Lucrezia Panchiatichi by Bronzino
Note the obligatory Renaissance accessory – a book!
‘My Last Duchess’ (Ferrara) by Robert Browning
The enjoyment of reading this poem results from our reconstruction of a different story from the one the Duke thinks he is telling.
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 what’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 chuse
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
As starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, Sir! Notice Neptune, tho’,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.
‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a Heaven for?’ Robert Browning
Robert Browning (1812-1889), like Beckett, is a writer who breaks parts of himself into fictional types in order to examine aspects of the human soul. Hugh Kenner, in his book on Beckett, draws a comparison between Beckett’s method of presenting characters without a back-story and Browning’s dramatic monologues, ‘contrivances from which we can reconstruct past events if we wish.’ i Kenner describes ‘My Last Duchess’ as ‘a story that might have been told at great length chronologically, but folded up into a monologue from which we are to piece its elements together.’ Browning’s interest lay not in a conventional story or plot but an insight into the workings of the mind through language. It is a challenge to the reader to identify what has been left out in a Browning poem. The late 19th century poet Ernest Dowson remarked that Browning’s ‘masterpieces in verse’ demonstrate both ‘subtlety’ and ‘the tact of omission.’ ‘My Last Duchess,’ he argues, ‘is pure Henry James.’ii
In the pantheon of Victorian poets Harold Bloom argues that Browning is ‘Tennyson’s true rival…and now much neglected because of his authentic difficulty.’iii In acknowledging Browning’s complexity, Bloom suggests that an understanding of Gnosticism would inform one’s reading of the poetry: ‘Like the Gnostics, Browning is interested in evasion rather than substitution.’iv Not all critics are as forgiving. Browning’s experimentation with language often meant he employed ‘grotesque rhymes and jaw-breaking syntax.’v H. Coombes is critical of Browning’s ‘dramatic sprightliness, a sprightliness which, when analysed, will often be found to cover confused thinking.’vi Coombes also accuses Browning of ‘skimming over the surface of his subjects.’ Although Coombes allows that ‘at its best his language has an energy and a refreshing robustness springing from corresponding qualities of feeling’ he would have us believe that a Browning poem is hardly a deep and meaningful experience. Some of Browning’s contemporaries found him unreadable. Clyde de L. Ryals describes some unfavourable reactions to the poem ‘Sordello: a poem in six books’, about an obscure Mantuan poet/warrior of the early 13th century:
Douglas Jerrold, a playwright and journalist, said that he tried to read it upon recovering from a serious illness and, finding it incomprehensible, believed he had gone mad. Alfred Tennyson declared that he had understood only the first and last lines – which stated that Sordello’s story would be and then had been told – and both were lies.vii
George Eliot, however, appreciated Browning’s erudite obfuscation. Before she met Browning and had become a friend she wrote perceptively in the ‘Westminster Review’ about his 1855 collection ‘Men and Women’. She observes that ‘to read poems is often a substitute for thought’, but that the reader will
…expect no such drowsy passivity in reading Browning. Here he will find no conventionality, no melodious commonplace, but freshness, originality, sometimes eccentricity of expression; no didactic laying-out of a subject, but dramatic indication, which requires the reader to trace by his own mental activity the underground stream of thought that jets out in elliptical and pithy verse. To read Browning he must exert himself…Indeed, in Browning’s best poems he makes us feel that what we took for obscurity in him was superficially in ourselves.
