Nov 26, 2011


At the risk of obsessing about John Crowe Ransom’s “Janet Waking” (11/20/11), I still wonder if I'm hearing the poem accurately. While I sense some compassion in the speaker, his dismissiveness overrides it, at least for me.  The poem seems to have gotten away from Ransom; I don't think he hears himself as well as he needs to.

Speaking of dismissiveness and other sins . . . many of you have been with family for Thanksgiving and thus subjected to a panorama of human flaws and grievous affronts, perhaps including dismissiveness.

So, in the context of your families and John Crowe Ransom’s “Janet Waking,” today I offer a classic poem, Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in which the author is clearly not the speaker, and it’s hard to imagine a speaker who is better controlled by his author, his creator.

This might take a little more effort than the typical Banjo52 poem and commentary, but I hope you’ll take your time, explore slowly, and find it enjoyable, as you encounter one of the most intriguing situations and most interesting villains in the history of human interaction.

My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning in 1842


    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 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!
       *                              *                       *

            Was this guy at your Thanksgiving table?  Forgive me if I doubt it.  Few people are this interesting, and I suspect few of us do justice to the importance of being interesting as we size up people we know.

Browning’s speaker is probably Italy’s fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598), and he has had his last wife (My Last Duchess) murdered:  “This grew. I gave commands./And all smiles stopped together.”

Why did he do this? Because she shared her happy disposition with everyone and everything, from servants to sunsets and white mules. Our duke saw her behavior as a kind of betrayal, or even a kind of promiscuity:

                                                                 . . . 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 . . . .

 Now, how might such a speaker be charming? How might the poem cause us to withhold our moral judgment of the duke, at least for a moment, and even—horrors!—find him appealing? 

One answer is that he's intelligent, bold, decisive, shrewd, and menacing. He is simply too fascinating to be dismissed with simplistic moral judgment. He is Jesse James and Al Capone, but much brighter, much more articulate, cunning—and in some ways enviable. Somebody piss you off? Have ‘em killed. (Don’t dirty your hands by doing it yourself, of course; that’s for common rogues and peasants).

We all want to be the duke, but we’re townsfolk in an old western. So we want the next best thing:  to be on the duke’s team. It sounds like a much bigger adventure than the grocer's team, the plumber's team, the farmer's team. Our secret selves wish we could speak one of the greatest lines in all of literature, with the absolute confidence (and honesty!) of our duke: “I choose/Never to stoop.”  But we’re all talk; we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—and unpleasant dinner guests. We suffer fools gladly, while the duke simply has them killed.

We beg for work and call it dignity. We seek social standing and call it prestige, or even honor.  But this duke is dignity, is prestige. And as for honor, why, that’s just a serf’s notion of virtue and importance.

The only thing the duke fakes is a democratic oneness with his companion. Up on a grand stairway, looking at art, among which the last and dead duchess is one painting, one of several art objects, the count’s emissary has probably made some obligatory, empty gesture, like, “After You, My Lord,”—to which our duke replies:  “Nay, we’ll go/Together down, sir.” 

Can’t you see the duke smirking? When your favorite nasty athlete talks smack about his opponent, you don’t give a damn about your idol’s honor or morality. You can’t wait till Sunday when he buries his opponent’s face in the mud.  (Yes, Casper, once upon a time, football was played in mud). And you like it because you’re unable to do that to your own opponents.

Remember, the listener in the poem is an emissary from a count who is considering an offer of his daughter in marriage to our duke. Arrangements must be made, dowries negotiated, all things need to be understood, cards on the table. 
In this context, our duke wants his prospective father-in-law to know the score:  when folks don’t please him, he has them killed. To the poem’s listener, the duke is saying, “Be sure to tell your boss that my last wife was an air-headed cheerleader, apple-cheeked and well-liked, but in the end a happy bumpkin, not a woman who appreciated the nine-hundred-years-old name who was buttering her bread and therefore deserved and required all her attention. Tell your boss to tell his daughter what is meant by loyalty here in Ferrara.”

