A comparison of two poems: My Last Duchess and Ulysses, considering their effectiveness as dramatic monologues
Browning and Tennyson, both writing around the same time, chose powerful personas to unfold the dramas of their dramatic monologues. For Browning, it is the Duke of Ferrara, an aloof and calculating ruler of a province in the north-east of Italy near the Austrian borders, who narrates a story based on actual events. Tennyson, however, chose to base his narrative poem around the eponymous mythological hero originally created by Homer and embellished by Dante. The resultant poems are both powerful and effective dramatic monologues.
Both background stories are compelling. Ferrara, a cold and jealous man is discussing the fate of his ‘last’ duchess with an emissary from the father of his next one. In a casual, conversational tone, achieved by rhyming couplets which are effectively interspersed with enjambment to create an impression of natural speech, Ferrara carefully informs his captive audience of his former wife’s intolerable weaknesses in order to clarify what he requires from his next wife. In Ulysses, Tennyson’s persona is presented as an old man, bored with life who, despite having led an amazingly adventurous life, finds himself yearning for one last adventure before his death. His sombre mental state is successfully recreated in the use of blank verse with largely unrhymed iambic pentameters, though with the occasional tell-tale internal rhyme to connect his ideas and mood changes.
Browning’s persona is frighteningly effective. At first he seems to be speaking directly to the reader in a casual, inviting way ‘That’s my last Duchess...Will’t please you to sit and look at her?’ and it is not in fact until the last few lines that we realise for certain whom he is addressing; an envoy from ‘The Count your master...’ and exactly why. It is this restrained and casual tone throughout that contrasts so effectively and horrifically with the horror of what the count has done. Browning intends us to read carefully between the lines to understand the Duke. Only this way can we chart the build up of the Duke’s anger and obsession.
His deeply possessive nature begins to be revealed quite gradually: ‘since none puts by/the curtain I have drawn for you but I’ is perhaps the first clue, raising the question of why his wife’s portrait should be kept hidden behind a curtain, only to be viewed with his consent. Other subtle clues come in casual phrases like ‘they would ask me, if they durst’ (suggesting those around him are too much in awe of him to question him). There is a sense of gradually mounting anger in the carefully controlled speech of the duke as he begins to recall his former wife’s foibles: ‘She had/A heart – how shall I saw? – too soon made glad,’ which reaches something of a crescendo in his self-righteous arrogance at the fact she ranked ‘My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift.’ You can almost hear the chilling emphasis on ‘anybody’s’. Despite the rhyming couplets, Ferrara’s speech strikes the reader as being convincing and sinister in its intent.
The harshly plosive ‘disgusts’ is spat out at the culmination of the duke’s anger, despite which his almost inhuman reserve and pride makes the prospect of communicating his disapproval impossible. His speech descends into contemptuous dismissal as he justifies his unwillingness to compromise his dignity by checking his pretty wife’s enthusiasm. Instead he ‘gave commands’ after which ‘all smiles stopped together’. In other words, the duke had his wife disposed of and here is the whole purpose of the monologue: to provide a subtle warning to the next wife of what he considers to be acceptable behaviour in a wife, and what will happen if his wishes are not met.
The skilful way the duke directs his listener away from one work of art to another of his treasures, this time a prized bronze emphasises his self-belief. In fact Browning achieves an extremely convincing study of a rather inscrutable character by his use of dramatic monologue. By combining the lyric and dramatic forms, he reveals the inner workings of a character’s psyche, his values, tastes and motivations. The dramatic irony of course is that whilst the duke seeks to give an entirely favourable impression of himself to his listener and an entirely unfavourable impression of his last duchess, Browning actually succeeds in conveying the exact opposite to the reader.
The persona of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue, the mythical Ulysses, is a marginally more sympathetic character, though still selfish. Having returned from his epic adventures to his native Ithaca, he speaks sombrely to his wife and child of his past exploits, lamenting his current inactivity among ‘the still hearth’ and the ‘barren crags’ of his present environment, which are symbolic of stagnation and death. In fact death imagery pervades the poem. He expresses his yearning to return one last time to that life in which he was ‘always roaming with a hungry heart’. Sadly the devoted wife and child, much less his inadequate subjects, whom he describes as ‘a savage race’, cannot satisfy that yearning for adventure that is in his soul.
His past exploits have instilled a sense of pride in his renown as well as this yearning to live life to the full. The imagery conjured up in his descriptions of his past exploits seems to rekindle his current discontent into brighter, sharper focus. When he tells of his ‘hungry heart’ and his ‘drunk delight’ the alliterative imagery seems to emphasise his determination as well as his need to go forward into the unknown in search of ‘knowledge’ which is associated with that almost invisible phenomenon ‘a sinking star’, notwithstanding his advanced years.
Ulysses wants to ‘shine’ (as he did in Troy), not ‘rust’, seeming content enough to leave his son to do the latter in his place. Telemachus, it seems, will make an adequate ruler but lacks his father’s spirit of adventure. His contemptuous dismissal of his son’s qualities of ‘slow prudence’ and mildness do not make him likeable in the reader’s eyes. But whether this attitude makes Ulysses an heroic or an arrogant character in the poet’s eyes is not entirely clear. Tennyson is completely distanced from his character and allows no element of bias to intrude in his portrayal, relying on his character’s words to speak for themselves.
In the final section of the poem the mood shifts and the language is markedly heroic. It becomes much more speech-like and builds to a convincing rallying cry to his men: ‘To strive, to see, to find, and not to yield.’ Like him, his crew is sinking into dotage, but he sees in them the qualities he sees in himself and tells them that their role is to pursue virtue and knowledge, or perhaps ‘the Happy Isles’, there to be reunited with great heroes like Achilles, whom the gods translated there and made immortal. Perhaps in Ulysses there is an ambivalence about what the future holds and such ideas raise the status of the poem at time to elegiac heights.
Tennyson allowed himself this licence by drawing from both Homer and Dante as well as his own morose state of mind due to the tragic loss of his friend. Reflections on death would be natural in any elderly person and by making Ulysses an old man, Tennyson’s dramatic monologue is all the more convincing and effective. It also makes the reader re-appraise the hero’s motivations and sympathise with his insatiable restlessness and yearning to discover something which is ‘Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.’
Both poets use the dramatic monologue form to explore the real minds behind two remarkable, legendary characters: both motivated by self-interest to some extent, though one uses his power to his own ruthless ends, whilst the other explores a more noble compulsion in his nature.
You can read the full poems online by clicking on the links
My Last Duchess (1842) by Robert Browning
Ulysses (1842) by Alfred Lord Tennyson