Saturday, 27 November 2010


Toying with what amounts to a new reading of this famous poem:
My Last Duchess (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,
That depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain 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
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, '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
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 a 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.
I haven't time, here, to go into all the detail I'd like; but I wonder if the missing context to the understanding of this poem is: Protestantism. In 1849 Browning reprinted the poem with 'Ferrara' added: the speaker. Scholars have identified various possible Renaissance Italian Dukes of Ferrara; but I wonder if Browning doesn't intend us to make the connected with Renée, Duchess of Ferrara, a celebrated friend of early Protestantism. John Calvin visited her, she gave sanctuary to a number of persecuted Hugenots, and was eventually interrogated and forced to recant by the Roman Counter-Reformation.

According to this reading, the 'Duke' is a kind of caricature of repressive Catholicism, his 'nine-hundred year old name' (taking his family back to the 400s; or perhaps more specifically to the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, by which Theodosius I officially made Trinitarian Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire). One would not have to search far to find nineteenth-century British Protestant representations of Catholic authority as violent, repressive, motivated by a tacit sexual possessiveness and hostility and ultimately murderous. The Duchess represents a new open-hearted spirituality: whose love is untrammelled, and who finds a kind of spiritual beauty in various fundamentally religious icons: the white mule, the bough of cherries, the sun -- all artistic icons of Christ.

Needs work, though, this reading.

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