Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning, 1812 - 1889

My Last Duchess


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 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
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.

by Robert Browning, 1812 - 1889

Editor: Helen Lowe

My Last Duchess has long been one of my favourite poems. It is a fine example of a narrative poem,  i.e. one that tells a story, but also of dramatic monologue, where the character of the Duke and his relationship to his last Duchess are subtly expanded through the length of the poem.  The poem is also significant for the way in which it exposes the Duke’s character, without commentary – particularly the chilling way in which the Duke reduces his wife to an object, like any of his other works of art, together with the implication that he has had her murdered for smiling at those other than him. In terms of poetic technique, My Last Duchess is also a masterly example of using end rhyme, i.e. it is written in rhyming couplets while still managing to sound like conversational speech. A master work at a number of levels.

Today's editor, Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet and interviewer whose work has been published, broadcast and anthologized in New Zealand and internationally. Her first novel, Thornspell, was published to critical praise in 2008, and her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Helen posts regularly on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and is also active on Twitter: @helenl0we 
In addition to "My Last Duchess," be sure to check out the wonderful poems featured by the other Tuesday Poets, using our blog roll to the left of this posting.


Jennifer Compton said...

i haven't read this one for a long time - and it is even better than i remembered - a masterwork - thanks for putting it up

Claire Beynon said...

Thank you, Helen - not many poems have the word 'munificence' in them; at least not these days!

Appreciative comments from today's Facebook feed, too:

"A favourite of mine. Smiling, genteel and merciless."

"Yes, a fave of mine, too. Love this."

"Love it - another favourite is La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

Keen Mustard said...

One of the few poems I didn't mind being forced to read when I was at school. A more general enthusiasm for poetry came later.

Helen McKinlay said...

A most interesting poem. Reminds me of Shakespeare. For me it took a lot of rereading. But in those days people had the time to get to know a poem didn't they and to appreciate and admire the poetic techniques.

Patent Attorney said...

I remember studying this at school! It was one of the more difficult poems we studied, it's got some confusing but nonetheless fascinating imagery!

Helen Lowe said...

I'm glad you all enjoyed -- it's good to revisit the classics fro time to time.