My Last Duchess – A poem

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Today I’m posting a poem written by the prominent English poet Robert Browning (1812 – 1889). He was a master of writing dramatic monologues and many of his poems were passionate, violent, ironical and had historical settings.

He was also a very emancipated man (I’d rather use the word “emancipated” instead of “feminist”, because the latter has some extreme connotations) and had broadminded views. That’s evident in this poem “My Last Duchess”.

His real life love story was also very interesting. He met Elizabeth Barrett, an acclaimed English poetess and started corresponding with her regularly and eventually they fell in love and had to marry secretly because her father disapproved of their relationship. Elizabeth was also six years older than him and had poor health, but despite that their marriage was a happy one!  🙂

They moved to Italy and lived there till she died, that explains why many of his poems are set in continental Europe including the one I’m posting today. Elizabeth initially achieved more success with her writing than Browning did, but it’s believed that he encouraged her without feeling envious, and her success increased even more after marriage.

Coming to the poem “My Last Duchess” – it’s a dramatic monologue by a Duke who has just lost his wife (the Last Duchess), and is planning to remarry soon. He’s talking to a man who’s a visiting representative of his future wife’s family, and showing him all the expensive artifacts (paintings and sculpture) in his mansion.

The poem starts with the Duke showing the man a portrait of his ex-wife painted by a monk called Fra Pandolf – “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive.” He then talks of how passionate her glance (“The depth and passion of its earnest glance”) is in the portrait, and tells the stranger that she had such glances for everyone she met:
“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.”

The above verse talks about her personality, and he says that she was too friendly and an easily impressed person who was generally affable to everything around her – not just people, but even nature (bough of cherries, white mule). He clearly disapproves of her affability, because he thinks that she does not respect him or give him importance by being so – “as if she ranked, My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name, With anybody’s gift.”

We now get to know that he’s an unreasonably jealous and controlling man when he says “Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile?” He disapproved of her smiling at anybody but him!

Next comes the most shocking statement: “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together” – he reveals that he got her murdered because he didn’t approve of her behavior! After this shocking statement, he’s totally unruffled and coolly discusses the dowry he expects from his future father-in-law, clarifying that the lady is his primary interest and not the money.
“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.”

And lastly he ends by asking the man to take a look at the statue of Neptune in his collection “Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity” – this signifies that to him, his wife and the statue have the same value, both are objects.

The irony throughout this poem is very apparent – how the Duke has absolutely no remorse over having his wife killed, and is cold bloodedly discussing dowry. It reveals the totally different standards set for men and women in that age in Europe. This poem is still somewhat relevant in modern day India, where we have awful attitudes and behavior displayed towards women many times.

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My Last Ducchess – Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra 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
Fra 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 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!

Reference:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Browning

PS: Attached a photograph I took of a photograph in the Burlesque Museum in downtown Las Vegas, USA.

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