Thursday, February 16, 2006

Y11: Some notes on Robert Browning in general and My Last Duchess in particular for the Literature exam.



My Last Duchess
-by Robert Browning-

Robert Browning:
an introduction to the most astonishing poet of the nineteenth century


Browning was a strange fellow who almost certainly fancied his mother and idolised Shelley, (you remember him- husband of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein) a lot of his early verse imitating that poet’s style.


He is also, along with Tennyson (a great contemporary rival), the most technically brilliant poet of his age, and unparalleled in terms of innovation and lasting influence.


Browning’s work informs almost every English-language poet that followed, especially the great Modernists like Ezra Pound and TS Eliot


Even the titles of Browning’s anthologies show his astonishing innovation- take Dramatic Lyrics (C.1842) for example: if drama is the voice of assumed personae and lyric is the voice of the individual’s soul, they would seem mutually exclusive. They certainly were until Browning scampered into the arena and blew the living daylights out of everyone’s preconceptions like some unholy mixture of Charlie Parker, Pablo Picasso and Johnny Rotten with more talent and worse hair. Other titles, such as Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Personae (1864) are equally revealing.


Browning cast himself as somewhere between Shakespeare (the great dramatist or objective poet- no matter how many Shakespeare plays you read, you never know what Shakespeare the man thought about anything, only what his characters thought) and Shelley (the great lyricist or subjective poet- Shelley didn’t ‘do’ characters and is only really interested in one thing- himself).
In the introduction to Dramatic Lyrics, Browning insisted that his poems were, ‘for the most part Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so may utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.’

Robert Browning’s great innovation: the dramatic monologue

Often called dramatic monologues, his poems are actually not dramatic. The poems are too lyrical and subjective to be dramatic, a word which should denote a bunch of characters banging on at each other with no-one telling you who should be listened to and who shouldn’t.


The dramatic monologues always have characters who give away more about themselves than they intend to and who often condemn themselves out of their own mouths. This is certainly true of My Last Duchess.

Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess

The subtitle ‘Ferrara’ refers to Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, who historically negotiated for the hand of the niece of the Duke of Tyrol in 1564. In the poem, this becomes the daughter of an old Count, rather than another Duke. The historical ‘Last Duchess’ herself died in 1561 at age 17, and there were rumours at the time that she was poisoned.


The poem is in Heroic Couplets- rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter, by far the most common metrical scheme in English poetry (virtually all verse drama, including Shakespeare, is in iambic pentameter). The rhymes don’t ‘bang’ or spoil the fluency of the thing because of the consistent use of enjambment (lines which one over, rather than being end-stopped).


Fra Pandolf is a painter, and ‘Fra’ is ‘friar’. He ‘Worked busily a day’ because the painting is in the plaster of the wall, not a canvas hanging on it, and the Italian technique of painting into wet plaster is by necessity speedy because you have to get it done in one go, with no mistakes, before the plaster dries.


Note the sense of power and ownership- no-one gets to look at the picture unless the Duke himself draws the curtain which hides it, and he says ‘so not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus..’ when the addressed character (an agent of the Count) hasn’t actually asked him anything. The Duke decides what questions he wants asked as well as what the answers will be- this is a man whose subjectivity has been grown to solipsism (the idea that the only person who exists in any important way is yourself) through years of absolute power.


The Duke suggests that the Duchess has her expression of depth and passion because of his own presence at the sitting, and also because she was flattered by Pandolf’s references to her blushing ‘throat’ and the indecorous way he asks her to show a bit more of her flesh: ‘Fra Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps / Over my lady’s wrist too much’..” This seems twee to modern ears, but look at the language- Pandolf is talking directly to the Duchess, and yet uses the third person to demonstrate her superiority to him and the distance that must exist between an aristocrat and a mere hired artisan like Pandolf. The contrast between this extreme politeness and the request to show ‘a bit more wrist’ is striking.


The Duke may well be suggesting that his last Duchess was a flirt, and that’s why she’s his last Duchess, not his current one. There’s something rather creepy and unwholesome in the way he invites the Count’s man to voyeuristically contemplate the woman’s only areas of exposed flesh –neck and wrist- as if even in death, she belongs to him body and soul, to portion out or keep to himself as he pleases.


The idea that the Duchess was a flirt is continued in the next lines. We also get an increasing idea that the Duke is a dangerously jealous man- he resents any affection the Duchess had for anything other than himself, even for her pet mule. The solipsism or megalomania comes through again here.


The Duke’s resentment gets more aggressive, as he asks why ‘she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift’ He casts the woman as flirt and an ingrate, and yet he continually reveals more about his own perverse need for absolute power and absolute love from all around him than he does about the rather charming and endearing young girl he took to wife. That’s called irony, that is. You might even call it dramatic irony.


Line 36 shows the Duke attempting a self-deprecating tone. It doesn’t quite come off. The reader can’t help but imagine the Count’s man cringing and toadying for all he’s worth at the suggestion that the Duke is less than perfect at something.


The Duke says he wishes he could instruct the Duchess without her setting her wits against him- that is, doing anything but annihilating herself absolutely and instantly into his will. He considers reasoning with her or persuading her ‘stooping’- he wants nothing less than absolute blind obedience and devotion. Anything else is likely to get her poisoned.


Lines 45 and 46 are almost an admission of murder, and incredibly cold. This is perhaps also a warning that the daughter of the Count, should she be ‘lucky’ enough to be given to the Duke, had better do exactly what she’s told if she wishes to be more than a fresco once the honeymoon is over.


The word ‘object’ in line 53 is significant. It means both ‘goal’ and ‘item’ or ‘thing’.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Jamie said...

Sounds like an interesting guy, and a very interesting poem, it seems pretty complex, but its helpful having your comments to coincide

2:18 PM  
Blogger Mr.D said...

If you get the idea that it's all about subtext, you've mastered it.

Surface meaning:

a polite negotiation between a nobleman and a nobleman's emissary, enlivened by the host's decision to to show this privileged guest a masterpiece by a great painter and to recount something of its subject, his previous wife.

Subtext / implied meaning:

A terrible story of ruthless, despotic power- the duke's disapproval of the natural and innocent behaviour of his naive young wife, and his manipulation of the Count's servant and the establishing of his own position as a man not to be trifled with.

7:35 AM  

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