Alfonso II d'Este (1533–1597), Duke of Ferrara, and Duchess Lucrezia de' Medici (1545-1561).‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning (1812-1889) and ‘My Next Duchess’ by Lawrence Jones The Society May 17, 2020 Culture, Humor, Poetry 7 Comments My Last Duchess The Duke of Ferrara recalls his last wife. by 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) 10 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 20 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, 30 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 40 Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, E’en that 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 50 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! His Next Duchess A messenger spoken to in Browning’s poem reports back to his lord, the next duchess’s father. by Lawrence Jones My Lord, I’m now returned. His Grace, the Duke Sends his good wishes. Yet may I rebuke My lord? For yon Ferrara may be great, But it’s no place to trust your daughter’s fate. The hills of Tyrol rise to keep her here, Or she’ll become a painting on her bier, Or on his Grace’s wall, by friar painted. For I with former duchess was acquainted In private room, behind a private curtain, By private man, whose cruelty was certain. You must not send your girl to such a one Or she’ll become a poem overdone By one who loveliness cannot abide! For three full years his former duchess plied The halls and terrace, grounds, and court, then… hush! It seems she smiled too much and dared to blush When others, ’side the Duke, paid compliments, No matter were they rich or worth a pence. My Lord, the Duke related how he ne’er Will choose “to stoop,” by which he means to share His wishes or desires with anyone. This makes him hard to please, nor could she shun His presence, for he’s wont to notice all That happens in his orchard or his hall Or on his stairs or even in the rooms Nobility their privacy presumes. Trust not your daughter to this noble man, For noble-ness has not across the span Of these 900 years been good to he Who bears today the title clear and free. The arts are now his passion. There is no Blank spot on wall or landing, patio, Or terrace, but a new-commissioned piece Shows off the painter’s, sculptor’s, expertise. Your servant fears that people to His Grace Are much like works of art: they keep their place And add to trifling beauty, but they’re there To raise the Duke, make him extraordinaire. And when they cease to please him in some way – They do not even have to disobey – He simply has them exit from his life, No matter be they servant or his wife! I should not fail to mention, near the close Of our one-sided interview, he chose To compliment my Lord upon his kind And giving nature, and before we dined He twice brought up the dowry he intends To ask my Lord. I fear His Grace ascends To heights of unbelievability When he with unashamed agility Most quickly claimed it was my lady first In which his int’rest lay, as we conversed. And so, my Lord, your mercy now I crave For I will speak unto you as a knave: My lady in my Lord’s affection much is; You would do ill to make her his next duchess! The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Jones is a retired Presbyterian minister, residing in Bristol, Vermont. He is a member of Otter Creek Poets in Middlebury. NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on WhatsApp (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window) 7 Responses J. C. MacKenzie May 17, 2020 “My Next Duchess,” in my opinion, is based on a vaguely superficial understanding of Browning’s poem, adds nothing to it, and draws nothing from it, creating an entirely empty experience for the reader. Reply Julian D. Woodruff May 17, 2020 Mr. MacKenzie, I think you would expend little more effort, and permit many to profit from your knowledge and creative imagination if you were to express specific ways our efforts might be improved, and in this instance what depths we may have missed in a work to which we have chosen to respond. Reply Sultana Raza May 17, 2020 I appreciate the flow and the series of enjambments in My Next Duchess. Also, the lines, which seem to sum up at least one aspect of the Duke’s personality: “Your servant fears that people to His Grace Are much like works of art: they keep their place…” At the same time, it was quite rare for employees of aristocratic families to show so much concern for any female members of the family. Arranged marriages were more or less like business transactions that tended to suit the males of both the families involved. Therefore, one can’t help wondering who the narrator of the second poem is, and why would he have such seemingly altruistic motives? And what happened next duchess? Did the Duke end up marrying that particular girl or not? What was the fate of the next duchess? Reply C.B. Anderson May 17, 2020 As it happened, I was recruited in high school to recite “My Last Duchess” as part of what they called Thespian Night, so I have long been familiar with that poem as a dramatic monologue. This current reply, in my opinion, is not quite as bad as J.C. MacK. makes it out to be, and if we take it as simply some judicious advice to the father of a potential bride, then it makes a great deal of sense. I have a daughter of my own, and I would have hated to see her in the hands of a scoundrel such as the Duke of Ferrara. Overall, Reverend Jones, you have dotted every “I” & crossed every “T,” and I cannot, to be perfectly honest, ask anything more of you. And I am thrilled that you took upon yourself to take further measure of a poem that played a part in my long-lost youth. Reply Joseph S. Salemi May 18, 2020 The Reverend Jones has written what used to be called a “companion piece” to a famous poem — that is, one that either answers the original poem or develops some suggestion in it. An example would be Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” written as a wry retort to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd.” I don’t fault Jones on his meter or his compositional style, which seem creditable and commendable — although he slips into modern idiom and modern vocabulary too often for my taste. After all, his poem is supposed to be set in the sixteenth century, and words like “patio” and “unbelievability” are just jarring in that context. But the larger question is this (and I don’t want it to start a fight or a flame-war, but just let it be considered by all of us who are attempting to resuscitate genuine formal poetry): What was the aesthetic purpose of Browning’s “My Last Duchess”? It certainly is a mistake to think that it was a melodramatic portrayal of a proud and cruel man, and