Reading Questions: Robert Browning

Check here for a biographical sketch of  Robert Browning, who lived from 1812 to 1889.

The poems were are reading by Browning are all in a form known as “dramatic monologue–a form he did not invent, but may have perfected. The dramatic monologue, according to M. H.  Abrams, generally includes “a single person, who is patently not the poet,” speaking “the entire poem in a specific situation at a critical moment.” There is also usually an (unseen) auditor whose presence is revealed by the speaker,  and the poem itself is constructed so as to reveal the character of the speaker (A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th ed., 50).  For each of these poems, then, you will want to identify 1) the speaker, 2) the auditor, and 3) the critical moment–why is this speaker telling this particular story now, and to whom?

“Porphyria’s Lover,” published in 1836, was originally one of two poems published together with the title Madhouse Cells. How does this information influence your reading of the poem?

“My Last Duchess,” published in 1842, may be Browning’s most famous dramatic monologue.  Most editions published today include a note regarding the speaker, who was a historical figure, Alfonso II, duke of Ferrara. (Both artists mentioned in the poem are imaginary.) His first wife, Lucrezia, died in 1561 after three years of marriage; the poem represents an incident following her death, when the duke negotiated with an agent of the count of Tyrol to marry the count’s niece. Considering that situation, you will want to explore how the duke presents himself to the agent–what he reveals intentionally, what he might want to conceal and why, etc.

The poems “Andrea del Sarto” and “Fra Lippo Lippi” are often read as a pair. Both were published in Browning’s 1855 collection, Men and Women, and both are based on material Browning gleaned from Giorgio Vasari, author of Lives of the Painters. Both Lippi (1406-1469) and del Sarto (1486-1531) are, then, historical figures, but Browning invents their monologues here to explore issues of art, representation, and ambition, among other things.

In “Fra Lippo Lippi,” the artist (a Carmelite friar) has been apprehended by the neighborhood watch out late near where prostitutes are known to work. How does this setting influence our reading of Lippi’s claims about his art?

What does Lippi tell his auditors about his childhood and history? How is this relevant to his situation in the poem?

In “Andrea del Sarto,” the painter addresses his wife and model Lucrezia, who seems eager to be off to meet with her “cousin” (perhaps a euphemism for lover). What is the painter’s attitude towards his wife? Does it change over the course of the poem?

Both painters compare themselves to other, often better-known, painters of the period: Raphael (del Sarto refers to him as “the Urbinate” at one point), Michelangelo (or “Agnolo”), Giotto (Lippi’s predecessor), and others. How do these painters see themselves in relation to these others? What is the poet’s attitude towards these comparisons?