Usually, in this spot, I try to grasp all the particularity of some book I like, or I fly aloft into fictional insights and novel theories. This diary will not reach so hard and high. We'll just look at a short, intricately crafted poem: a revealing peek at the splendor of the Italian Renaissance, and the glowing faces and dark hearts that lived there.

I'll keep my commentary brief. The point of this diary is to share one of the greatest poems ever written. Please take the time to read it slowly. Even if you know it well. There is so much story between the lines - Browning put it there, but we must look carefully for all of it. Please amble through this poem, and let the implications tug at your imagination, until the story extends far beyond the 28 rhymed couplets it was delivered in.

We're about to meet  

Alfonso II d'Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598), who, at the age of 25, married Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici, the 14-year-old daughter of Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Eleonora di Toledo.

Lucrezia was not well educated, and the Medicis could be considered "nouveau riche" in comparison to the venerable and distinguished Este family (the Duke's remark regarding his gift of a "nine-hundred-years-old name" clearly indicates that he considered his bride beneath him socially). She came with a sizeable dowry, and the couple married in 1558. He then abandoned her for two years before she died on 21 April 1561, at age 17.

We, the readers, are standing in the shoes of Nikolaus Madruz, a majordomo in the court of the Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II. We are here as a go-between negotiator, since the Duke hopes to make Ferdinand's sister Barbara his next Duchess.

He will show us his beautiful art, and impress us with his grandeur and history. Through the chinks in his tale, we will meet his last Duchess, and gradually discover just how fine a man the Duke is in truth.

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, ’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!

The poem is vivid, lovely, flowing, in musical yet natural speech. Most of all, it is exceedingly clever. I want to clap. Browning picks his phrases, his words so perfectly - they tell so much. We see the ripening beauty of this 14-year-old bride, and her overflowing joy, her responsiveness to every breeze and current of feeling around her. And the Duke explains this as "A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad". It offends him, that she is so alive, that she cannot lock tight all her natural happiness, and spend it only in adoration of him.

"The bough of cherries some officious fool Broke in the orchard for her". A girl with so much life and joy shining out of her, that she inspires men to break whole branches off trees, and lay them at her feet - married to a man who would never pick a flower for her, or forgive another man for wanting to. The Duke has such psychological sensitivity (and narcissism, and paranoia), and so little self-awareness. Which is the great trick of the poem: he tells us his entire tale, without ever understanding it.

                                                "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.
Just priceless. From the man who claimed he had not "skill In speech".

I don't know a finer poem for storytelling, for drawing our imaginations into its web. If you want to uncover more in the poem, here is a detailed key.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Sep 13, 2013 at 05:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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