Student Question

How does interior monologue in Browning's and Eliot's poems disrupt courtly love conventions?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Courtly love" is likely a misnomer in this context. It refers to the tradition of worshipful love, the most recent exponents of which in English are Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. The poetic expression of love past the year 1600 might in its most general sense be termed "romantic love."

One of the most seminal works in this regard is, of course, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. From this point, there is a huge range of emotion and style animating the literary expression of love, with the impudent tone of Donne, Milton's depiction of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, Pope's evocation of hopeless passion in Eloisa to Abelard, and, much later, the Romantic poets and their diverse approaches.

Browning and Eliot, especially the latter, are far removed from these poets in time. They also have little in common with each other, so the answer to your question is twofold, involving first the Victorian and then the modernist sensibilities. Browning brings to his dramatic monologues a degree of realism that seems unusual even in the nineteenth century. The most famous example, "My Last Duchess," places love in a context of cynicism in which the speaker is a "practical" man for whom love has lost its former sense of being based on any kind of devotion, let alone the worshipful attitude of the medieval and early Renaissance world. Even a title like "Any Wife to Any Husband" has a quality that seems to debunk the previous ages' celebrations of the uniqueness of one man's or one woman's love.

Eliot goes even further in portraying love as something associated with embarrassment and failure. Prufrock's "Love Song" is an extended monologue in which the modern age's "little man" is ashamed to express emotion and belittles himself. In the "Sweeney" poems, a degree of brutality is associated with love that is the antithesis of even the more realistic portrayals of the Victorians.

But in general, love does not even appear to be one of Eliot's principal concerns. He is much more interested in describing the modern world as a kind of wreckage of the past, such as in "The Waste Land," and the emptiness of its inhabitants (as in "The Hollow Men") than in portraying positive emotions. Only in his later works, beginning with "Ash Wednesday," does Eliot focus upon love as a form of religious devotion, which in some sense does bring us full circle to the concepts that animated courtly love 500 years earlier.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial