A* GCSE English Literature Coursework

August 18, 2015 Nancy N

A Comparison of the Narrative Personae in Robert Browning's 'My Last Duchess' and 'Porphyria's Lover'

My Last Duchess

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? I said

"Fra Pandolf" by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

How such a glance came there; so, not the first

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not 

Her husband's presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess' cheek; perhaps

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps

Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half-flush that dies along her throat." Such stuff

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.

Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast, 

The dropping of the daylight in the West, 

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace - all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men - good! but thanked

Somehow - I now not how - as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill

In speech - which I have not - to make your will

Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,  

Or there exceed the mark" - and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse - 

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. There she stands

As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet

The company below, then. I repeat,

The Count your master's known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretense

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Porphyria's Lover

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.

When glided in Porphyria; straight 

She shut the cold out and the storm,

And kneeled and made the cheerless grate

Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;

Which done, she rose, and from her form

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,

She put my arm about her waist,

And made her smooth white shoulder bare, 

And all her yellow hair displaced,

And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,

And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,

Murmering how she loved me - she

Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,

To set its struggling passion free

From pride, and vainer ties dissever,

And give herself to me for ever. 

But passion sometimes would prevail,

Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain

A sudden thought of one so pale

For love of her, and all in vain;

So, she was come through wind and rain.

Be sure I looked up at her eyes

Happy and proud; at last I knew

Porphyria worshipped me; surprise

Made my heart swell, and still it grew

While I debated what to do.

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,

Perfectly pure and good: I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her. No pain felt she;

I am quite sure she felt no pain. 

As a shut bud that holds a bee,

I warily opened her lids: again

Laughed the blue eyes without a strain.

And I untightened next the tress

About her neck; her cheek once more

Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:

I propped her head up as before,

Only, this time my shoulder bore 

Her head, which droops upon it still:

The smiling rosy little head, 

So glad it had its utmost will,

That all it scorned at once is fled,

And I, its love, am gained instead!

Porphyria's love: she guessed not how

Her darling one wish would be heard.

And thus we sit together now,

And all night long we have not stirred,

And yet God has not said a word!

Compare Robert Browning’s Portrayal of the Personae in 'My Last Duchess' and 'Porphyria’s Lover' as Murderers

In ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Robert Browning adopts the personae of two men of varying emotional temperament who are each impelled to murder the women they feel they own. Through the use of dramatic monologue, Browning’s inclination towards theatrical writing could be comfortably expressed in poetry. After his unsuccessful attempt to write theatre itself, in ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ he skilfully gives the reader an insight into the minds of two ostentatiously troubling characters without creating an entire play around them. The murder itself is of different importance to each persona and subsequently the effects of the deaths are disparate. However, the personae are comparable as men who, due to their emotional failings, are driven to murder their women.

A manifest difference in Browning’s two murderous personae is their attitude to the murder itself, which Browning positions roughly two thirds into both of the poems. In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ it is the climactic acme. The visceral description, ‘I wound three times her little throat around’ creates a vivid image and suggests the murderer is enjoying the sensuality of the deed – previously impervious to Porphyria’s physicality in the form of her carnal advances, it enthrals him when he is murdering her. Perhaps more sinister however is the duke’s apathy; contrary to the passion experienced by Porphyria’s lover, he merely hints at the murder with the casual phrase, ‘I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together.’ His descriptions of the Duchess are far more placid throughout the poem: he even describes her crimes as ‘trifling’, which deceptively implies he understands how innocent her behaviour is. Porphyria’s lover’s morbid delight makes him seem perhaps comparatively more dangerous than the duke.

However, throughout ‘My Last Duchess’ Browning characterises the duke as by no means less frightening or psychopathic than the murderer in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. Whilst describing the duchess’ failings as a wife, the duke’s resentful comment, ‘she liked whatever she looked on, and her looks went everywhere’ insinuates the duchess was fickle, perhaps even lecherous. But when the duke recalls ‘the dropping of the daylight in the West’ as an occasion when she was ‘too soon made glad’, it becomes apparent that far from being promiscuous, the behaviour that necessitated the duchess’ murder was innocuous and inoffensive. Porphyria’s ‘vainer ties’ provide a far more understandable motive to murder (assuming it is these that generate Porphyria’s lover’s desperate desire to preserve her admiration for him) than the duchess’ ‘trifling’. Therefore the duke seems the more alarming of the two; Porphyria’s lover murders because he feels he has to share his lover with real people, whereas the duke feels murder is necessary because he’s tired of sharing his wife with sunsets or a ‘white mule’.