Like George Eliot, Browning was interested in exposing the devious ways in which our minds work and the complexity of our motives. ‘My stress lay on incidents in the development of a human soul,’ he wrote; ‘little else is worth study.’viii
With an indulgent family and a father with an extensive library, Browning was at liberty to become an autodidact. Ryals writes:
Browning became, with the possible exception of Milton, the most learned of English poets…During the years of self-cultivation Browning looked inward in an effort to locate his true self, a central core of being that was the real Robert Browning. What he discovered was that no stable centre of selfhood is accessible to the thinking subject. The subject, he learned, is accessible only obliquely, not in the continuity of its self-consciousness but in the discontinuity of its shifting forms, in the different interrogations to which it is submitted. As he followed the logic of this discovery, he perceived that truth and meaning are not fixed but, instead, are always becoming.ix
A defining moment in Browning’s development of style happened when he saw Edmund Kean play Richard III; it had the same effect on him as it had had on Coleridge: ‘like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.’x Browning took on board the quote from ‘As You Like It’, ‘All the world’s a stage’, making his poetry into a world of theatre, though with a difference, as Ryals observes:
The dramatic monologue internalises plot so that instead of an open conflict of forces as on the theatrical stage there is an interior conflict of which the speaker is frequently not consciously aware and, as often as not, a conflict in the reader/listener’s understanding of that speaker.xi
In ‘My Last Duchess’ the poet detaches himself from the subject matter by using the voice of the Duke of Ferrara. At first, it is as though the Duke is addressing the reader directly. But when he asks, ‘Will’t please you sit and look at her?’ we understand there is a silent listener present within the poem. When the Duke opens the curtains on the portrait of the Duchess, he crosses the boundary between himself and the story he is telling and becomes a character within that story. The poem operates under a system of framing and distancing devices and the fact that we are not quite sure what has happened to the Duchess offers up further possible dimensions. ‘My Last Duchess’ conforms to the central rhetorical strategies of the dramatic monologue, as Loy D. Martin notes: ‘the technique of provoking unanswered questions, delaying the useful information that answers them as long as possible and then, while supplying that information, raising new questions to start the process all over again.’xii
Browning’s time in Italy brought him into contact with Renaissance dramas of Italy’s past. Originally titled ‘Ferrara’, there are various 15th century Italian intrigues that have been suggested as the basis for the poem. Let it suffice as a murderer’s confession. The Duke of Ferrara is just one in Browning’s extraordinary gallery of villains – murderers, sadistic husbands, mean and petty manipulators – few writers seem to have been more preoccupied with portraying the existence of evil. Browning had been influenced first by Byron, followed by Shelley, whom he eulogised as ‘Sun-treader,’ and his heroes resemble a mixture of, Ryals writes, ‘marked men with mysterious, guilty pasts, and Shelley’s idealistic heroes, who seek in reality the counterpart of their dreams.’ xiii
The Duke starts off by speaking carefully, but gets carried away by his own story, and reveals more of himself than he realises. As Ryals points out,
Nearly every one of Browning’s monologues has a near obsession with
The Duke cannot stop talking about his dead wife’s carefree behaviour: ‘Sir, ’twas not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.’ The Duchess’s ‘spot of joy’ obviously preyed on the Duke’s mind, for he repeats himself six lines later: ‘…such stuff / Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough / For calling up that spot of joy.’ It seems that everyone was out to flatter the Duchess, even the artist, Fra Pandolf, who had, according to the Duke, remarked that ‘Paint / must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat.’ And if ‘dies’ is a slip of the Duke’s tongue, with its obvious implication, he then admits that ‘I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands / As if alive.’ Murdered, one assumes.xv At this point, quite late in the poem, there is a shift from an implied past to an implied future: the company below, the Count and his daughter, and the Duke’s intention to remarry. Now we understand that the silent listener is the Count’s envoy, and the Duke, having let it be known what happens to a Duchess whose behaviour doesn’t conform to requirements, gets down to business. He puts forward a claim for a sizeable gift of money or land to go with the supposed ‘object’ of this monologue, the negotiation for the hand of the Count’s ‘fair daughter.’
