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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Number 320: Robert Browning; "My Last Duchess"

My Last Duchess


That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
'Frà 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, 't was not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà 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, 't was 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 choose
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 pretense
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!

–Robert Browning

Hap Notes: First off, this is a dramatic monologue and it begs to be read aloud. It may help when reading it to imagine an actor with the right stuff reciting it. Basil Rathbone, George Sanders, Rupert Everett or Alan Rickman come to mind, somebody who can sound cold, educated and effete. 

The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara talking to a representative/marriage broker of a Count whose daughter he wishes to marry. The broker is silent although the Duke alludes to what the broker is saying to him. The Duke is showing this broker guy around his villa and pointing out his various possessions. From the git-go Browning is telling us how this Duke views his last wife as a possession from the title "MY Last Duchess." We don't even know her name. that's all he calls her. 

The Duke complains that she had a heart "too soon made glad." She smiles at everyone no matter their station in life. She enjoys little compliments from the painter of her portrait (Fra Pandolph- a fictional painter) as she sits for him with a blush, she appreciates the sunset, a bough of cherries, a ride on a white mule. She's alive with joy.

The Duke doesn't think she appreciates the honor of him giving her a 900 year old name (her own maiden name, it's implied, is not so old or venerated). He says even if he would have explained what was wrong with her behavior to her so she could learn to correct her "flaws" he would not have because it would have been beneath him. He would not stoop to help her. And how about the false modesty he exhibits when he says " Even had you skill/In speech -- (which I have not)." He seems to have plenty of skill in speech, does he not?

So, orders are given and she's gone. Browning said that his intent was that she was either murdered or sent to a convent. I've always thought she was bumped off from the tone of all this– this Duke doesn't seem to me like the type who likes to have any loose ends. He seems a trifle too obsessive to send her to a convent.

Remember, too, that he pulls aside a curtain to show this broker the painting of the former Duchess. In other words, she only smiles for the Duke when he wants to see her. He still cannot endure anyone seeing that smile without his allowing it. And while it is a portrait of her she is, by being covered with a curtain, out of the picture, so to speak. Until he chooses to see her.

Note, too, how the bronze he points out (by Claus of Insbruck– another fictitious artist) is of Neptune taming a seahorse. This is an interesting and telling parallel piece with the God of the sea trying to tame a little, charming, wild, sea creature (and why would he bother–seems sort of harsh on Neptune's part doesn't it?)

Now, there is a story similar to this one on which it is believed Browning based the poem. The marriage of the young Lucretia de Medici and the Duke d'Este in the 16th century is very similar. Lucretia's family had money, the Duke had the name. She was very young, 14 or 15. She was dead by the time she was 17. It was suspected that she was poisoned. (Sort of ironic considering the history of the de Medicis and poison, huh?) The Duke then arranges for another wealthy bride.

Browning is brilliant as a monologist and his rhymes never interfere with the poem but serve to give it an almost sinister meticulousness and chilly feel. Can't you just see this Duke and Duchess, feel their daily life and alarm at her untimely end? Think what a different poem this would be if it were written from the viewpoint of the Duchess or the broker. Why do you think Browning chose the Duke? 

On the masthead are two Duchesses. The one on the left is Lucretia de Medici, the girl from the real story. On the right is a painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper called "Molly, Duchess of Nona" and illustrates a character from Maurice Howlett's 'Little Novel of Italy." It looks more to me like a Duchess with some verve and life.

 Here is where we have talked about Browning before:

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