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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.

22 comments:

Dixie@dcrelief said...

Bazza, I hate to say I find humour, but I suppose it's at my own lack (smile).
'My' Last Duchess, as opposed to 'The' Last Duchess made me wonder,
but I never followed up. I did wonder about those "smiles that stopped."
Hints like, "As if alive."

Clever you ~ and I'd like to think, nay, hope that some of that will rub off on me.

I might add, I'd hate to be the one waiting downstairs! Excellent.

bazza said...

Dixie: You are too modest! You are clearly very knowledgeable in the arts plus you would be too smart to be lined up as the next Duchess.
Also: it's very sweet of you to use the British spelling of 'humour'!

David said...

Hi bazza,
I think I remember you posting this poem all those years ago, so it must have stuck in my mind.
As you say, it's a truly chilling portrait (the poem, I mean, not the painting!).
Always good to read your knowledgeable posts, bazza.
Best Wishes,
David.

bazza said...

Hello David. As ever, it's always good to hear from you. It was May 2010 so it must have made an impression.
Have a great weekend!

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

Beautiful lady, chilling end.

Again, I learned something inew when I read your post. You are always interesting, Bazza.

bazza said...

Arleen: Thanks for those kind words.
This piece never loses it's power to shock me!

All Consuming said...

Chilling indeed and a good chewy poem I'd say. Great post sir *smiles*.

bazza said...

AC: One does so enjoy a chewy poem missus!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - gruesome thoughts ... and I guess it could easily have happened ... this reminds me of Isabella, or the Pot of Basil ...

I'm glad I live in today's age ... incredible poem though - really brought to life by Browning ...

Cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hi Hilary. I think it kind of happened! The wonderful imagination and skill of the poet makes it seem so real and present.

loverofwords said...

"Flirtatious wife, disdainful duchess of husband's title
coquettishly smiling at others while dangerously ignoring his warnings,
is murderously cast aside as husband looks for wealthy replacement,
while gazing at his trophy, her portrait."

I hope you don't mind, Bazza. This has always been a favorite poem so much so that I submitted this "less than 50 word entry for a writing contest.

Sherry Ellis said...

Chilling indeed! I'm not sure I would've caught the meaning of the text without your explanation.

bazza said...

Natasha, that's brilliant! Tell me about the competition please. You have really captured the essence of what the poet is saying and in a very concise way.

bazza said...

Hi Sherry. If you see the comment above, posted by 'loverofwards', the poem has been brilliantly described!

loverofwords said...

It was called The Trifecta Writing Challenge http://www.trifectawritingchallenge.com/
It was fun because they picked winners every week and the participants could vote too. I never won but it was fun. This web site explains what they did and why they were ending it. "Rewrite a famous poem in 33 words or less" was one week's challenge. It really stretched your mind.

bazza said...

....and you did it in exactly 33 words I see! The perfect précis and it shows no sign of being squeezed into the allowance of words.
Thanks for responding (on both items).
Have a great weekend.

Vagabonde said...

This is a sad tale. Hilary says, above, that she is glad to live in today’s age. Well, maybe and maybe not. I was just reading an article in The Times of India about India’s “Dowry deaths.” In 2010 there were 8391 reported cases of dowry death, or one death every hour (killing of brides to get more money.) This is an increase from 2000 when there were only 6995 cases. So, it is all very relative, isn’t it?

bazza said...

Hi Vagabonde, thanks for visiting. Well, yes, one death against several thousands but my post is more about the the art and skill of the poet I think.
I took a look at your Blog - it must be a full-time occupation preparing those lengthy posts! Very interesting reading though.

Vagabonde said...

Thank you for answering. About my blog, actually it does not take long. Right now I am only writing one post a month and during the month I collect pictures, maybe 2 or 3 times then when I write my post it takes one evening, and I cut the post in half if it is too long. So, when you add it up I spend less time than people who write often. I spent more time going on friends’ blogs answering their comments, but I enjoy that a lot.

bazza said...

Vagabonde, I think you are too modest, but thanks for the explanation.

klahanie said...

Hey Bazza!

I have read this before. Indeed, my kind fiend, sorry, friend, I recall you posting this way back when. Ah, the innocence of our youth, eh Bazza.

Thanks for the hash, I meant, thanks for the rehash of this truly thoughtful poem. Even Penny the Pawet is impressed.

Hope you had an enjoyable weekend.

Gary

bazza said...

Hi Gary. It was five years ago! I have been a bit short of time recently so sorted out some old favourites.
I had a great weekend thanks, visiting an old school friend on Canvey Island - hadn't seen him for forty years. I hope your weekend was good too. Nice to hear from you.