Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene'er I passed her" An early villain from 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 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
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
Gosh, but Robert Browning could write villains well. The above is the poem "My Last Duchess," from Browning's 1842 collection Dramatic Lyrics. It's one of the Browning poems that everyone knows, if they know any Browning. It's also a good strong step in the direction of Count Guido Franceschini. In "Duchess" we have a speech from Alfonso II d'Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, who is favorably settling marriage negotiations with the representative of the Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II. The duke's last duchess, Lucrezia de' Medici, is no longer with us, and this speech explains why Duke Alfonso is in the market for a bride. The bride he seeks is Barbara, eighth daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

Alfonso is a real piece of work. "I choose never to stoop," he says. He could not bear Lucrezia's holding him as no more special than anything else on earth, giving the same smile to him that she gave to servants and cherries and sunsets, and so "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." The line "Looking as if she were alive" is a strong clue as to the duchess' fate, if you need the hint. The 16th century must've been a good market for gravediggers and undertakers in Italy.

Did I mention that I'm reading a book of Browning's shorter poems? I am. It's uneven, but when it's good, it's so good. Alfonso bragging of his last wife's murder to the brother of his bride-to-be is quite a display of chutzpah.


  1. Yes, that one's worth rereading once again--what lengths Alfonso goes to control his wife's passionate gaze and curtain her from all the many things in life that called her eye and affections... Rather like Porphyria, who is stopped forever at the point she perfectly pleases her lover.

    1. Yeah, that nobody gets to draw aside the curtain on the Duchess except him is a nice touch. This poem is full of nice touches. I hadn't thought of Porphyria, but gosh yes, her lover makes her into a beautiful object that can no longer bruise his self-image.

  2. Your post reminds me of the first good boss I had when I moved to D.C. nearly 20 years ago. He casually referred to his ex-wife as "my last duchess," and flattered me by trusting me (although I was young and blatantly unsophisticated) to catch his implication.

    Hope you're off having a happy Christmas, Scott! Looking forward to a prolific 2015.

    1. Jeff, that's a sinister joke your boss was making. Oh for a world where people make those sorts of allusions to poetry in normal conversation.

      I hope you've had a swell holiday. I look forward to reading Ralph in January!

  3. BTW, FWIIW (for whatever it is worth), I always begin my poetry sections in lit-based courses with "My Last Duchess." It is a great way of opening the door to poetry for students who would otherwise rather have a root canal than read a poem. This coming semester, in my lit-based English composition course, the first class meeting will include Browning's poem, Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," Randall's "Ballad of Birmingham," and E. B. Browning's "How do I love thee?" Trust me when I tell you that in almost all cases the students will cancel their root canal appointments and agree to reading and discussing more poetry. BTW . . . Happy Holidays from the Redneck Riviera! Keep in touch. I'll be hanging out at my new blog, Crimes and Detectives, Inc.

    1. Tim, happy holidays! I have visited your new blog, reading your Wilkie Collins posts!

      I know all of those poems except the Randall. I'll have to see if it's in my Norton anthology at home. I haven't read EBB since I was a young sprat. She's on my list to see about soon; I'm coming back to her through her widower.