The Pleasure of Browning’s Villains

By Robert Cording

As an undergraduate in a state college, I read an essay by Howard Moss, a poet I admired and the poetry editor of The New Yorker  at that time. Though   his advice was of the usual “learn the tradition” school, what Moss said about writing poems struck my insecure hyperconscious-of my-poorly-educated self hard—he said, unless a poet knew the poems of the past, that poet was bound to repeat what another poet had already done better. Solid, but obvious advice that, nevertheless, I took deeply to heart. And so I went off to graduate school in English in 1972, closeting, like many of my fellow graduate students, my desire to be a writer inside the more mainline pursuit of a doctoral degree. In an early Victorian literature class, I first read Robert Browning. I was writing persona poems, trying to find my own voice by assuming the guise of others. Struck by the energy of Browning’s dramatic monologues, I began to think about the way he appropriated first-person narration and about the way his poems worked dramatically, through their plots.

His “villains,” in poems such as  “Porphyria’s Lover,” “The Bishop  Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” and the more famous, possessively titled, “My Last Duchess,” all employed untrustworthy first-person speakers that were allowed to convict themselves. And, while Browning was clearly concerned with the immorality of villainy, his aim was modern in so far as these were poems    of the “act of the mind,” as Wallace Stevens would later define modern poetry. They were not about ideas of pride and envy, or possessiveness and the love of material things, but about the reader’s experience of the villainy at the heart of them. Or to put it another way, the reader’s experience of the speaking voice, a voice that created, as it went on talking, a kind of internal, if perverted, order within the fictional entity of the  poem.

In fact, Browning’s contemporaries accused him of perversity; reading him, they found their sympathies aroused for characters that were, in large part, reprehensible. Of course, Browning never argued in these poems for the villainous ideas presented in the poems. He simply let the passion and will and intellectual fervor of his first-person speakers work their seductive charms. And perhaps what we like about them most is how much fun they are; if Browning’s poems unsettle us, it’s a kind of after-effect. While we read the poems, we suspend judgment, first forgetting that his villains go unpunished, and then, once the fun subsides, our judgment returning, we wonder how we could have enjoyed the perversity of a man such as the Bishop or the solipsistic villainy of the Duke. And why, oh why, did we not consider that the murderous lover of Porphyria seems to live happily ever after, without remorse or regret for his actions?

In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” the dying Renaissance bishop looks to get assurances from his sons that his tomb will outdo the tomb of Old Gandolf, his predecessor at Saint Praxed, who, in the bishop’s mind has already “cozened” him out of the best spot in the church for his resting  place. He wants his tomb to use

Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli, Big
as a Jew’s head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast

for a globe that will be positioned between his knees on his effigy, a globe that will even outshine “God the Father’s globe” in the Trinity sculpture, carved  from the largest known block of lapis lazuli, at the baroque Jesuit church Il Gesu in Rome. The bigoted slur, the eroticized breast of the Madonna, and the prideful one-upsmanship of an even more magnificent globe of God’s terrestrial creation all arrive with such unapologetic energy we’re almost thrilled to envision their ultimate purpose: to make Gandolf “see and burst.” Browning allows us to convict ourselves.

When the bishop realizes his sons may not be buying into his “orders” for a “peach-blossom marble” slab and that terrestrial ball of lapis lazuli, he reminds them of the “villas, all” he has bequeathed them:

Ah, ye hope
To revel down my villas while I  gasp
Bricked o’er with beggar’s moldy travertine.

And he plays the “woe-is-me” card of guilt: “Swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years: / Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?” He is, to answer the question in the bishop’s own words, in need of a jasper slab and a bas-relief in bronze that mixes Pans and Nymphs and “the Savior at his sermon on the mount.” The zest for living of the dying man, the no-holds-barred desire to get what he wants—and to do whatever it takes to realize those wants—make up Browning’s plot. It’s almost as hard for the reader to escape the bishop’s designs as it his for his children. But just about the time the bishop senses his children tiring of his material predilections and nearly pathological need to have a more opulent tomb than his clerical rival’s, Browning’s speaker divulges his darkest, underlying fears; the bishop fears, as many do, the tomb itself: “Clammy squares [of gritstone] which sweat / as if the corpse they keep were oozing through.” The loved body lost, the dissolution of the very flesh through which the world’s sensual pleasures are tasted . . . these fears are, perhaps, what keep the reader off-balance to the end, of two minds about our bishop.

