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Sunday, 2 May 2010

My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

Even if poetry is not your 'thing' please take some time out to read this poem and my analysis of the shocking meaning at the end.

Lucrezia de’ Medici, thought to be the Duchess in this poem.
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra 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
Fra 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 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 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!
Robert Browning 1812 - 1889
The single word Ferrara at the beginning would have set the scene for 19th century readers of this poem. It is set in the sixteenth century Italian city-state of Ferrara. The speaker is probably Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara who is showing a courtier around his privately commissioned works of art. A painting of His last Duchess is hidden behind a curtain ("...none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you...")
He describes her as if one of his many possessions and tells how she rated the friendship and attention of others above the gift of his "nine hundred years old name".
When I first read this poem my blood ran cold and I was genuinely shocked when I realised what the Duke was implying:
"......I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
There she stands as if alive".
He's had her killed! Oh my God! He talks about her as if she were faulty goods that had he had to be rid of. Please read the poem again with this knowledge and notice how cleverly Browning has shown the casual nonchalance of the Duke.
At the end he is preparing to go downstairs to size up his next potential wife while talking about some of his other posessions. Chilling, the work of a master poet.


Sir Tom Eagerley said...

Having been knighted by Groucho Marx, son of Karl the founder of Marx & Spencer, (see comments to Bazza's post of 24th April) I am now able to style myself 'Sir Tom'.
This sad poem highlights the terrible things that can happen when you let 'em out of the kitchen! Bob of Tolkien's Tree would understand with his iron fist in a velvet glove personality.

bazza said...

Sir Tom: I'm sure you wouldn't do away with an errant wife. Well, I'm fairly sure.

Kelly said...

"There she stands as if still alive" is the clincher for me. Indeed, at first reading, it is a bit confusing. What I derived the first time around after reading this was just how judgmental he was of the Duchess. But I agree with you. After the second reading it sounds as if he has killed her upon his "command". Interesting. Haunting.

bazza said...

Kelly: It's an absolute clincher isn't it? I am not, despite all my poetry postings, an expert but I do find it very rewarding to delve into these things and to reserach them. I've known this poem for some time and it still has power over me.

Bluebeard said...

That's a fine poem.

klahanie said...

Hi bazza,
I think Kelly most definitely picked up on the 'clincher' line.
To have a killed in a 'surplus to requirements' way, is cold, calculated and, like you mention, "chilling".
An intriguing poetic style. Thank you for bringing this poem to my attention.
With respect, Gary

bazza said...

Hi Bluebeard: Another wife murderer! Thanks for looking in.

Hello Gary: I'm glad you enjoyed the poem. If he were alive now he would probably be in the mafia!

Unknown said...

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