More poetry — with a mystery at the end

Since it’s still National Poetry Month, here’s another favorite poem of mine. My Last Duchess by Robert Browning (1842). When I read this poem (for the Brit. Lit survey I took right before grad school) I immediately saw this poem as a nice compact lesson for fiction writers. My analysis of that below:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà 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
Frà 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!

OK, so what do you think? Did the Duke murder his first wife? And what’s going to happen to the next one? If you care about such things, Wikipedia has a pretty good article about the poem.

Browning never once mentions murder or evil intent, and yet the Duke is simply not a nice man. He chills your blood doesn’t he?

When you’re writing fiction, you need to do what Browning has done in this poem. Make the reader know someone is a murderer without actually telling. Well, yeah. If it were easy, we’d all be Robert Browning, right?


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5 Responses to “More poetry — with a mystery at the end”

  1. Patti O'Shea says:

    Argh! Carolyn, I’m supposed to be writing and you post the one poem I have to comment on.

    I totally don’t get poetry and I know it, so when I was in college and had to read “My Last Duchess,” I went through it really carefully–three times. I thought I got it. Then I went to class the next day and the prof (or TA, can’t remember which now) said that about the duchess being murdered by the duke and I was like, huh? She died? LOL! I told you, I totally don’t get poetry.


  2. Carolyn says:

    The difference is that you read this poem for the first time when you were a young undergraduate. Intelligent, of course, but wet behind the ears, as most undergrads are. When I read it, I was an adult with my BA many years done and with years more experience and reading behind me. That makes a big difference. Once a good teacher has shown you ways to read poetry, it gets easier.

    It so happens, however, that I am also not very good with poetry. I’ve had your exact experience many times.

  3. Susan/DC says:

    I don’t think he murdered her in the legal sense. I think he “gave orders”: he exiled those she smiled upon, forbade her to do the things she loved (gardening and music perhaps) and coldly criticized her passions as unbecoming for his duchess. So “all smiles stopped” and in the end her soul and then her body died. The manner in which he tells this story is so chilling — and how, in the end, the portrait of his duchess is simply a work of art, equated with the bronze Neptune, and not the story of a living, breathing person.

  4. Susan/DC says:

    Either my first attempts got lost in the ether or I’m going to have a multitude of comments, but here goes (again): I’ve loved this poem ever since I first read it because it’s such a complete story and character study in such a compact form. I don’t think the Duke murdered his wife in the legal sense, but I think he “gave orders” — exiled those she smiled upon, circumscribed her activities to those he felt fitting for his “900 years old name”, killed her passion and soul and, in the end, her. I think she died of sorrow, not poison or the blade. And it’s so chilling how he goes on to praise the bronze statue of Neptune as a work of art equal to his late wife’s portrait, as if there hadn’t been a living, breathing person behind it at all.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Well, sometimes Blogger does some weird things. I think your reading of the poem as a very good one, Susan. I read somewhere that Browning himself said he believed the duke had ordered his wife’s death. I particularly like your comparison of the bronze Neptune to the portrait. Nice work there.