Medieval and Renaissance European Settings
Browning set many of his poems in medieval and Renaissance Europe, most often in Italy. He drew on his extensive knowledge of art, architecture, and history to fictionalize actual events, including a seventeenth-century murder in The Ring and the Book, and to channel the voices of actual historical figures, including a biblical scholar in medieval Spain in “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (1864) and the Renaissance painter in the eponymous “Andrea del Sarto.” The remoteness of the time period and location allowed Browning to critique and explore contemporary issues without fear of alienating his readers. Directly invoking contemporary issues might seem didactic and moralizing in a way that poems set in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries would not. For instance, the speaker of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” is an Italian bishop during the late Renaissance. Through the speaker’s pompous, vain musings about monuments, Browning indirectly criticizes organized religion, including the Church of England, which was in a state of disarray at the time of the poem’s composition in the mid-nineteenth century.
Dramatic monologues feature a solitary speaker addressing at least one silent, usually unnamed person, and they provide interesting snapshots of the speakers and their personalities. Unlike soliloquies, in dramatic monologues the characters are always speaking directly to listeners. Browning’s characters are usually crafty, intelligent, argumentative, and capable of lying. Indeed, they often leave out more of a story than they actually tell. In order to fully understand the speakers and their psychologies, readers must carefully pay attention to word choice, to logical progression, and to the use of figures of speech, including any metaphors or analogies. For instance, the speaker of “My Last Duchess” essentially confesses to murdering his wife, even though he never expresses his guilt outright. Similarly, the speaker of “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” inadvertently betrays his madness by confusing Latin prayers and by expressing his hate for a fellow friar with such vituperation and passion. Rather than state the speaker’s madness, Browning conveys it through both what the speaker says and how the speaker speaks.
Unlike other Victorian poets, Browning filled his poetry with images of ugliness, violence, and the bizarre. His contemporaries, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, in contrast, mined the natural world for lovely images of beauty. Browning’s use of the grotesque links him to novelist Charles Dickens, who filled his fiction with people from all strata of society, including the aristocracy and the very poor. Like Dickens, Browning created characters who were capable of great evil. The early poem “Porphyria’s Lover” (1836) begins with the lover describing the arrival of Porphyria, then it quickly descends into a depiction of her murder at his hands. To make the image even more grotesque, the speaker strangles Porphyria with her own blond hair. Although “Fra Lippo Lippi” takes place during the Renaissance in Florence, at the height of its wealth and power, Browning sets the poem in a back alley beside a brothel, not in a palace or a garden. Browning was instrumental in helping readers and writers understand that poetry as an art form could handle subjects both lofty, such as religious splendor and idealized passion, and base, such as murder, hatred, and madness, subjects that had previously only been explored in novels.