the story of how he ordered the elimination of his wife out of arrogant resentment. If that’s all we think the poem is (a TV melodrama and tale of horror), then we are reading the poem as our enemies the modernists read it! We are making the thing more personal and more intimate and more modern than it is. It’s NOT about personal relationships, except secondarily to the poem’s main point. And that’s where I would criticize the Reverend Jones’s poem. He takes Browning’s dramatic monologue in that modern, personalistic way, and just adds a sequel following the same template: “The Duke of Ferrara is a cruel and wicked man! He’s killed his previous wife! Don’t let your poor daughter marry him! He’s a soulless aesthete, and only concerned with her dowry! How horrible!” That makes for a soap-opera plot, where everything is about personal interaction and feelings and conflicting motives. But that isn’t at all what Browning’s poem is about! This magnificent monologue (like a great many others of Browning that deal with Renaissance characters, like “Andrea Del Sarto” or “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s,” is about the Renaissance itself, and its terrifying mix of the most sublime art, the bloodiest savagery, overweening pride, civilizational achievement, and heightened aesthetic perceptions. The story of an inoffensive wife being murdered IS OF NO IMPORTANCE in the poem, other than as a stage-prop for Browning’s dramatization of the kaleidoscopic magnificence of the Renaissance world itself. This was the world of Machiavelli and stilettos in the back, of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, of Pope Julius leading his troops against Bologna, of the magnificence of Benvenuto Cellini conjoined with his violence and propensity to murder, of breaking criminals on the wheel and the glory of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, of Castiglione having deep intellectual discussions at Urbino and peasants being slaughtered en masse in Germany. You want to know what the most important lines in Browning’s poem are? It’s these: ……Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! THAT’S the European Renaissance, right there. Fine art, rediscovered classical texts, explorations and conquests, sonnet sequences, the casting of fine bronzes, excellent paintings and frescoes, magnificent palazzos in marble, and all of this unparalleled achievement side by side with human violence, warfare, arrogant pride, cruelty, domination, and brutality THAT MAKE GREAT ACHIEVEMENT POSSIBLE. Don’t read Browning’s poem as if it were just scary episode from As The World Turns. “My Last Duchess” is a profound refutation of everything that liberalism teaches. Reply Christina May 19, 2020 Leave a reply? I am speechless in the face o Dr. Salemi’s insights into the Renaissance world, and can only thank him for communicating them so passionately and eloquently. Reply Jason February 11, 2021 To say Browning’s poem isn’t a soap opera because the Historical perspective is all-encompassing is extremely limiting. A poem can be a soap opera while also having a historical connection. They’re not mutually exclusive. Dramatic monologues are inherently theatrical so it’s only natural for audiences to wonder what the poem’s sequel might look like. I agree that the language in the “Next” iteration of Browning’s poem is anachronistic at times, but that’s to be expected when trying to recreate antiquated rhetoric. The History angle regarding the brutality that went hand-in-hand with the Italian Renaissance is interesting, but what do you have against soap operas? The genre isn’t inherently inferior to the field of History. Both have merit in their own rights. Likewise, the poem does, indeed, indict the culture of the ruling class in Western Europe, but instead of writing a manifesto, Browning uses a kind of mini-play to mock the art collectors and elite who kill The Other in order to preserve their own image. A didactic manifesto by the author might more clearly display Browning’s disgust for the elite’s obsession with self-glorification, but without The Duke’s power of eloquence, much like Milton’s Satan and Frankenstein’s monster, the reader and the ambassador to the Count don’t have to do any work in solving the murder mystery. History, unlike Literature, is skewed if it’s told ironically, so the way in which stories are told is just as important as the messsage itself; one is not superior to the other, nor are they mutually exclusive. The Duke makes it seem as though he gave commands to his wife to stop smiling and blushing at others, but reading in between the lines, the ambassador and reader can surmise that The Duke actually hired an assassin to kill her because for him, settling for anything other than one hundred submission to his will would be “stooping” (43) down to a lower level; The Duke, however, refuses to act in any way that he considers to be inferior. The rhetorical situation in the poem gives us and the ambassador a chance to solve the crime. Again, the “Next” installment to the poem is anachronistic; economically, the Count’s ambassador doesn’t have the luxury of making any judgement calls regarding The Duke’s character. The Count is looking to make sure his possible business partner can afford to pay for The Count’s expensive property, his daughter. In 19th Century England, men were legally allowed to beat their wives because married women were still largely viewed of as the property of their husbands. Therefore, Browning’s criticizing the misogyny and violence that were going on right in his own backyard, but why can’t “My Last Duchess” be an extremely engaging speech in a soap opera that intrigues its audiences with a murder mystery while, also, criticizing the rampant misogyny and hate in modern England, Italy, and Western Europe as a whole? I guess my point is that Literature, unlike History, isn’t about one specific argument or perspective. Literature’s multiplicity of interpretation and perspective is one of its greatest strengths. The “Next” iteration of the poem is a fun exercise that gives “My Last Duchess” a sentimental happy ending. Browning’s reader is led to believe that The Duke’s villainy; like that of Iago, Cassius, or MacBeth; is going to persist until either an opposing force enters his sphere or until he is satisfied, which isn’t possible. Long story short, don’t be a Duke and talk trash about soap operas and sequels while holding Historical perspectives on a pedestal; all fields of study and genres have their exits and entrances when it comes to intellectual inquiry, even fan fic. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. 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