What of the Duke’s ‘dream counterpart’? Is he is not happier with the portrait of his last Duchess, rather than how she really was? Perhaps he feels he can impose some kind of order on a portrait; yet as he proceeds, his diction becomes more unruly, reckless even. He seems both proud and scornful of the picture of the recalcitrant Duchess, and there is also the tension of her lingering presence. The Duke is still outraged to think that she could have shown the same gratitude for a bunch of cherries as she did for being married to such an illustrious personage as himself: ‘as if she ranked / my gift of a nine hundred years old name / With anybody’s gift.’ The Duke demands respect to confirm his own superiority; he also needs to make sure his bloodline remains pure. He is a man who imagines he possesses the world, when in fact the world possesses him. For him, artefacts symbolise his power and importance: in the closing lines of the poem he is at pains to point out a fine sculpture, ‘Sir! Notice Neptune, tho’, / Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.’ This is the summarising symbol of the Duke, magnificent but rendered spiritually dead, with the amoral sensibility of a murderer.
Browning’s own character remains quite a mystery. Like Yeats, he was caught up with the idea of masks, and although prepared to talk volubly about many subjects, he was reticent as far as his own poetry was concerned. Thomas Hardy described Browning’s character as ‘the literary puzzle of the nineteenth century.’ Energy is the most characteristic aspect of his writing and of the man; Turgenev compared Browning’s handshake to an electric shock.xvi Sartorially Browning was known for his lemon-coloured kid gloves; he also favoured a smart green coat of cut-away design. In the wider world he is perhaps more famous for his romance and elopement with the invalid poetess Elizabeth Barrett than for his poetry, in fact, during the years of his marriage he was sometimes referred to as ‘Mrs Browning’s husband.’
‘Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there’ writes Browning in ‘Home-Thoughts from Abroad’ (1845). After his wife’s death Browning returned from Italy to London and lived out the rest of his life as a venerated poet, his output continuing undiminished; Bloom at least admits that Browning ‘wrote much too much.’xvii Robert Browning died in 1889, while visiting his son in Venice, and although he had wished to be buried alongside his wife, the English Cemetery in Florence was closed. So after a preliminary funeral in Venice, the body was returned to England and was buried at Westminster Abbey, in Poet’s Corner, where his grave lies immediately adjacent to that of Tennyson’s. Henry James, one of the many distinguished mourners who attended Browning’s London funeral, reflected that of all the odd and great writers that have been buried in Westminster Abbey ‘none of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones been so odd.’
George Eliot is right: Browning is hard work. And the critical reading about Browning is even harder work. But he was influential, and Bloom notes that ‘Yeats remarked that he had feared always Browning’s influence on him.’ This is to do with ‘shared Gnosticism’.xviii Enough. Mysteriosa has to lie down now after her exertions. She leaves you with a simpler Browning ditty, ‘Song’ from ‘Pippa Passes’:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!
i Kenner, Hugh, 1973. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, Thames and Hudson.
ii Abrams, M.H. et al. eds., 2000. Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol 2 (7th ed).
iii Bloom, Harold, 2000. How to Read and Why, Fourth Estate.
iv Bloom, Harold, 1979. ‘Introduction’ to Robert Browning: a collection of critical essays, Prentice-Hall Inc. Bloom also notes that ‘Borges, with Gnostic irony, has pointed to Browning as one of the precursors of Kafka, an insight worthy of exploration.’
v Abrams, ibid
vi Coombes, H., 1980. Literature and Criticism, Pelican.
vii Ryals, Clyde de L., 1996. The Life of Robert Browning, Blackwell Critical Biographies.
viii Abrams, ibid
ix Ryals, ibid
x Table Talk ed. by Henry N. Coleridge.
xi Ryals, ibid
xii Martin, Loy D., 1979. ‘The Inside of Time: An Essay on the Dramatic Monologue’ in Robert Browning: a collection of critical essays, Prentice-Hall Inc.0
xv Some suggest the Duchess was banished to a nunnery. In order to marry again, the Duke would pay off the Pope.
xvi Abrams, ibid
xvii Bloom, ‘Introduction’ to Robert Browning, ibid