Robert Browning and Dramatic Monologues

Lucrezia de' Medici

Lucrezia de' Medici

Many years ago, I taught a model lesson on Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” as part of a job interview. I got the job, and I think the sample lesson was what clinched it. It didn’t hurt that the school was my alma mater and that the department chair was a beloved former teacher of my own, but she herself told me that my lesson made the difference. Essentially, students read the poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” and I asked that we put the character on trial. Is he guilty of the murder of his lover? Students had to rule that he was either guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. They turned to the text for evidence, and it was a fairly lively discussion. Students had a healthy debate and found evidence for either argument in the text. I still teach the poem that way when I teach it.

However, it has been my experience that Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is more frequently anthologized. The inspiration for the poem is believed to be Lucrezia de’ Medici, wife of Alfonso II d’Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara. The Duke left Lucrezia two years before she died, and a hint of poison lurks around the circumstances of her death. He later married Barbara of Austria, and one can just picture the Duke showing his prospective father-in-law this imperious portrait of his first wife.

These two poems differ from many that students have read before in that they are dramatic monologues in which Browning uses the voice of a speaker to tell a story. In fact, I often think of these particular poems when I caution students to describe the narrative voice of a poem as “the speaker” rather than the poet him/herself. Clearly neither speaker is Browning, but these poems open up possibilities to students who might not have considered the storytelling capabilities of poetry.

Many years ago, I purchased a book called Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford. On pages 183-194, the writers discuss monologue poems and use “My Last Duchess” as the centerpiece for the lesson. Their suggestions for creating dramatic monologues are fantastic, and if you don’t have the book, do yourself a favor and get it. Over the years, I have used many of its ideas. I am going to take their advice about “My Last Duchess” and memorize it.

Here are some other resources for teaching Browning and dramatic monologues:

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TPCASTT: A Method for Analyzing Poetry

magnetic poetryOne of the difficulties students tend to have with analyzing poetry is figuring out how to start. One method I’ve adopted after seeing it on Lisa Huff’s blog is TPCASTT.

TPCASTT is an acronym standing for title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude, shift, title (again), and theme.

Students begin by looking at the title of the poem to determine what they think it might be about and what it might literally mean.

Next, they read the poem and paraphrase it. What is the “story” of the poem in their own words? They should also define words they don’t know at this stage.

Examining the connotations means looking at words that might have multiple meanings and trying to determine if there is a meaning beyond the literal that lies beneath the surface of the poem. At this stage, students are truly analyzing the text.

Attitude involves determining the tone and emotions associated with the subject. What sort of attitude does the speaker take toward the subject?

Many poems involve a shift in tone. Next, students examine the poem to see if they can detect a shift, and if so, where it occurs, what kind of shift it is, and how it changes the direction and meaning of the poem.

After examining the poem, students return to the title again. Are there any new insights about the title after they have read the poem?

The final step is determining the theme. What greater message did the poet hope to convey? Why did he/she pick up the pen?

One advantage of this method is that it provides students a framework and process for analyzing poetry. Students examine subject, purpose, and audience through this analysis.

My experience has been that students enjoy this organized method of analyzing poetry, and they tend to do well with this sort of guidance. They can learn the acronym and apply it to other poems that they read. I know many AP Literature teachers use this method to teach their students poetry analysis, but I find it works with students of all levels, and particularly with lower level students who have difficulty determining what is important or how to tease out meaning and analysis in a poem. Lisa provides handouts for this method on her blog, too.

I used this method successfully today as my British literature students analyzed Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” and my American literature students analyzed “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It was new to my American literature students, but my British literature students were familiar with the method. It was nice to hear students saying they enjoyed the poetry we read, and I think they enjoyed it mainly because they uncovered a deeper meaning and connection to the poetry through their analysis.

I’ll try to post more poetry ideas as the month progresses. Happy National Poetry Month!

Creative Commons License photo credit: surrealmuse

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April Poetry Madness

Magnetic PoetryMarch Madness is upon us. Folks on Twitter are complaining about how lousy their brackets are. It hit me that creating a poetry tournament could be a fun way to celebrate National Poetry Month in April.

I came up with the idea for four brackets: American classics, British/World classics, faculty favorites, and student favorites; however, you could create whatever brackets you want.

Step-by-step directions:

  1. Collect favorites from students and faculty (if you plan to use student and faculty brackets).
  2. English department discussion or teacher determination of quintessential classics of American and British/World brackets (or whatever brackets you have chosen). Alternatively, you could determine which poems should go in the classics brackets through research.
  3. Create your chart. I found downloadable 32- and 64-team blank charts in Excel at this website, but you could create your own if you wish. Google Docs also has several bracket templates you could alter for a poetry tournament. I plan to create a large chart to post outside my classroom using craft paper.
  4. Determine the poems for the first round based on submissions or other criteria.
  5. Pick your favorite way to match the poems up. You can have poetry slams and use an applause meter to determine the winner. You can post the poems and have people check their favorites, then score them. Students can advocate for a poem and determine how to try to convince their peers to vote for their poem. The possibilities are probably endless.

This is the kind of thing you can fill a bulletin board with if you like, but I have already decided to put the National Poetry Month poster from English Journal and all my students’ favorite poems on my bulletin board. Besides, I want to be able to share this project with people walking by the classroom.

Do you have any ideas to add? Please share in the comments.

Update: Well, there is clearly nothing new under the sun; I did, however, have some slightly different ideas as to execution (via Making Curriculum Pop Ning).

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Teaching Poetry

Inspired by this post by Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox Blog, I thought I would share some of my own resources for teaching poetry.

Getting the KnackAs Gardner mentioned, Getting the Knack by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford is a really good resource with lesson plans and ideas for poetry writing assignments.  I have used their found poem exercise many times, always to great success.  I don’t care how old students are, they always enjoy using scissors and glue.  These poems can be surprisingly good and surprisingly challenging to write, too.  What I like about the book is that it presents poetry as a craft, and the exercises enable all students to become poets.  This book has been in my professional development collection for years.  It is a good addition to a middle grades or secondary high school English teacher’s teaching and writing toolbox.

Gardner didn’t mention this book, probably because it is out of print, but Joseph I. Tsujimoto’s Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents is another handy book to have in your collection, and you can find it through used book sellers at Amazon (follow the book link).  It’s a shame this resource was allowed to go out of print!  The strength of Tsujimoto’s work is in the variety of poetry writing assignments (18) and the student models.  In this NCTE article from Classroom Notes Plus (October 2002), Rosemary Laughlin writes glowingly of Tsujimoto’s models, and this article written by Betsey Coleman in VOYA (PDF) also praises his work highly, and both say pretty much what I would say.

Inside OutI have also used Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing by Dan Kirby and Tom Liner (in an earlier edition not including third author Dawn Latta Kirby, but instead with writer Ruth Vinz).  The focus in this book is not strictly on poetry, but on teaching writing in general, including research writing and expository writing.

Lisa Huff has a a new series of posts on teaching poetry at her blog, and the Reflective Teacher’s Literature Pocket Mod could easily be focused on just poetry.  Finally, I posted my poetry unit idea to the UbD Educators wiki, and I would love feedback.

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