Browning’s "My last Duchess" and "Last Ride Together" as Dramatic Monologues

The dramatic monologue, usually associated with Robert Browning, is often defined as a poetry form in which there is a first-person speaker (persona) who is not the poet and who arouses some sympathy because of his complex personal history; a silent or at least unheard listener (auditor) who cannot help but hear; a situation characterized by a specific time and place (occasion); and an argumentative, rhetorical language which distinguishes the dramatic monologue from the soliloquy. Besides, one will notice a marked and often ironical discrepancy between the speaker's view of himself and the poet's implied judgment at the revelation of the persona's character between the lines, a discrepancy that the reader is usually supposed to adopt.

Loosely based on historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century, My Last Duchess provides a classic example of a dramatic monologue, the revelation of the Duke’s character being the poem’s primary aim.

A tension between sympathy and judgment, a power play between amazement and a sense of morality are among the striking features of dramatic monologue. In My Last Duchess, the combination of villain and aesthete in the Duke creates an especially strong tension. What interests us more than the Duke’s wickedness is his immense attractiveness. His conviction of matchless superiority, his intelligence and bland amorality, his poise, his taste for art, his high handed aristocratic manners - all these qualities overwhelm the envoy, causing him, as well as the reader, apparently to suspend judgment of the Duke.

It is because the Duke determines the arrangement and relative subordination of the parts that the poem means what it does. The duchess goodness shines through the Duke’s utterance, he makes no attempt to conceal it, so preoccupied is he with his own standard of judgment and so oblivious of the world’s. Thus the duchess’s case is subordinated to the Duke’s, the novelty and complexity of which engages our attention. We are busy trying to understand the man who can combine the connoisseur’s pride in the lady’s beauty with a pride that caused him to murder the lady rather than tell her in what way she displeased him, for in that ‘would be some stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop.’ The duke’s paradoxical nature is fully revealed when, having boasted how at his command the Duchess’s life was extinguished, he turns back to the portrait to admire of all things its life-likeness, ‘There she stands/ As if alive’.

In “The Last Ride Together” Browning catches the rejected lover at the most critical moment of his life and makes him talk on the painful pleasure of the moment. He tries to philosophise his failure and dress a consolation. The abrupt opening in the middle of the action; a philosophy of life that illustrates the carpe diem motive with its associated psychological insight; a wonderful expression of  life, love and optimism – all these features make it another superb specimen of Browning’s art of dramatic monologue. The ‘rejected’ lover feels that his last riding together with his beloved is better than the fates of statesmen, soldiers, sculptors, musicians, painters and soon, because he has realistic ideal of life at least for the moment. Critics often identifies the philosophy of the lover-narrator as Browning’s own; and that only intensifies the attractiveness of the narrative character  (speaker). Such unique characterization, the beauty of situation, the psychological insight and unparalleled mastery of expression exhibited in this poem,  make it another quintessential dramatic monologue. 

In Browning’s dramatic monologues the speaker is often a manipulator. The typical speaker of a Browning monologue is aggressive, often threatening, nearly always superior intellectually or socially to the auditor, a typically eloquent rhetorician who has complete control over what he speaks. Yet, such absolute control puts the listener on guard. The Duke’s subtlety makes the listener and the reader look for hidden motives and purposes. And irony is the key trope of this internal differentiation. Irony involves distancing language from itself. Thus, reading the monologue often means reading the language of the poem against itself – turning its rhetoric inside out to glimpse what the speaker may, unconsciously or not, be trying to conceal from view. Browning directs us as readers towards uncovering a finite set of causes that determine the speaker’s words and actions. The irony here is close to dramatic irony: the audience (reader) enjoys a position of superior knowledge relative to the actor (speaker). The silence of the auditor, allows the reader sufficient freedom to make his own interpretations and in the process he not only undermines the authoritarian voice of the speaker but also becomes integrally involved in the dialogue.

Last modified: Wednesday, 12 July 2017, 1:04 AM