My Last Duchess

July 4, 2006 at 1:27 pm 6 comments

Robert Browning

Listen

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.

Casting about for poems to include in the Art / Painting theme, I discovered that in the 140 or so posts that we’ve put up on Poi-tre so far, we’re yet to include a single poem by Robert Browning. This will not do.

My Last Duchess isn’t really a poem about painting – the portrait is mostly incidental. But it’s a delightful poem nonetheless, a brilliant example of just why Browning is such an incredible poet – his talent for irony, his skill at writing dialogue, his flair for the dramatic, his ability to conjure up the most vivid scenes, the nonchalant ease with which he both makes a case and, in the same lines, confutes it, the mesmerising quality of his language. This is a poem that is both dancingly light-hearted, tripping easily off the tongue, and deadly serious, both sinister and tragic.

And if Browning can use a portrait as an excuse to tell us a story, can we do less than use the same portrait as an excuse to include this poem in our Art / Painting theme?

[falstaff]

for more commentary, see Minstrels.

Entry filed under: Art and Painting, English, Falstaff, Robert Browning. Tags: .

I am Goya The Dance

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cat  |  July 4, 2006 at 3:37 pm

    An old favourite. And a fine reading.

    Just thought I might refer you to another reading of the same poem (that you’ve probably come across). This one’s by the always excellent Alfred Molina and does even greater justice to your comments on Browning.

    [audio src="http://ia301141.us.archive.org/2/items/audio_poetry_120_2006/BrowningLastDuchess_64kb.mp3" /]

    Oh, and maybe you should repost your old Wallace Stevens reading now.

    Reply
  • 2. Falstaff  |  July 4, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Cat: Thanks.

    This, presumably, is the reading you’re referring to:

    [audio src="http://poetryfoundation.org/audio/browning/My%20Last%20Duchess.mp3" /]

    Good stuff.

    And yes, will include the Stevens in this theme.

    Reply
  • 3. Cat  |  July 5, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    Indeed. Alfred Molina sounds suspiciously like you.

    Reply
  • 4. Assalam  |  December 5, 2006 at 9:25 am

    firstlay i’d like to comment on foresaid words: My last Duchess represents a humane look toward women at that time and dosent represent that set of emmotions invoked by the writer or whatsoever

    Reply
  • 5. desperate  |  March 29, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    can someone please tell me what is happening in this stupid poem!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  • 6. help  |  March 3, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    wah r de themes ov de poem nd also wah is de narravtive nd intro

    Reply

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