Browning’s interest in culture, including art and architecture, appears throughout his work in depictions of his characters’ aesthetic tastes. His characters’ preferences in art, music, and literature reveal important clues about their natures and moral worth. For instance, the duke of Ferrara, the speaker of “My Last Duchess,” concludes the poem by pointing out a statue he commissioned of Neptune taming a sea monster. The duke’s preference for this sculpture directly corresponds to the type of man he is—that is, the type of man who would have his wife killed but still stare lovingly and longingly at her portrait. Like Neptune, the duke wants to subdue and command all aspects of life, including his wife. Characters also express their tastes by the manner in which they describe art, people, or landscapes. Andrea del Sarto, the Renaissance artist who speaks the poem “Andrea del Sarto,” repeatedly uses the adjectives gold and silver in his descriptions of paintings. His choice of words reinforces one of the major themes of the poem: the way he sold himself out. Listening to his monologue, we learn that he now makes commercial paintings to earn a commission, but he no longer creates what he considers to be real art. His desire for money has affected his aesthetic judgment, causing him to use monetary vocabulary to describe art objects.
Evil and Violence
Synonyms for, images of, and symbols of evil and violence abound in Browning’s poetry. “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” for example, begins with the speaker trying to articulate the sounds of his “heart’s abhorrence” (1) for a fellow friar. Later in the poem, the speaker invokes images of evil pirates and a man being banished to hell. The diction and images used by the speakers expresses their evil thoughts, as well as indicate their evil natures. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855) portrays a nightmarish world of dead horses and war-torn landscapes. Yet another example of evil and violence comes in “Porphyria’s Lover,” in which the speaker sits contentedly alongside the corpse of Porphyria, whom he murdered by strangling her with her hair. Symbols of evil and violence allowed Browning to explore all aspects of human psychology, including the base and evil aspects that don’t normally appear in poetry.