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 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!
If you cut and paste this link, it will take you to a recording of Richard Howard’s reading of Browning’s poem.
This is another of Robert Browning’s psychological masterpieces. Browning was famous for his employment of the ‘interior monologue’ in his poetry, something that was later to evolve, in its next incarnation into that centrepiece of modernist writing – the style we now know as ‘Stream of Consciousness’. Browning, as a disciplined Victorian, stayed on topic, and did not exactly ‘stream’, but, nevertheless, this poem clearly consists of an uninterrupted stream of thought.
Though the Duke’s comments are ostensibly addressed to an emissary of some noble house with which he is hoping to make yet another matrimonial alliance with a young girl, he may just as well be talking to himself, as his erstwhile listener – who I daresay may be increasingly overcome by horror – deigns not to interrupt.
Virginia Woolf gets the predominant credit for elevating the Stream of Consciousness technique to its polished perfection, but it was Dorothy Richardson – whose name has now fallen into a literary oubliette – who first came up with the concept, and she called it ‘Interior Monologue’, rather than the rather more inflated title claimed for it today. The lives of Browning and Katherine Mansfield (the first really literary exponent of the Stream of Consciousness style) did overlap, in the sense that Mansfield was an infant of fourteen months when Browning died in 1889.
Woolf was sufficiently acquainted with Browning’s wife Elizabeth Barrett, to have observed in her a trait she adopted and made her own, that of standing up for her literary convictions. In yet another distant twist, Woolf”s grand-aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a renowned early pioneer of photography, took Robert Brownings photograph.
The Brownings were among the many literary eminences who visited Little Holland House, the London home of Cameron’s aunt and uncle the Princeps. – so
there are several threads – frayed and old thought they may be – connecting Woolf to the Brownings.
Despite his being a distant ancestral link to the Modernists, Browning was much closer to Shakespeare in his mood and perspective. We cannot avoid being rather queasily reminded of Othello when we listen to the Duke’s arrogant peroration – but this is less a pure Othello, than a composite of Othello and the villainous Iago, with the balance tipping decisively in the direction of the latter.
The Duke is curiously bloodless – his character is chillingly infused with malice, and with the ice-water that ran through Iago’s veins. Othello loved Desdemona, and his jealousy was rooted in his twisted wish to be the sole possessor of her love. The Duke, however, only wishes to be the sole possessor of his Duchess’ attention, which is something that much more pertains to pomposity and presumption.
I remember how I felt when I first read this poem as a young girl: How angry and how offended, and my ire was turned on Browning for what I thought was his endorsement of the Duke. How wrong I was, and how completely ignorant of Browning’s clever and subtle devising. When I look back, I see my then indignation as proof of Browning’s assured mastery at delineating character.
The Duke is so perfectly revealed as a man given over completely to venality and vileness – a Machiavellian schemer – and the Duchess an innocent and lovely young girl, that they leave no room for any reaction in us but the polarised one that no doubt Browning himself intended.
I am not unaware of the irony that emerges in my choice of the portrait of Marie de Medici to illustrate Browning’s Duchess. Marie’s familial antecedents were indeed strongly linked to Niccolò Machiavelli, whose teachings the Duke might well have studied. However, Marie, who married a man 20 years her senior, King Henry IV of France, unlike the Duchess, outlived her husband by 32 years, and died at the age of 69. It is also a largely unrecognised fact that she was the patron of Nostradamus, a personage who far eclipsed her in fame.
Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie told her ‘girls’ that Marmalade was a confiture devised by the the royal chef from the orangeries of Marie de Medici, when Marie fell ill as a young bride, the word marmalade being derived from the words Marie-malade – but that little bit of inspired – and quite spurious – myth-making – was Spark’s delicate nod to the fatuously ridiculous character of Miss Jean Brodie.
But to return from all these distracting tangents, Richard Howard’s reading of this poem, despite the detriment of his American accent, does justice to the poem’s frequent use of enjambment, and thoroughly emphasises the character of the splenetically prideful and grasping old Duke, as foolish as Lear but with none of Lear’s ability to recognise his own deeply embedded defects.
We are left with the maddening feeling that it is precisely the Duke’s irremediably evil nature which will forever shield him from the kind of devastation and remorse which would doubtless overtake him were his conscience to ever awaken. At the end of the poem we leave knowing that he will never realise that it was his diabolical egotism and twisted mind, which led him to commit a terrible wrong, and foolishly destroy the life of the innocent young girl who had loved him.