A common reading of the poem says that we are drawn to this, in spite of ourselves, in spite of all our moral abhorrence. Maybe it’s what we call swag these days. And cojones. Muchos cajones. The duke has put a new spin on honesty: “You want honesty? I’ll give you honesty.” I hear Nicolson in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.”  But maybe the duke says it better: “I choose/Never to stoop.”

So I ask again, was there a Duke of Ferrara at your holiday table? Or was it a crowd of obedient clucking sheep, hissing about this and that offense by every so-and-so in their lives? You heard me, clucking sheep. They hiss.

In addition to what you like or hate about the poem, it might be fun to hear about the dukes and duchesses from your own experience (maybe with the roles reversed?).  

(For some basic historical info related to the poem, I suggest starting with good ol’ Wikipedia: )



Toyin O. said...

What a great read, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Byron's "She walks in beauty like the night/of cloudy climes and starry skies..." poem.

All that lovely sarcasm lost, usually.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I should of taken heed with the number of hawk illustrations.

Language - (Shaksperian, Elizabethan, flowery etc) will always guarantee I loose my way. I'm an upstart in the land of the literary.
I thought it was the artist telling the tale. Then I thought child/bride might be a bit loose with her affections (cherries, the white mule - Catherine the Great rumors). It took the "age old name" to start clearing the way for me - and then the wiki article (I made a donation).

I kind of like how you landed these thoughts

"We beg for work and call it dignity. We seek social standing and call it prestige, or even honor. But this duke is dignity, is prestige."

BTW: Death DID come up at my holiday meal but it was of a different nature. I was sitting kitty corner to the arboreal head of the San Diego zoo and was getting advice on how to permanently kill my Giant Bird of Paradise < - kind of relates, in a round about way, to the hawk.

Maybe I'll do a post on the subject. Ramona will star in it.

Brenda's Arizona said...

But what about Porphyria's Lover?

Banjomyn, I'm not sure if you would sit and talk with the Duke or if you'd walk away, thankful for your life? Or do you want to observe from afar - from a poet's eye?

Banjo52 said...

Toyin, welcome, and thank you. Hope you come back again. I’ll try to give your place more attention than I was able to the other day.

AH, can you guide me a little more on Byron and satire/sarcasm? But the idea of inner beauty in both women, you betcha.

PA, yeah, the old lingo is a built-in barrier. Does it ever work for you? Are you ever glad it’s not modern American usage? I think you’re on to something with the cherries. I tried to touch on that with “promiscuity,” tho’ I feel she’s been anything but promiscuous, at least not sexually. I need more on Bird of Paradise and hawk; glad you noticed the pic-poem-predator connection. Can’t wait for more on Ramona.

Brenda, remind us about Porphria’s Lover, please. I remember the title, but that’s all. As for my own dinners, I feel as I’ve met several dukes. The charm and intimidation are there, but I wouldn’t want ‘em in my foxhole, as the saying goes. They're entertaining as hell, but there's room for only one person in their lives.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Porphyria's Lover? The Browning poem where the man strangles his lover with her own long hair. What did EBB think of her husband's poems?

Perhaps Dukes are best left to their own. Fun for us to observe but not grow in to? But their dignity is worthy of more?
Love PA's comments.

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Rune Eide said...

I hope(!) I'm just a simple man, but I see only a description of a man with total lack of empathy, of grandiose self-esteem, with a right to judge who shall live and who shall die.

It is extremely well-written, and I suppose it is meant to be sarcastic. I hope it was.

Though I much admired the "Duchess" at the top of the post!!

Stickup Artist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stickup Artist said...

Well, you asked for it. My ex (that says it all) is your Duke. In fact, I referred to him as The Boy King. The type is not pleasant to live with and soon the fascination turns repellant. No one puts up with "duke-ishness" for long unless gaining some advantage from them. Even then, the price is often too high. And honesty is too often only someone's biased opinion about this or that rather than the truth. So of course that is just my opinion based on an unpleasant experience...

Anonymous said...

Many things to like about the poem and your reading of it. Not the least being when the reader instructively conjures Casper (?!), in order to impart a glory of football past.

Anonymous said...

What you need is a better camera.

Lovers' Lane