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.


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6 Responses

  1. J. C. MacKenzie

    “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

      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
  2. Sultana Raza

    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
  3. C.B. Anderson

    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
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    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
  5. Christina

    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

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