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: