The paper deal with the various features of Browning’s Poetry and how it manifests itself in My Last Duchess, subtly encapsulating the characteristics of the Victorian era. Browning portrays all forms of art as self revelatory and reflective of social constructions. In this poem, the setting is based on Renaissance Italy, where a Duke is talking about his last Duchess to a man who is an envoy for his next Duchess. There are assumptions that this text is based on Duke Alfonso II and his first Duchess, and there is an actual episode in Tuscan history similar to the situation presented in the poem, but there is no evidence of it being truly based on the life of the Duke as the Duchess is said to have died of Tuberculosis. So, it can be read as an interpretation based on the rumours of the Duke poisoning his wife and adheres to the idea which Browning wishes to suggest about the Victorian Age.
Browning had absorbed the searching, critical spirit of the nineteenth century before his critics had begun to realize their own time. Three prominent facts concerning the subjects of Browning’s poetry were: the comparative insignificance of nature, the extensive treatment of art, and the predominance of the human soul.
Nature for its own sake is never a supreme concern in Browning’s poems. It is never considered as a primary moral force, akin to a personality, as in Wordsworth- or for the sake of its own sensuous beauty, as in Keats or Shelley. He did not subscribe to Wordsworth’s view that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes it origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Instead he strongly held to the view that Poetry was closely related to life and its problems. Nor did he believe in the pre- Raphaelite view of “art for art’s sake,” he believed art must be pulsating with life. So even though images of nature are subtly evoked in his poetry they do not surpass the significance of art and human personality. His poems reflected the proponents of aestheticism that espoused views and values and developed into decadence and challenged the Victorian values of art and life, striking at Victorian morality.
Browning, had considerable amount of knowledge about various arts and his appreciation of these arts is visible throughout his works. Forty-nine out of a total of two hundred twenty-two poems by Robert Browning refer to one of the five fine arts—poetry, music, architecture, painting and sculpture. A lot of importance was given to arts in Victorian age when the great exhibition opened in the year 1851, the whole nation suddenly realised that a unique thing has happened. Objects of art and curiosity from the entire world were assembled below one roof and London had become the centre of the world, if not the hub of mankind. However, when the first complete work in this subject appeared— Kugler’s Handbook of the History of Art, it was not translated from the German until 1855, when the part referring to Italy was published in an English translation by Sir Charles Eastlake. Taking this work as the beginning of modern treatment of art history, and noting the fact that the next work of importance referring to Italian art alone and treating it from the historical standpoint was published by Crowe and Cavalcaselle in 1870, it is evident that nothing like the present general knowledge of it could have existed in England in Browning’s time. Certainly this makes his treatment of art history, particularly the facility with which he presents the tendencies of different periods, more remarkable than similar attainment would be in more recent times.
As a child, Browning received musical education and became a pianist of some ability. His appreciation of music was further cultivated, during his young manhood as his biographical sketches and letters mention attending concerts and operas in London, especially Beethoven’s. His interest in music influences his poems; for they show a finer appreciation of music and a greater knowledge of its technique than those of any other writer. My last duchess is a powerful example of psychological poetry, composed in rhyming couplets in a single long stanza developing the persona of the arrogant Duke. This dramatic monologue fits into the character of dark, pretentious and egoistical man. His art monologue is of two kinds—the monologue of the artist who is the chief character in the poem (as in My Last Duchess), and the monologue of the poet addressing the artist directly.
Ferrara formed a very large part of the setting in My Last Duchess. But the initial title of the poem was, “Italy”. Browning had a story to tell; and for that story a location was necessary. There are, to be sure, numerous instances in which the particular church or castle he names suits the tone of the story just a trifle better than anything else he could have found. With all his mention of Italian works of architecture, then, Browning’s primary object was never the abstract beauty of that art itself. In contradistinction to the other fine arts discussed here, it is characterized by usefulness. While it should, and does, in its highest forms, surmount mere utility, and give an impression of harmony, beauty, and grandeur, it never directly portrays the finest feelings of which humanity is capable and never inspires one directly with, a feeling of achievement or struggle in character.
The Dulwich Gallery was a pleasant walk from his home, and there his father constantly took him, there and ‘he became familiar with the names of the great painters and learned something about their works. Later he became a familiar figure in one or two London studios.’ Browning, as an artist held to the truth as he saw it, even in his treatment of art. His purpose was not to give art history, but to present personality as it existed in relation to art. With his deep insight into human nature, as well as art history, he took the characters which he found in the world of art, the good or bad, and gave them to us as examples of the striving, often unsuccessful soul. The character of the Duke is created by his own words as a shallow, egoistical product of a patriarchal authority. He is very proud of his social hierarchy and wants to command everything. When he realised that his wife, does not care about the social hierarchy and is equally happy with the simple joys in life, he orders her smile to stop. Now, it is not clear whether he ordered to kill her, or send her with the nuns, as Browning himself, refused to provide a clear answer. The genius of such characterization lies in the fact that the poet himself does not provide any moral judgement on the audacious nature of the duke.
