Sunday poetry – Robert Browning

Robert Browning (picture of the lovely portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from here) is best known these days for his romantic elopement with Elizabeth Barrett & their life together in Italy. The critical reception of his poem, Sordello, almost destroyed his reputation but, in the 1850s, he published Men & Women, a series of dramatic monologues & poems written after his marriage. This collection marked the beginning of his rise in reputation. Browning’s dramatic monolgues are my favourites of his work & this one, My Last Duchess, has been a favourite since I studied it at school. I love the way Browning exposes the speaker so completely, just through his own words. The whole history of this marriage is there. The Duke’s pride, his jealous possession of his Duchess, the mystery about the Duchess’s fate, “then all smiles stopped together.” The warning to his companion, the envoy from the father of another young woman who may become the next Duchess, is so subtle but chilling. If I’d been that envoy, I’d have run back to my master at top speed & advised him to look for another alliance!

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, ‘t was 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
Much 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, ‘t was 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 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!

3 thoughts on “Sunday poetry – Robert Browning

  1. Yes, I love that one too. Browning's poetry is so immediate, isn't it? I love the way he uses direct speech, I feel he (or his narrator) has grabbed me by the arm & said, listen to this!

    Like

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