Thursday, October 18, 2012

My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning

Just to make my otherwise busy day just a bit more busy, I decided to write about a poem I encountered last year at Uni. This poem was written by Robert Browning (1812-1889) in 1842. 

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 favor 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 lessonded 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 pretense
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!

Four sonnets (14 lines x 4) constructed like a dramatic monologue. 
The poem starts“In media res”, meaning it starts in the middle, the duke is describing and admiring the painting of his last (late) duchess. He's standing in front of the painting with a spokes person for the pending new duchess.
Quickly, the dramatic monologue was developed in the Romantic period by, among others, William Wordsworth. Dramatic monologue means you have a speaker with an audience precent, audience as one or more listeners. Hamlet's soliloquy, for instance, can be considered a monologue, dramatic even, if direction place Ophelia in the back, listening. 
But this is also a sonnet. I made it a habit of counting lines when I took British literature, as anything with 14 lines (verses, one line is one verse), usually was a sonnet. And as we're talking about Browning, rival or equal to Lord Tennyson, there is no doubt in my mind that these are 4 sonnets. The powerful poem strikes again. 
Rhythm wise it has iambic pentameter (very sonnet like), and consists of rhyming couplets (quasi heroic - and very sonnet like). 
Making it AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, FF, GG etc. Meaning it's not a Petrachan or a Shakespearean sonnet, but a sonnet nonetheless. 

“The poem is based on incidents in the life of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara in Italy, whose first wife, Lucrezia, a young woman, died in 1561 after three years of marriage. Following her death, the duke negotiated through an agent to marry a niece of the Count of Tyrol. Browning represents the duke as addressing this agent”[1]

It’s a critique of the Victorian society, even though it's set in the renaissance. Women in the Victorian age were allowed very limited space to move in, limited space to function in. At the time they were given unreachable goals, as such. They were the angels of the house, and superhuman demands were imposed upon them.
The Victorian period fostered the Modernists. Women managed to get a right to vote, among other results. But during the Victorian period, the women weren't allowed to act on their emotions. And that is obviously a generalization, but any emotional anomaly would be frowned upon. And at the most extreme, a woman in this period would be locked up to "rest" if she showed signs of for instance depression or psychosis... And today we know very well that being left alone with ones thoughts when the thoughts are as darkest...yeah, not the best idea in the world. Psychosis turning into a complete mental break down, I would think (something that does happen to the protagonist in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.), and then they entered a different problematic stage completely. 
In the Victorian period men held a rather elevated image of the woman. They wanted the idea of the beautiful and angelic creature, not the actual living, breathing human being. This can also be thought of as courtly love, as there really was no reality to these thoughts… yet, this was women’s life in the Victorian age, at least the in the higher parts of society. Their ultimate goal was to marry well, give him children, and then paint his picture perfect, leaving time to sow, play the pianoforte, sit straight up and wait for the master of the house to return. And this is kind of a paradox, as the biggest empire the world has seen, the British empire, was ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria. 
The “story” in the poem is set in the Renaissance, but it definitely deals with the women question, as it objectifies her. The Duke has a curtain in front of the painting, making him in charge still, having the power to unveil it, or keep it covered up. 
Objectification of women is the main theme here. Cover up is another.
The Duke wants to own the self, the I, the object. The self can’t be anything else than what he desires. And the moment the object becomes a person, he can't deal with it. 

He starts to talk about the painting, then about the person, then in the end we understand that he has taken her life as she became something more than the angel in the house, something more than the perfect woman he so dearly desired, something more than the woman he now only can have access to through the painting. He wants a new duchess… the painting is of his last (late) duchess. 
Yet, it remains a mystery, did he kill her, or did she take her own life? No matter the answer, both were considered taboos in the Victorian age.

The poet shows us a poetic speaker who tries to give us a certain impression of himself, but in trying to be someone he’s not, he turns into the one he wants to hide, revealing too much. Revealing the other, the repressed... his inner Mr. Hyde. 
In his speech, he’s moving from the dead duchess to the new duchess. Yet, the doubleness, the representation of certain phrases gives him away as a man who’s not over his late wife yet, or at least the woman he wanted her to be. Could the painting on the wall be an image of him, the duke, perhaps? He’s mirroring his own values into the picture looking back at him. Or is that too far fetched. 
The enjambment functions to show the psychological approach, he needs to rid himself of baggage, and in the end he is speaking against his own will.
“…I gave commands!” Did he give one too many commands? Did he stop her smile?
Ellipses, gaps, breaks are signalled by semicolon or dashes gives the impression that a psychological process is going on here.

“There she stands
As if alive…” This signals the volta (the turn)
The duke stops himself from going deeper, and becomes more a “gentleman” again. He collects himself, and is again the Doctor Jekyll.
Though, he makes a dark prediction of the future, hidden behind a smile, he will tame his new duchess… and she will obey.

There is a circular movement in the poem, it starts out with a portrait and ends up with a sculpture. And the seahorse is a metaphor for the duke’s wives. 

I wrote this entry because a friend asked me if I knew anything about My Last Duchess.
I have written this based on notes I made in class. My Professor in British literature had so many good points that I remember my hand was sore after this particular lecture (after every lecture, to be honest). But having moved on from British literature, to the course I'm taking now (same professor), called Madness and Writing, I have made a few observations on my own... So I guess I did know a thing or two about My Last Duchess, but I'm convinced I could learn plenty more still :-)

Sources of information: Prof. J. S. Drangsholt and The Norton Anthology

[1] The Norton Anthology, English Literature, Eighth Edition, Volume 2 (page 1255)

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