Week 372: My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning

In this blog I have tried to be sparing in my use of standard anthology pieces, assuming that anyone interested enough to be reading the blog is likely to be already well acquainted with them. But that does result in a bit of self-denial – after all, at least some of the poems in anthologies are there because they are very very good – and anyway there is a chance that my assumption might not be entirely true. And maybe, even if it is, it does no harm to give such poems yet another airing. So this week we have Browning’s masterpiece, ‘My Last Duchess’, a chilling study of male dominance and the destruction of innocence by a murderous possessiveness.

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.

Robert Browning

Week 198: Confessions, by Robert Browning

Robert Browning is a mixed bag if ever there was one, his work ranging from the masterly to the unreadable, the best of his poems showing a gift for the vivid and concrete hardly to be matched in English poetry, but too many others prosy or populist or just too damn long. If I had to choose one poem to attest to his stature, it would have to be ‘My Last Duchess’, but that’s surely too well known to need my espousal, and I suspect the same goes for the fine monologues ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ and ‘Andrea del Sarto’, the poignant ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, and the grimly enigmatic ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. So here’s a lighter yet touching piece in which an old man on his deathbed remembers with a joyous lack of repentance a romantic escapade of his youth, which I take from the mention of an attic to be with the servant-girl of a grand house.

Confessions

What is he buzzing in my ears?
‘Now that I come to die,
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?’
Ah, reverend sir, not I!

What I viewed there once, what I view again
Where the physic bottles stand
On the table’s edge,—is a suburb lane,
With a wall to my bedside hand.

That lane sloped, much as the bottles do,
From a house you could descry
O’er the garden-wall; is the curtain blue
Or green to a healthy eye?

To mine, it serves for the old June weather
Blue above lane and wall;
And that farthest bottle labelled ‘Ether’
Is the house o’ertopping all.

At a terrace, somewhere near the stopper,
There watched for me, one June,
A girl: I know, sir, it’s improper,
My poor mind’s out of tune.

Only, there was a way… you crept
Close by the side, to dodge
Eyes in the house, two eyes except:
They styled their house ‘The Lodge.’

What right had a lounger up their lane?
But, by creeping very close,
With the good wall’s help,—their eyes might strain
And stretch themselves to Oes,

Yet never catch her and me together,
As she left the attic, there,
By the rim of the bottle labelled ‘Ether,’
And stole from stair to stair,

And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas,
We loved, sir—used to meet:
How sad and bad and mad it was—
But then, how it was sweet!

Robert Browning