To be able to create a perceptibly vivid character in literature can be considered to be one of the greatest challenges in the literary world, and doing so to a level where the reader can truly empathise with the created character is a greater feat still. In this matter Browning truly was a literary genius as in less than sixty lines he manages to create two male protagonists that are living and breathing, ready to leap off the page. The different ways in which he achieves this are the structure of the entire poem, vocabulary and word choice, use of literary techniques and their differences in dealing with essentially the same subject.
The poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” which first appeared in 1836, is considered to be one of Browning’s most shocking monologues. The action of “Porphyria’s Lover” unfolds through the recounting of the events of one night, culminating in the murder of Porphyria, by the speaker himself. The structure of the poem could be described as one of twelve stanzas with an ababb rhyme structure, though it is most often printed as a block poem. The majority of the lines contain four iambic feet, though a few are pentasyllabic. The unusual rhyming structure used seems to be the first hint of the speaker’s mental discord, as it is his narrating voice that we are following. A factor that further heightens this, as yet hypothesis, about the narrator’s instability is the enjambment that is used throughout the poem. It reveals his unaffected, lackadaisical nature that relates to something that one truly should not be indifferent to.
“ …and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.”
This shows how unnaturally nonchalant and disorderly his thought processes are, his morbid un-emotionality piques our interest and causes the character to seem truly vivid. This element emphasises the tone and seems to make the understated nature even more sociopathic.
Another factor is the vocabulary Robert Browning uses. Most of the words are monosyllabic creating a simple mood that is not broken by the polysyllabic that are incorporated in a quiet and unassuming manner; they do not break the tense tranquillity of the piece.
“I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.”
Here we see the simplistic almost naïve way in which the speech is narrated. Much of the force of the narrative lies in its practically innocent clarity and in the corresponding quiet, matter-of-fact tone of voice that seems to heighten the severity of the actual actions. The line “No pain felt she, I am quite sure she felt no pain” accentuates the horror of the going on by its seemingly childish-like affirmations. The detached, emotionless account with the cold and distant metaphor creates a chilling effect, by which the character of the speaker is made more vivid.
Also, Browning uses literary techniques to truly bring the character to life. One such example is the pathetic fallacy that used to not only set the mood for the entire poem, but also the mind set and mental state of the actual speaker.
“The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.”
Immediately we are introduced into a setting where the weather is dark and gloomy. The use of personification instantly hints at the fact that it is not only the weather that is being described. Words such as “awake”, “tore”, “spite” and “vex” imply a humanness that corresponds with the main protagonist. The slight alliteration that is used “sullen-soon”, “tore the elm-tops”, “worst-vex” further accentuates the fact. He is listening, listening intently and he feels empathy for the weather. He can sympathise, he is feeling the same things. We are shown his inner turmoil, his nebulousness and his destructiveness. The opening lines are a sort of foreshadowing for the rest of the poem and the true character of the narrator.
Another way in which Browning brings vividly to life the male protagonist is the slow revelation of true character, the building up of suspense, tension followed by the terrible twist. At first we are simply aware of the hints that are conveyed through the weather, the suspicion of something being amiss. Then we come to the description of Porphyria, through which we learn a lot about the speaker’s character. We know that he is watching her intently by the use of the anaphora, he describes her every motion.
“Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,”
From this stanza we feel a sort of condemnation of the woman described. The words “soiled” and “fall” imply his degrading opinion of her; make her seem like a fallen woman. The there is also the emphasised “last”, through which we feel his bitterness, therefore we know that he harbours some acrimonious feelings towards her, due to the fact that he feels that she is not paying him enough attention. We know that he is extremely possessive as is also later substantiated with the line “she was mine, mine, fair”. He feels the need to declare his possessions, because of what seems to be an inferiority complex. This is further confirmed in the lines:
“But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale”
Here it is conveyed that his lover comes from a higher social class than him. She has “vainer ties” and is missing a gay feast in order to be with him. Also, the word “pale” may allude to the fact that she might be of aristocratic birth and therefore her complexion is lighter than that of his. Here his background gives distinction to his character.
His character is further revealed through his unreasonable logic. When he finds out that his female companion truly does love him, he, knowing that the pressures of her “vainer ties” would inevitably return and take her back from him, decides to save this moment of ecstatic love in one of the ways that occur to him- “ a thing to do”, he murders her. His belief is that if he preserves her in the one moment when she was only his and all of her other obligations were, if only for the meantime, forgotten, then he will have the “Perfectly pure and good” woman that he wanted to see in her. This can be further seen when he describes her corpse,
“I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.”