If the reader sees the bishop’s villainy and then suspends judgment, realizing    as we do the bishop’s very human needs in ourselves, the lover in “Porphyria’s Lover” remains outside our sympathies. And yet once again Browning uses the dualities of his first-person speaker to complicate the reader’s response. The speaker is mad. He strangles Porphyria with her own hair in order to preserve the moment when she surrenders her love to him, and Browning’s poem seems to be driven by characterization and plot. Once the character and needs of Porphyria’s lover are established, the poem makes the speaker’s motives appear quite rational. He is a criminal because he loves and because he, in his own mad mind, has run through the “facts” more than once, and now simply completes  the act which Porphyria, who has come through wind and rain and “made her smooth white shoulder bare,” is still too full of pride to do: “give herself to [him] forever.” Of course, the speaker is unconscious of his own resentment regarding Porphyria’s unreachability, and his conflicted need to save her from her indecision is overwhelmed by his desire to hurt her as well as possess her (“that moment she was mine, mine”). But once the plot is set in motion it cannot help but lead to this climactic moment:

Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew

Porphyria worshipped me: surprise
Made my heat 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.

Browning’s lover is the classic untrustworthy narrator, and we experience the entire evening through his skewed perceptions. In his mind, he is saving Porphyria from the pain of her hesitations and indecisions—his gift is strangling her,  though he insists she felt no pain. In fact, he is quite sure of what she felt. Browning’s speaker, deranged by deeply solipsistic forces, can only see Porphyria from his perspective; he decides on what she needs by acting on what he needs. And, after strangling Porphyria, he lays her head on his shoulder, reciprocating her earlier act, and sees exactly what he needs to see in her smile and eyes: all she feared and scorned—”to give herself to me forever”—has now completely “fled.” He even wonders why, though they have stayed this way all night long, God has not “said a word!” to bless this mad, selfish, one-sided union. Browning’s narrative completes itself not in the usual, expected punishment for murder, but in the crazed, self-assurance of the murderer that the murdered felt no pain, the distorted syntax—”No pain felt she”—straightened out, ironically, in the next line by the deranged speaker’s mad certainty.

Human will plays a leading role in “My Last Duchess” as well. And, once again, elements of fiction are here: a first-person narrator/speaker who tells the truth, though the truth here is entirely consistent with the character of the speaker; a rather intact fictional world conditioned by the historical time (Renaissance)  the speaker inhabits and his own psychological habits of mind; and a plot that enjoys a kind of validity inside the poem but is morally problematic outside the poem’s fictional world.

The engine of the poem is the Duke of Ferrara’s untroubled belief in his own aristocratic values. As a reminder, here is the poem’s outrageous plot: The cruel Italian duke out of unreasonable jealousy has had his last wife, the Duchess of the title, murdered and is now contracting a second marriage for the dowry with the envoy of a prospective duchess. Now add this irony: The duke tells the story of “his” last duchess while showing off to the envoy the artistic merits of the last duchess’ portrait, a painting so good it makes her look “as if she were alive.” Following the duke and envoy down the stairway where the portrait hangs, the poem concludes at the bottom of the staircase with the duke bargaining for the dowry and showing yet another of his art “objects”—Neptune “taming a seahorse”—that displays defiantly both his taming and ultimately stilling (as the seahorse cast in bronze “for me” is stilled) of what belonged to him: his last duchess.

