The Browning-Howard Connection

by Anthony Hecht


hen I was a schoolboy, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" was a standard item in the English curriculum. It had many features calculated to excite the minds of the young, foremost among them a ruthless, egotistical tyrant of such power and vanity that he could openly admit to having ordered the execution of his own wife for the "crime" of being too pleasant to others. Critics have not been of one mind about the meaning of the poem, or even the psychology of its ducal speaker. Robert Langbaum, who regards himself as something of an authority on the poem, writes, "It is because the duke's motive for telling the story is inadequate, and because the situation is never resolved in that the utterance is not quite directed to the auditor and does not accomplish anything, that we look for a resolution in the duke's life outside the poem" [my italics, indicating where Ithink Langbaum mistaken]. William Harmon declares, "The duke is dignified and cagey but not quite cagey enough. Some inner compulsion, probably an overwhelming sense of guilt, has compelled him to return to the scene and situation of his crime and to confess." This seems to me equally mistaken.

     Browning's duke is based on Alfonso d'Este, duke of Ferrara, whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances only three years after her marriage. Like historical novelists of our day, Browning allowed himself some latitude in creating his psychological portrait. But he was a keen student of history, and he would have known all about the moral vagaries of Italian Renaissance princes, a topic Shakespeare himself was acquainted with. Regarding the d'Este family, Jacob Burkhardt writes:

     Within the palace frightful deeds were perpetrated; a princess was beheaded (1425) for alleged adultery with a stepson; legitimate and illegitimate children fled from the court, and even abroad their lives were threatened by assassins sent in pursuit of them (1471). Plots from without were incessant; the bastard of a bastard tried to wrest the crown from the lawful heir, Hercules I; this latter is said afterwards (1493) to have poisoned his wife on discovering that she, at the instigation of her brother, Ferrente of Naples, was going to poison him.
Confident, audacious, vain, Browning's duke knows just what he's up to, and has calculated to a nicety the effect his words will have on the envoy who has come to treat with him about a second marriage, and is acting as the agent of the count of Tyrol, whose court is at Innsbruck, Austria. Underneath the duke's connoisseurship, civility, and boastfulness, two stipulations are meant to be made crystal clear to the family of the potential bride: (1) The duke is a man of expensive tastes who will expect a dowry commensurate with the distinction of his noble family, and (2) he will also expect nothing but absolute submission and obedience from anyone he deigns to marry. This is the "motive" for his elaborate discourse. He feels no more guilt than Shakespeare's Antonio in The Tempest, who plots the murder of his brother, Prospero. The duke's conscience is as untroubled as Machiavelli tells us a prince's ought to be. Doubtless this is chilling, even monstrous; yet there have been such men. That such brutal considerations should present themselves openly during the negotiations preliminary to a marriage contract should not astonish us when we recall that marriage among the nobility was largely a mercenary and dynastic matter, in which love played little if any role.

ichard Howard has written a brilliant sequel to the Browning poem, predicated on the dramatic situation as outlined above. His "speaker" is one Nikolaus Mardruz, the envoy to whom Browning's duke has recently spoken, and who is now reporting (by written message) on that interview along with relevant observations, to his principal, the count of Tyrol. He includes comments omitted in Browning's version: for example, the duke's mention of "the relative consolations of semblance," a curious turn of phrase, suggesting that the duke is (1) so old, or (2) so ill, or (3) so refined that he now prefers portraits to their subjects. This can mean that he has moved beyond sexual appetites, but it can also mean that he places no high value on the lives of others. As a diplomat/intermediary, Mardruz is easily the equal of the duke in cunning, intrigue, and cool, strategic thinking. Howard has introduced matters of age, health, and cash flow into the plottings, and the drama is greatly enlarged thereby. He might well plan to continue the sequence.
A few words need to be said about the formal elements of the two poems. Browning's is written, not (as William Harmon declares) in heroic couplets (which are also called "closed" couplets, and in which the sense is completed in the second line), but in what might be called defiantly unheroic couplets, full of enjambments, the speaker's impetuosity of discourse flooding through the form almost without pause to rhyme. The headlong thrust of syntax makes the formality of rhyme a secondary, if not a negligible, factor. Howard's poem is composed in syllabics, in which syllables are counted without regard to accents. Though he has disposed his lines on the page with great craft and seamless continuity, study will disclose that he has constructed an eight-line stanza, in which the line lengths, by syllable count, run: 9, 11, 5, 5, 11, 9, 5, 5. With the ninth line, this pattern is repeated. By ingeniously placing the first set of five-syllable lines toward the left margin of the poem, and the second set toward the right, Howard has presented a visually serpentine format, suggesting the deviousness and sinuosity of his speaker, and his Mardruz is worthy of Browning.



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!

Click here for Richard Howard's poem, "Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565." The linked site also offers a recording of Howard reading the poem.

Reprinted from the Winter 1999 Wilson Quarterly