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Friday, 20 February 2015

My Last Duchess

Because I love this poem so much I have rehashed a post from five years ago. Even if poetry is not your 'thing' please take a few minutes to read this poem and then read my shocking revelation at the end. You will probably re-read the poem and you might, like I did, when first introduced to Robert Browning's poem thirty years ago find your jaw is on your chest with open-mouthed amazement! Sometimes in art and literature the best rewards come when one has to work at bit at understanding what is being presented.....
Lucrezia de Medici by Bronzino c.1560
Generally considered to be My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Ferrara
That's my last duchess painted on the wall,Looking as if she were alive. I callThat piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's handsWorked busily a day, and there she stands.Will't please you sit and look at her? I said"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never readStrangers like you that pictured countenance,The depth and passion of its earnest glance,But to myself they turned (since none puts byThe 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 firstAre you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas notHer husband's presence only, called that spotOf joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhapsFrà 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 stuffWas courtesy, she thought, and cause enoughFor calling up that spot of joy. She hadA heart how shall I say? too soon made glad,Too easily impressed; she liked whate'erShe looked on, and her looks went everywhere.Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,The dropping of the daylight in the West,The bough of cherries some officious foolBroke in the orchard for her, the white muleShe rode with round the terrace all and eachWould draw from her alike the approving speech,Or blush, at least. She thanked men good! but thankedSomehow I know not how as if she rankedMy gift of a nine-hundred-years-old nameWith anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blameThis sort of trifling? Even had you skillIn speech which I have not to make your willQuite 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 letHerself be lessoned so, nor plainly setHer wits to yours, forsooth, and make excuse,E'en then would be some stooping; and I chooseNever to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,Whene'er I passed her; but who passed withoutMuch the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;Then all smiles stopped together. There she standsAs if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meetThe company below, then. I repeat,The Count your master's known munificenceIs ample warrant that no just pretenseOf mine for dowry will be disallowed;Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowedAt starting, is my object. Nay we'll goTogether down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
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 but I...")
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 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 possessions. The Duchess was 17 years old when she died.

Chilling; the work of a master poet.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Painting of the Month (52) February 2015:Millais

Ophelia. Sir John Everett Millais, 1852
Four years before this painting was made the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London in 1848. Millais was one of the three founder-members whose main idea was to return to the style of art that they thought should dominate. They objected to the classical style that Raphael and others has promoted, favouring instead great attention to detail, nature and bright colours. In particular they objected to the founder of the English Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds; apparently they referred to him as "Sir Sloshua". On the whole I don't go too much on their work but I think this particular painting is a bit special.
Ophelia was the character in Shakespeare's Hamlet who is depicted drowning in a Danish river. Her death does not occur on stage but is eloquently described by Queen Gertrude, Hamlets's mother. She fell from a branch into the water and floated without trying to rescue herself because her voluminous dress filled with air and kept her buoyant. However, the dress eventually became saturated and she drowned. Another character suggests it was suicide. (Prince Hamlet had rejected her because he was pre-occupied with his 'To be or not to be' soliloquy in which he contemplates the attractions of suicide - it's a laugh a minute is Hamlet.)
There is a very interesting story about Elizabeth Siddal, left, who was a favourite model for many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets. Millais had her posed in a bath of cold water for many hours during the winter while he meticulously painted. (He had previously spent months outdoors painting the scenery ). Small lamps were lit under the bath-tub but they were inadequate to keep the water warm. 'Lizzie' became ill, possibly with pneumonia so her father threatened legal action action against Millais, who ended-up paying all of her hospital bills. Others have speculated that it was her addiction to laudanum that had made her ill. Life imitating art?
Sir John Everett Millais was born in Southampton, England in 1829 and died in Kensington , London in 1896.
Sir John Everett Millais