My Last Duchess

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, 't was not Her husband's presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps Fr^ 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, 't was 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

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!

Critics have had field days analyzing this work, but its basic elements are particularly apropos to lessons in this chapter. First, they cross borders. For one, "My Last Duchess" contains a mini-dramatic episode — a specific occasion during which the Count's emissary interacts with the speaker (though that interaction is implied via voice). In the opening, the emissary makes an inquiry about the duchess upon seeing her portrait. In the ending, the Duke asks the emissary about arrangements to snare another unlucky companion —the Count's daughter. The poem also can be depicted on stage with props (painting with curtain, statue of Neptune, etc.), setting (a room with staircase leading down), and, not the least, two actors: the Duke and the dumbfounded emissary. As such, it also has elements of a poetic play. More importantly, though, is its significance as a character study. This is achieved on two levels: an analysis of the gentle Duchess and of the possessive Duke (who collects women like artwork but cannot see their beauty).

That, of course, is the irony of the poem.

Frederick Feirstein, whose verse we read in the chapter on rhyme, says, "The character study often turns on dramatic irony, a contrast between what the character sees about himself and what the writer and reader see." Feirstein adds that any description in a dramatic work (such as the Duke's commentary about his last duchess) must serve to develop character. Likewise, whatever objects appear in a dramatic episode —e.g., the sculpture of Neptune breaking a seahorse at the end of Browning's poem — must serve a character, a theme or the action, as a prop does in a play.

Here are elements to help you distinguish dramatic poetry from other categories of verse:

• The title. This should inform the audience that the poem is in the dramatic mode and also set the stage for the content of the drama to follow. (For example, Browning is no Duke, even though he uses the word my in the title "My Last Duchess" — his topic.)

• The viewpoint. The poet creates an entity through which events in an episode or topics in a character study are filtered (as comments in Browning's poem are filtered through the Duke).

• The voice. Even though the poet may employ the first person, tones of voice are not the poet's but the entity's. (In Browning's poem, the sly, snobby and presumptuous tones are aligned with the Duke's personality.)

You can see how dramatic poems can be confused with narrative poems whose action involves other people and with lyrics whose topics also can be people. Moreover, tributes and epigrams (short pithy poems) often are confused with character studies because they focus intensely on personality traits of an invented, historial or composite entity.

Here's a tribute to an Elizabethan actor by Ben Jonson:

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