November Poem--Robert Browning--My Last Duchess


Many do not care for my longer poetic excerpts here, but this is so marvelous a lyric, so wonderful a poem, it would be a shame to try to truncate it. The poem is a dramatic monologue, the speaker Ferrara is talking to someone who may be brokering his next marriage. He tells the story of his previous and it is by way of a mystery.

My Last Duchess
Robert Browning

            That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
            Looking as if she were alive. I call
            That piece a wonder, now: Frą Pandolf's hands
            Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
            Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
            "Frą Pandolf" by design, for never read
            Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
            The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
            But to myself they turned (since none puts by
            The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
            And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
            How such a glance came there; so, not the first
            Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
            Her husband's presence only, called that spot
            Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
            Frą Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps
            Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
            Must never hope to reproduce the faint
            Half-flush that dies along her throat"; such stuff
            Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
            For calling up that spot of joy. She had
            A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad,
            Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
            She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
            Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
            The dropping of the daylight in the West,
            The bough of cherries some officious fool
            Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
            She rode with round the terrace--all and each
            Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
            Or blush, at least. She thanked men,--good; but thanked
            Somehow . . . I know not how . . . as if she ranked
            My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
            With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
            This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
            In speech--(which I have not)--to make your will
            Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
            Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
            Or there exceed the mark"--and if she let
            Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
            Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
            --E'en then would be some stooping; and I chuse
            Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
            Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
            Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
            Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
            As if alive. Will 't please you rise? We'll meet
            The company below, then. I repeat,
            The Count your Master's known munificence
            Is ample warrant that no just pretence
            Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
            Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
            At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
            Together down, Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
            Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
            Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.

From the notes on the On-Line Poetry Page:

Browning intended Alfonso II (1533-1598), fifth duke of Ferrara, in northern Italy, from 1559 to 1597, and the last member of the Este family. He married his first wife, 14-year-old Lucrezia, a daughter of the Cosimo I de' Medici, in 1558 and three days later left her for a two-year period. She died, 17 years old, in what some thought suspicious circumstances. Alfonso contrived to meet his second to-be spouse, Barbara of Austria, in Innsbruck in July 1565. Nikolaus Mardruz, who took orders from Ferdinand II, count of Tyrol, led Barbara's entourage then.

I had not known this. However the structure of the poem is intricate and clever and if you aren't paying attention, you miss the fact that Ferrara has had his previous wife "done away with." Note:

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
            Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
            Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
            Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
            As if alive.

What is particularly chilling is that this revelation is followed immediately by discussion of the dowry of the next wife. A very elaborate and interesting construct.

Browning is a truly extraordinary poet, well worth time and study, and I think too easily overlooked as dry and Victorian.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 5, 2003 7:42 AM.

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