Here again he describes her corpse as not having any stain of the obligations that were keeping her away from him. Also, “That all it scorned at once is fled,” further justifies that view.
And then the last line “And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” reveals his ultimate triumph yet at the same time a sort of tease, to us, the readers, and the entire Victorian society. Though that is probably the only time in the entire poem where we can actually feel the presence of the author’s opinions. It is an open challenge to the views of the society and its treatment of women. And so, throughout the entire poem and through the twist at the end a vivid character is created.
My Last Duchess is a poem that is loosely based on historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century. The entire poem is the Duke discussing the painting of his last Duchess that has recently passed away and arranging a marriage with a different girl from a rich family.
There is certain frigid decorum in the Duke’s speech that is established by the imperceptible, but unfailing, rhyming couplets. What may cause the reader to not actually notice this rhyming structure is the extreme prevalence of enjambment within the work. The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter but due to the deliberate disregard for the formal couplet pattern the rhythm feels more irregular. In this matter we are aided in creating the Duke’s voice as it forms the sense or beat of regular speech. A sense of cold calculation or of a cleverly made façade is made by the way of making the speech overly courteous which is obvious in the line “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” and the use of “Sir”. The Duke is not being excessively formal, quite on the contrary, a quiet, casual conversational tone prevails which therefore accentuates the few moments when the Duke loses his control and lets some of his true character show.
From the very beginning we learn something of his character.
“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? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read”
We immediately see that he is proud and needs means to assert himself as the superior. His emphasis on the fact that it was Fra Pandolf that painted the portrait tells us he feels the need to show off, even in front of someone as lowly as an envoy. The fact that he politely but insistently asks the envoy to sit down conveys his need for control and the fact that he is used to getting his own way. This is further shown in the line “(since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)”.
The Duke’s dramatic monologue is full of dramatizations, parodies, flattery and direct confrontations. It is obvious that he is a man of higher society. This is not only implied by his status and vocabulary, but also to the way he acts around the auditor. He tries to hide his true intentions, he makes the envoy feel intimate with him, he even flatters him to an extent.
“Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,”
We can clearly see the mask that he puts on, trying to never reveal what is truly going on underneath but when he starts discussing his former wife’s immoderate pleasure that absolutely everything, the perfectly prepared mask begins to slip.
“Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.”
We begin to see the real vile anger that is being covered up by the courtliness. The “she thought” suggests his disregard for her opinion, his belief that she was wrong. There seems to have been a great age difference between the Duke and the Duchess that caused his inferior view of her. Also, we begin to sense his disapproval of her behaviour. He sees her as being too free with her affections, a slight bit too shallow, too easily impressed. His use of the phrase “how shall I say?” shows that he is pretending to not be intentionally rude, he is simply stating the truth and already in as mild terms as possible. Here we begin to see his insincerity and manipulativeness. In the lines after that we witness an escalation of his anger.
“The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule”
Here we feel a quickening of pace and a distinctness of rhyme and rhythm. The Duke’s use of fricative sounds such as “officious fool” betray his genuine irritation.
We are also made aware of his impossible superiority and his preference of someone else doing his dirty work for him.
“—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together”
For him it is of the utmost importance to never let himself sink below what he considers to be his level. And then we reach the great revelation. “I gave commands; / Then all smile stopped together.” It is in this line that we find out that the Duke actually did have his Duchess killed, and what for? What he considered to be a simple mindedness and excessive amiability. It also seems as though a matter of life and death is a simple matter for him. He did not view the Duchess as a human being, she was just one more of his precious possessions that didn’t quiet correspond with his expectations, and so he had her removed. We can also see his need for complete control over a situation. He wasn’t able to conform her to his standards so he did it in a slightly more radical way, by eliminating her.
In conclusion, there are many ways in which Browning vividly brings to life the men and their relationships in both “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”. He does so through structure, revealing their states of mind, through vocabulary, revealing their tone and background, and through slow revelation of character, that builds up and up until all their efforts at concealment are swiped away and all that is left is the bare truth. The last one is what I believe to be the most important factor as it is what interests the leader most. First we get an almost accidental glimpse, then it becomes more and more clear until we have the feeling that we actually understand those characters. They are living people, made of bones and flesh, just as we are and they have opinions and faults and sometimes even virtues and that is what truly makes those characters so vivid, their humanity.