The duke’s villainy, as all readers of this poem know, divides our moral judgment (he is reprehensible and proud of it) and our sympathies (we find his villainy the least interesting aspect of the poem) as we watch the duke command the situation with poise, arrogance, and sheer force of will. Like Milton’s Satan, the Duke’s thinking can make his atrocious act good and the  good duchess bland and undiscriminating: she has a heart, in the duke’s words, “too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed.” Once we’re inside the self-aggrandizing magnetism of the Duke’s aristocratic spell, it is impossible to extricate ourselves; the good duchess, whose inclinations in the Duke’s mind have the audacity to be democratic, is summarily dismissed with this remark to the envoy:

Sir,  ‘twas all one! My favor 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 around 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 know not how—as if she  ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift.

Though the reader recognizes the insane jealously of the Duke, his egoistic possessiveness, the sheer verve of these lines, which convict him, also suspend our judgment; we go along with the duke as he explains how he could have tried to discipline the duchess in the ways of her new station but, of course, that would have involved “stooping” and, as he announces with Satan-like bravado, “I choose never to stoop.” What’s  a duke with a nine-hundred-years-old name to do?—why, give “commands” and stop altogether those silly, indiscriminate smiles. And there he is, confessing to having his last wife murdered to the envoy who he then asks to join him—as if simply being in his aristocratic orbit can dispel the envoy’s probable queasiness regarding his actions—as they go off to “meet the company below.” The duke’s sense of himself and his position,     the outrageous staircase monologue that justifies his last duchess’ murder with “what else could I do,” and the contracting for his next duchess, who, presumably, will simply become another art possession, leave the reader mesmerized by the Duke’s force of personality.

Of course, Browning makes perfect use of the paradox at the heart of so many of his dramatic monologues—a first-person speaker who, while reprehensible (and perhaps the more reprehensible the better) is perfectly at home in his own wickedness. Browning’s characterization drives the action, and, within the world of the poem, the duke’s actions seem almost natural. If we stop and ask what is the duke’s motive—surely telling the story of the last duchess’ demise and talking about the dowry can do him no good—we can only conclude that  the duke cannot help himself; or his speech forces the envoy into participating in the values of the duke’s own world; or the duke cannot help himself because he assumes that the values he holds are incontrovertibly the only values that are right. The answer is probably all of the above. The Duke, whose experience of the world is limited to his dukedom, who lives inside his own world of privilege, cannot imagine and certainly cannot empathize with a world outside his own.

There is only the solipsistic self; the other does not and cannot exist. Browning shows us something about ourselves: It takes us a while to catch up with people like the Duke, to see his revulsion for the other for what it is. We indulge his parading of self-assurance, and only later do we realize how easily we have been taken in by our own needs for certainty’s  bravado.

Browning’s villains are capable of guile and aesthetic appreciation; they are masters of argument and rational thought (even when mad); and they often possess a straightforward, unquestioning belief in themselves. And, most importantly, they keep the reader off-balance. If the reader sees the villainy in each of these characters, that judgment is by far the least interesting aspect of the poem. What is interesting: the pleasures of Browning’s language, and how, once we indulge in those pleasures of voice, of characterization and character-driven plots, we cannot stand apart from the fictional world of the poem. Entertained, even entranced by his character’s forceful personalities, we suspend judgment, as Coleridge said about the reading of fiction. Caught up in Browning’s fictive worlds, we care only about what those villains will say or do next. And, because Browning keeps us from empathizing with the victims, we forget for a time that there are victims. And, of course, there is our built-in attraction to evil—who doesn’t feel that Satan, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, is a much more interesting character than God. Perhaps we always know, as St. Paul has said, that while we might know the right thing to do, more often than not, we still choose to do the wrong. We indulge, even take pleasure, in Browning’s villains because they are mesmerizing, and, because Browning never moralizes, we only sense the dangers of our attractions in retrospect. And so, when Browning’s poems finally reach their close and their imaginative hold relents, we come, at last, to see ourselves and how we are and are not like the bishop, or even Porphyria’s lover, or that egregiously egotistic duke.

Robert Cording has published nine collections of poems, the most recent of which are Walking With Ruskin, Only So Far and Without My Asking. A new book of prose, Finding the World’s Fullness is also out now from Slant Press. He taught for 38 years at Holy Cross College and now serves as a poetry mentor in the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.

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