"And I Choose Never to Stoop": Suspense and Unreliability in Robert Browning's Complementary Dramatic Monologues

By Vesztergom, Janina | British and American Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

"And I Choose Never to Stoop": Suspense and Unreliability in Robert Browning's Complementary Dramatic Monologues


Vesztergom, Janina, British and American Studies


1. Introduction

When the name Robert Browning is mentioned, most people immediately associate it with the paradigmatic example of the dramatic monologue, My Last Duchess - Ferrara. However, few people seem to be aware that this particular poem was originally published together with Count Gismond - Aix en Provence, under the common title Italy and France, in the third volume of Bells and Pomegranates (1842) (Berdoe 1928:141). As a result, most critical analyses tend to focus only on the well-known My Last Duchess and completely disregard the examination of its companion piece. The present paper attempts to demonstrate that a comparative analysis of the two dramatic monologues not only leads to a better understanding of the individual poems, but also draws the readers' attention to significant aspects of interpretation, which would otherwise remain unnoticed.

2. Suspense and unreliability

2.1 "An invitation to read twice": the narrative strategy of suspense

In the comprehensive interpretation of a literary work, the title tends to be of fundamental importance. As I have mentioned in the introduction, the two poems under analysis were originally published under one title, Italy and France - My Last Duchess - Ferrara being No. I. Italy, and Count Gismond - Aix en Provence - No. II. France (Corson 2006:101). By 1849, however, the poems had been separated and given the individual titles that have been used in all subsequent editions since then (Tilton, Tuttle 1962:83). While, at the beginning, some critics conjectured about the reason for the poems' original pairing, most of them approved of Browning's revision, on the grounds that the two dramatic monologues are patently dissimilar. Moreover, they also claimed that the narration in Count Gismond is too straightforward and mediocre to match the narration in My Last Duchess, the epitome of the dramatic monologue (Tilton, Tuttle 1962:83). As opposed to these deprecatory views, which attribute the modification of the title to Browning's acknowledgment of the "somewhat meretricious" relationship between the dramatic monologues (De Vane qtd. in Tilton, Tuttle 1962:83), I would argue that the poet's intention with the alteration was, paradoxically, to make the connection between the two poems more obvious. The first step in the formation of the new titles was to take out of the respective poems the characters of the Duchess and the Count, around whom the texts apparently centre. In addition to naming these characters in the main part of the titles, the poet also added the place names "Ferrara" and "Aix en Provence" as subtitles. Although this modification might seem to be a diminutive revision of the original, its significance cannot be overlooked. By the addition of the subtitles, Browning not only particularized the geographical settings, but implicitly restricted the historical periods as well. As soon as the readers are confronted with the place names, they associate them with the period of the Italian Renaissance on the one hand, and the French Troubadour era, on the other.

The significance of the paratextual elements lies not only in evoking the readers' frames of reference, but also in creating generic expectations concerning the poem they are going to read. On a first reading of the title My Last Duchess - Ferrara, readers might think that the poem is a lyrical one, a love song dedicated to a still living, beloved Duchess. In this interpretation, the possessive determiner "my" emphasizes the affectionate relationship, while the determiner "last", deriving its meaning from OE latost, means the latest or the newest (Hoad 1996:259). In this sense, the determiner designates the Duchess who comes at the end of a series; however, it does not necessarily imply that no more will follow. As opposed to this, if we consider the poem to be an elegy lamenting the death of a beloved wife, the determiner "last" gets a new meaning, namely that of late. In this sense, the Duchess is shown to be a deceased and beloved character. …

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