He simply keeps the reader on a tight rope of uncertainty with the ambiguous monologue. But it does fairly represent the status of women in Victorian Society. On 18th February, 1889, members of Exeter’s book club read six of Browning’s short poems including My Last Duchess, and the reading and notes provoked much discussion. One of the members, Rev. Sackville A. Berkely, offered to write to the poet, and state the difficulties of the members, “Was she infact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour or did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?” To which Browning replied, “As an excuse- mainly to himself- for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his superiority in even the most trifling matter.” The focus here is not on Browning’s reply, but the question itself. It reveals the attitude of Victorian men; they ask if the Duchess really deserved it? Was she shallow? The second part of the question asks, was the Duke correctly describing her? Either she was shallow, or an adulterer!
Another example is The King in Tennyson’s The Princes which express the conservative opinion about women’s role in the society:
“Man for the field, woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey.”
The Victorians in general and the mid- Victorians in particular have been criticized often for complacency, self satisfaction, squeamishness and snobbery.
Similar, though less conspicuous interest in sculpture was maintained throughout Browning’s career. The first mention of it in either letters or poems is found in a letter of 1838, to Miss Haworth, in which the statement concerning Canova implies disappointment and previous expectation. While the interest was not great compared with that taken in painting, it was fairly continuous. While the number of sculptors named is very small, still Browning’s appreciation of this art surpasses his appreciation of architecture. It is often difficult to estimate separately Browning’s treatment of sculpture and painting, since he discusses the two arts together in several of his poems.
References to sculpture as exist in the poems seem to conform entirely to the facts of history, where there is any pretence of historical accuracy. Sculpture is so unimportant a feature of most of the poems that there was certainly very little temptation to enlarge on the facts for dramatic purposes, or for any other reason. Reasons for the predominance of the other arts over sculpture in Italy, and the particular quality of sculpture as an art which makes it tend toward the expression of physical beauty instead of the soul. Though Browning did some work in modelling he used very few technical terms connected with that art. A letter from Mrs. Browning to her old friend, Mrs. Jameson, dated May 8, 1856, tells us after thirteen days application on the part of her husband, as sculptures he produced some really astonishingly good copies of heads, though his purpose was only to fill in the pause in his literary career. My Last Duchess (1842) sums up, in a short poem, the entire decadent Renaissance attitude toward art so fully that no historical names could improve it. Its one mention of sculpture is in the closing lines:
“Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.”
In two and one-half lines it gives a powerful suggestion of admiration for art because it was fashionable, of emphasis on technique rather than content, of the classical subject matter and bronze material that were in vogue at the time, and of the character expressed in the intellectual but heartless Duke’s purpose of taming the Duchess as the sculpture is the only foil mentioned to the painting of the Duchess.
Personality is the dominant factor behind Browning’s selection and treatment of the Italian arts. Those arts in which personality is strongest are used most by the writer. Very often the characters whom Browning chose to present either in connection with the arts or otherwise, were such as we do not approve of—but neither did Browning approve of them. By consideration of Browning’s general attitude towards the arts, of his fondness for the struggle of the human soul as a poetic theme, and by a discussion of his relative emphasis on each art and the method in which he chose to treat it, the fact has been established, that Browning was primarily the poet of the human soul, and a poet of the arts as seen through the medium of personality. When he was once asked if he liked nature, he replied, ‘Yes but I love men and women better”. Thus he loved the arts—architecture, music, poetry, sculpture, and painting—but he loved them most because they recorded human experience, and best when they most fully expressed the conflict and contrast in a single personality.
Another Victorian aspect was the loss of faith in religion. The importance is relocated in psychological interiority and social structures. Although this lack of faith is subtle but it is represented in the poem, as the poem offers no redemption. The duke hints that he killed his wife, or punished her, as opposed to forgiving her. The duke believes he has the right to command his wife, his household, the listener as well as the painting of his wife.
Forty-nine poems out of two hundred and twenty-two, or more than one-fifth of the entire number, have some mention of one or more of the arts or artist of Italy, while other poems deal with the arts of other nations or with a general comparison of the arts. The amount of time spent by Robert Browning in Italy is a further reason for expecting Italian art themes in his writings. In 1838, at the age of twenty-six, he made his first trip to Italy; and in 1844 he was again there, from August or September until December. In 1846, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning went to Italy to live, and excepting intervals for trips to France and England, were there until the death of the latter in 1861. For several years after this, Browning spent most of his time in England. In 1878, however, he returned to Northern Italy; and of his eleven remaining years, seven autumns were spent in Venice, until his death there in 1889. So, even though his locations and characters are not Victorian, his subject matters still deal with Victorian society and its issues.
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