Browning's subjects range from morally derelict characters to heroes who spurn fame to self-thwarted misfits. Whether his characters are portrayed in a dramatic monologue or in a narrative poem, it is his dramatic power that gives him his signature style. Clearly, he is not interested in conventional, obvious heroes, or in spectacle and gaiety. Instead, the darker side of life is surcharged with poetry for him.
There is a self-conscious poetic revolution, an attempt to break old models with new forms in his poetry. He exemplifies the technique of the dramatic monologue, relentless questionings from imaginary characters, including himself (despite his claim to the contrary), by one male persona. This arises from the unending conflict between the transience and permanence, love and selfishness, perfection and flaw, inertia and effort, renunciation and commitment, and the physical and spiritual.
Since Browning's speakers are male, a discussion of male identity requires a yardstick i.e. an indication of his perception of a female identity, to base on in order to form a more concrete and persuasive argument. In "Childe Roland", the conspicuous absence of a female voice may suggest a representation of a specifically male identity through the speaker. On the other hand, doubts remain whether he intended to psychoanalyse the male identity for this particular poem as no female voice exists for a comparison.
The protagonist, Roland, sees that the fulfilment of a worthy life goal provides the ultimate meaning of existence and that the deed may even immortalise the doer. He has begun his life with goals separate from the masses but slowly gives in to selfish vainglory. He desires a crowning achievement to his wandering life, to succeed where others have failed. He finds the "hoary cripple" with his "skull-like laugh", an allusion to Charon, who directs him to the end of his journey. Along the way, the river that Roland encounters does not promise life for the harsh inhospitable plain but poisons life, "the river which had done them all the wrong." Rivers have the natural power to renew and reshape the land hence they represent forces of change. In the poem, the river represents the scourge of industrialisation that changes society for the worse, through the greed and self-interest it was creating. The river is a "A suicidal throng" and Roland "feared to set (his) foot on a dead man's cheek". Trapped in the hellish place, people are drowning and dying or are dead.
In Greek mythology, Charon ferries the souls of the deceased undergoing their final passage to Hades over the rivers Styx and Acheron that are traditionally associated with woe and death. Both the cripple and the river create an image of death and of the underworld. Roland has in essence become dead after he has been swayed by the desire for fame and posterity. There is no turning back as his mind has already been poisoned by greed. Moreover, his ability to deal with being 'different' has "dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope" with anything, especially since he is tired of the ongoing trial and wishes to end it. Browning comments on how society has fragmented as people become individualistic and sympathetic to no one but themselves. Under the Industrial Revolution, the individual is forsaken and rejected by society. Societal change is so drastic that goals for the good of humanity become in vain. In fact, the loneliness and punishment from struggling against industrialisation are driving all to conform. The "stiff blind horse" represents what happens to all those who succumb. The effects of the vile river have wrecked it to a state that is so close to death that it would be more merciful to be dead. It has lost its sight and is unable to get out of its imprisoning environment. In a parallel comment on society, people are so paralysed by the effects of industrialisation that they have lost their ability to see the options open to reverse the situation.
With the desolate, barren and hideous setting of the land stretching to the Dark Tower itself, Browning's sees a bleak future installed for the English with the assault of the Industrial Revolution. The Dark Tower represents a culmination of all the evil dangers that are happening and that he foresees in England's future. Roland's arrival at the Dark Tower signifies Browning's recognition that industrialisation is stripping everyone of their individuality. The statement "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" rings with a keen note of despair. The adventurer comes to the painful recognition that all his wanderings and sufferings have gone to nought as the dark tower triggers the realisation and acknowledgement of what it symbolises. He has succumbed to the blind human failing of striving for a flawed life goal that he thought he has been evading.
Whereas Childe Roland recognises his failing and embraces it in the end, the Italian duke in "My Last Duchess" avoids any self-examination of his faults or even an acknowledgement that he is flawed. Here a psychological exploration of the psyche of the duke is complemented with a comparison to Browning's portrayal of the duchess. The young duchess is painted as innocent and sweet and acts as a strong foil to the psychotic and paranoid control freak that her husband is. The power wielded by the duke is equated with his level of depravity as he executed his wife because of his gratuitous jealousy and monumental pride, but under the pretext of alleged impropriety. The enormity of his wickedness is emphasised by his exquisite taste in Art as this suggestion of high culture derives a theatrical quality from the insane murder of his wife. He inadvertently reveals his own character through his speech and the image of an over-zealous, over-possessive collector emerges. Unlike the quester Roland who gains self-knowledge, the duke who habitually projects faults on others to mask his own from himself, does not.
The duke lives a perfect marriage vicariously through his paintings and the portrait of the duchess is ironically more suited to him as his wife. It cannot demean him being inanimate. He relishes in repeating his story from his obsession of memory to the emissary for his next marriage, and perhaps to warn him of expected behaviour from his new bride. He expects total deference to him "and (he) chose never to stoop" to telling what hurts his pride. The only emotion he lays claim to is rage thus the memory of the duchess, through her portrait, becomes no more than another exhibit in his house like the bronze statuette. An emotion such as his is passive in the sense that the mental processes do not venture into deeper reflection to recognise the reality whereas the melancholy in Roland is active in the sense that the speaker tries to act on it by finding a purpose to his life.
Both "Childe Roland" and "My Last Duchess" addresses disturbing questions on the problematic nature of self and its relationship to the physical world that cause alienation. The sense of identity loss undermines possibilities of self-conscious meaningful action. Their feelings of loss replaced those of security in the self, resulting in irrational behaviour — a combination of morbidity, painful self-denial and single-mindedness. Hopelessness loops forwards and backwards until Roland finds release in self-knowledge, but for the duke, the present becomes estranged from the happiness he seeks in the ideal marriage bliss. Again, they affirm the ache of human existence and a conflict between self-deceiving fulfilment and the truth. In "By the Fire-side", Browning illustrates the inadequacy of Catholicism in contrast to his fulfilling love with his wife. The Catholic church with its description of bareness and dilapidation appears even more insufficient as he contrasts it with his strong enduring love for his wife. He elaborates with reminiscences of his anxieties during the courtship days, a period when he mourned the lack of certainty of perception and judgement. The need for a benign divinity that has troubled him then no longer does after he finds the answer to life, which for him is love. In "Childe Roland", the squalid present is survived by the recognition of the reality of the state of society and search for answers.
In conclusion, Browning's culpable speakers invite sympathy when moral judgement is suspended. They bury themselves into a single course of action to forget the ills of the mind and society, and the contemporary spiritual alienation. His exploration of male identity is enmeshed with a Victorian passion for a positive and elaborate retrospection in his poetry writing. His characters search for end of pain and leaves traces of their psychological process to create an association of a central idea. Through them, Browning suggests prescriptions for upheavals in the social and historical contexts within his own chaotic period, when they strive for the transcendental as in "Childe Roland" and "By the Fire-side".
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