsession" with hair. Some believe that this comes from the fact that during the Victorian era, women started wearing their hair down and keeping it long, and in the past they always had to keep it short and usually wear a wig. Browning definitely takes this hair thing to the next level in Porphyria's Lover. One might wonder why he used her hair to kill her rather than any other technique. There is no explanation for why he has chosen to do this, although one can concentrate on various passages from the poem and create assumptions. Not only does he use the hair as his way of killing her, but he also uses the hair to create metaphors for other ideas.
For example: In Line 13 Browning writes "After entering soundlessly from the storm, Porphyria takes off her wet coat and hat, and lets her damp hair fall."
It is obvious that Browning meant more here than the text says. His use of the word "fall" makes us believe that he already had been thinking about killing her as soon as she came that night. In the Victorian era, the idea of "falling" for women usually relates to the idea of converting to modernity by "falling away from purity". Now, the reader is forced to question why the speaker is looking at his lover as an impure woman. Did the speaker lose respect for his lover because she gave her body to him? We are forced to wonder what the significance of combining the hair obsession with the fallen idea in this passage. This same idea of purity is obvious due to the fact that the speaker continues to point out that Porphyria's hair is "yellow". Once again, the soft and light colors symbolize purity. In Line 20, Porphyria is spreading her hair over the speaker. This symbolizes her purity taking over him. Is he intimidated by her purity? The fact that the poem ends by the speaker killing Porphyria by her hair forces us to question if Browning meant for us to believe that Porphyria inevitably killed herself due to her fall from purity.
The Elements: The weather and the use of nature is something that is extremely important throughout the poem. In the very first line, the weather sets the mood for the entire poem. The poem beings, "The rain set early in tonight". After we finish the poem, it is obvious why Browning set the scene up this way. The weather is an echo of the "storm" that is going on inside the speaker's house that night. It is common during the Victorian era to have the outside world reflect the inner mood of characters in a story or poem. Here, this remains extremely true. The mood would not be the same if this were to take place during the day in a bright and sunny room. Also, the weather becomes personified throughout the first few lines, which makes us really feel the emotion and effect of the weather and it's significance. For example: In Line 2 Browning says, "The sullen wind was soon awake". This personification not only captures up, but ends up tying together many of the other metaphors once we see the end result and anger in the tone. It is funny because the rhyme scheme of the poem is so happy, although we can still feel the pain and anger that is present through this personification of the elements. Line 3 is extremely important for the same reasons. "It tore the elm-tops down for spite"... the elm-tops here are a metaphor for Porphyria. The speaker does, in fact, tear her down.. just for spite. For all we know, the girl didn't do anything to him and this is more of a psychological thing. It seems as though the speaker is spiteful for Porphyria, and this line not only captures us into the weather idea, but sets us up for the literal spite that is soon to come. By Line 7, the personification of the elements make us understand what is going on, and once again, sets us up for what to expect. "She shut the cold out and the storm".. this forces us to believe that Porphyria has been shutting the speaker out of her life, and he is resentful towards her. All of these metaphors are extremely important in uncovering what Browning wanted to do with this amazing piece of poetry.
Body Language: One thing that is important about the poem is that we don't get to see or feel any of Porphyria's emotions since she doesn't get to speak. This is written completely from the speaker's point of view. Because of this, it is important to notice any and all signs of body language which Porphyria gives so we can get some sense of what she is going through, and may be able to emphathyze with her since she doesn't get any direct dialogue.
In Line 6 Porphyria "glided in", so right away we are to feel as though she is this angelic, perfect woman who is just coming in gracefully and has not done anything wrong. Once again, we are reminded of the impact of her purity here. She proceeds to light the fire and we still feel as though she has done nothing wrong. One of the most important aspects of Porphyria's way of expressing herself are her eyes. When we get to Line 31 the speaker "looked up at her eyes happy and proud"... he is noting how much love that she has for him in her eyes. They always say that the eyes are the window to the soul, so at this moment, the reader is drawn into her emotion and it is obvious that Porphyria was expecting the night to unfold differently. Poor girl. He continues to say "she worshipped me", which introduces us to the obvious power struggle, but that will be spoken of at a different time. Whether or not she knew that she was going to be killed, she still showed her admiration through him through her eyes. She really, really loves him.
Her eyes are brought up again when we get to Line 43. The speaker comapres her eyes to a closed flower bud with a bee inside. This makes us wonder exactly what Browning wanted us to feel when we got to this line. This is right after he had strangled her. Is he suggesting that her eyes were bulging out because of what he had just done? Or is he suggesting that if she had opened her eyes again that he would be "stung" by the love that she displays when she looks at him. The alliteration with the "b's" here make us feel as though this description of her tells a lot about her, although it is ambiguous what exactly Browning wants us to feel. Either way, she is dying at this point, and all the speaker can remark on is his lover's eyes. Line 45 is extremely ambiguous, also. "Laighed the blue eyes without a stain". We are forced to wonder what the speaker's fascination with Porphyria's eyes are. This is definitely a reoccuring symbol of their love. Just like the hair, the color of the eyes is important. In the Victorian era, blue symbolized heaven. Porphyria is continued to be portrayed as this angelic woman. Her eyes are laughing.. does that mean that she is happy that he has killed her? Is she at peace? Either way, this enhances the "Craziness" and obsession of the speaker. Since the eyes are not stained, we assume that the killing was a very easy, smooth process. Once again, signifying purity.
Burning: The image of fire, or something burning is used at both the beginning and the end of the poem. In the beginning it is used to describe how Porphyria is able to warm the 'cheerless' cottage by making a fire. Towards the end of the poem it is used to describe the narrators kiss on Porphyria's cheek, even though she is no longer alive, her cheek is able to blush. In both scenes this burning image portrays Porphyria as a warm and loving character, but it does the opposite for the narrator. He is the person who lives in the cold and 'cheerless' cottage and the person who places the burning kiss on a woman he killed.
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