Browning gives both personae an ironic sense of rationality, an internal logic with which he possibly even sympathises, despite his potential inclination to render them utterly impenetrable due to his status as a happily married man. Porphyria’s lover concludes Porphyria must be murdered after realising, ‘that moment she was mine, mine, fair, perfectly pure,’ and although the repetition of ‘mine’ is discernibly psychotic and perhaps reminiscent of a conventional, theatrical murderer, the reader has the capacity tounderstand his logic even though, like Browning, we abhor it. Similarly in ‘My Last Duchess’, the persona isn’t driven to murder in a deranged rage: he believes murder to be the evident solution. The duke’s rhetorical question, ‘who’d stoop to blame this sort of trifling?’ not only asserts his authority, it also reiterates he is under the illusion that his judgement is coherent, acceptable: as if no one in his position would have tolerated his duchess’ behaviour.

Despite the confidence derived from their self-assured logic, each persona involuntarily reveals an element of doubt – by no means in a confessional sense – in the integrity of the murder. The duke’s otherwise unwavering arrogance falters as he explains what in the duchess’ behaviour necessitated her murder, ‘she thanked men – good! but thanked somehow – know not how-’ where his discomfort is tangible; the fragmented speech reveals he is aware that what he is relating sounds deceptively inoffensive. In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning reveals the murderer’s brief ambivalence similarly subtly; the repetition in his phrase: ‘no pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain’ exposes a brief uncertainty – it sounds like an unconvinced self-assurance.

Unlike conventional murderers, neither of Browning’s fictitious personaehas any sense of remorse. Alarmingly, the tone of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ becomes significantly more cheerful once the murder has taken place. The murderer’s description of Porphyria as having a ‘smiling rosy little head’ and being ‘so glad’ that she has been murdered reveals that the persona is deep within a fantasy. The final couplet in the poem is curiously celebratory; the phrase, ‘And yet God has not said a word!’ suggests that far from feeling regret, the murderer feels vindicated: God’s silence proves his actions were righteous, justified. The effect of the murder on the duke is markedly limited; his casual remark, ‘there she stands as if alive’ is devoid of sentiment: its purpose is to draw the conversation to a close. Though the duke doesn’t celebrate the murder so obviously as Porphyria’s lover, it is almost a celebration of his own power. The murder doesn’t so much concern him as those around him: those who had to carry it out and subsequently his future duchess, who must learn from it.

Due to the advancement of psychological understanding and subsequent increased sympathy with the mentally ill, today’s readers are potentially more inclined to sympathize with Browning’s alarming personae than Browning’s Victorian readership. However, patriarchal attitudes were far more common in 19th century life and so the possessiveness of the characters Browning portrays over their women would have been far less shocking to Victorian readers, who may even have regarded Porphyria, a woman who Browning insinuates is promiscuous, as immoral and therefore less of a victim than she is perceived today.

Browning’s views were evidently pre-modern. Regardless of the expectation on women to be passive, which was ubiquitous in the 1800s, (William Cobbett remarked in 1829, ‘a husband under command of his wife is the most contemptible of God’s creatures’) his decision to make his murderers so emotionally disturbed renders them impossible to sympathize with. Browning reveals he perceives his personae as alienated – his dexterous employment of dramatic monologue could initially lead readers to believe he shares his murderer’s views, whereas in reality Browning adopted these personae in order to discredit them: a concept frequently used by 21st century writers. Browning’s repetition of the word, ‘stooping’ as the duke describes what engaging with his wife would entail suggests Browning is very sensitive to the duke’s malevolence. In the 16th century, when Browning set ‘My Last Duchess’, women were even more restricted by their husbands and perhaps this is why Browning makes the duke comparatively more alarming than Porphyria’s lover – his motives to control the duchess are certainly harder to sympathise with.

Browning establishes the innate differences in his two murderers within the first few lines of the poems. The duke’s pompous opening comment, ‘that’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’ immediately conveys his superciliousness, which is ultimately what leads him to murder his duchess. The poem ends with a similar boast, in which Browning reveals the duke considers the painting of his duchess to be of comparable importance to a statue of ‘Neptune, taming a sea-horse’. In fact, the duke’s comment that the statue of Neptune is ‘thought a rarity’ is more that he grants his duchess – she is described as his ‘last’ duchess, which implies a sequence. Clearly, the duchess is no rarity to him.

Contrastingly, Browning’s use of pathetic fallacy in the first few lines of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ reveals the persona to be sentimental and aggrieved – he is yearning to feel loved. Unlike in ‘My Last Duchess’ there is no symmetry in the beginning and end of ‘Prophyria’s Lover’. However, Browning reiterates Porphyria’s lover’s sentimentality in the final few lines: ‘and all night long we have not stirred’ alludes to his mawkish expectation on Porphyria to make him feel utterly fulfilled. Browning uses a similar structure in both poems to make clear each murderer’s emotional connection to his woman - the crucial difference between the personae as murderers.


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