Thursday, March 29, 2007

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: 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 myselfthey 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
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, '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!

* * *

We read this dramatic monologue in poetics class the other day. The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara, a famous Renaissance noble suspected of poisoning his first wife, who was quite young.

The more deeply you examine the poem, the more the Duke condemns himself out of his own mouth. That's the appeal of a dramatic monologue, but in this one especially -- it makes me want to yell, "You jerk! She was too good for you!" before I remind myself that it's only a poem.

I think "if they durst" is the first sign of the Duke's character. He's a rather fearsome individual, and rather particular about who looks at his pictures. A few lines down we find he was terribly jealous about that first wife of his. He begrudges anyone else even a smile or blush from her. And what is his real problem with her? She's too happy, too easily pleased. He could have had an impossible-to-please wife, but as it is, the very pleasantness and sweetness of her temper is his grudge against her. The fact that she is happy is not enough for him -- she must be made happy by him, and only him.

Not only that, but he considers himself so far superior to her that it would be a stooping even to tell her what it was he minded about her. Even if she consented instantly to his reproof and changed her ways, it still isn't good enough -- he feels he shouldn't have to ask. She ought to just know what he wants and do it.

"And then all smiles stopped together." Was her spirit crushed at his displeasure with her? Or did he do away with her? We don't know, but again it's repeated that she looks as if she were alive. One might imagine he likes her better this way: no one can open the curtain in front of her portrait but him -- she smiles just the same, but now only for him.

The very next thing we realize who he's talking to -- an envoy come to arrange for his second marriage! Perhaps he's really put his foot in his mouth, talking as he has, but he's clearly too proud to realize he's given himself away as a scoundrel. He really doesn't think he's done anything wrong. The next marriage is clearly because of money, we can all see, even though he claims it's the daughter's "fair self."

At the last three lines there's what seems a random comment, but it's a reflection on the rest of the poem. He sees his wife the way he sees the statue: first, as something to be tamed, and second, as a collection piece. Love is clearly beyond his comprehension.

I wish I could say there were no men in real life like this! But it's far more common than it should be for a man to try to mold the woman in his life into his own image, using her to serve his pride instead of loving her for herself. True love has to be much different -- and that's what Browning is saying. Without ever saying a word from his own point of view, he leads us to draw a very clear moral from someone else's life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you!!!!