Word Worth®
                      World Magazine of Ideas and the Arts™ — ©Spring 2019 Volume XIX,  Issue 2

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Arts

Rediscovering Robert Browning (1812-1889)

My Last Duchess is one of the finest poems to come out of the 19th Century, and is probably one of the finest works of all time. Browning used the Duke’s words to capture perfectly his child bride, her graciousness, and her purity of heart. She loved the sunset, she thanked servants as though she meant it, and her beauty was captured by the finest painter of the time. The Duke also reveals himself: a hateful, degenerate man who cannot stand his young bride’s virtues. She was to love only him and his nine-hundred years old name; beautiful things were not to be favored equally with his name. So he had her murdered.

Browning was able to capture the depravity of the Duke using the Duke's own words. Beyond that, the poem is written in iambic pentameter and aa bb cc and so on rhyme scheme, a most difficult feat in the English language especially while not sacrificing intent or revelation of character. The lines are not end-stopped despite the rhyme but flow smoothly.

My Last Duchess

Ferrara

 

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 favor 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!

 

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