Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565
Richard Howard

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A tribute to Robert Browning and in
celebration of the 65th birthday of Harold
Bloom, who made such tribute only natural.

 

   My Lord recalls Ferrara?  How walls 

rise out of water yet to recede

   identically

   into it, as if

built in both directions: soaring and sinking...

   Such mirroring was my first dismay--

         my next, having crossed

         the moat, was making

   out that, for all its grandeur, the great

pile, observed close to, is close to a ruin!

   (Even My Lord's most

   unstinting dowry

may not restore this wasted precincts to what

   their deteriorating state demands.)

         Queasy it made me,

         glancing first down there

      at swans in the moat apparently

feeding on their own doubled image, then up

   at the citadel,

   so high--or so deep,

and everywhere those cared effigies of 

   men and women, monsters among them

         crowding the ramparts

         and seeming at home

   in the dingy water that somehow

held them up as if for our surveillance--ours?

   anyone's who looked!

   All that pretension

of marble display, the whole improbable

   menagerie with but one purpose:

         having to be seen.

         Such was the matter

   of Ferrara, and such the manner,

when at last we met, of the Duke in greeting

   My Lordship's Envoy:

   life in fallen stone!



Several hours were to elapse, in the keeping 

   of his lackeys, before the Envoy 

         of My Lord the Count 

         of Tyrol might see 

   or even be seen to by His Grace 

the Duke of Ferrara, though from such neglect 

   no deliberate 

   slight need be inferred: 

now that I have had an opportunity 

   --have had, indeed, the obligation-- 

         to fix on His Grace 

         that perlustration 

   or power of scrutiny for which 

(I believe) My Lord holds his Envoy's service 

   in some favor still, 

   I see that the Duke, 

by his own lights or perhaps, more properly 

   said, by his own tenebrosity, 

         could offer some excuse 

         for such cunctation... 

   Appraising a set of cameos 

just brought from Cairo by a Jew in his trust, 

   His Grace had been rapt 

   in connoisseurship, 

that study which alone can distract him 

   from his wonted courtesy; he was 

         affability 

         itself, once his mind 

   could be deflected from mere objects.  



At last I presented (with those documents 

   which in some detail 

   describe and define 

the duties of both signators) the portrait 

   of your daughter the Countess, 

         observing the while 

         his countenance.  No 

   fault was found with our contract, of which 

each article had been so correctly framed 

   (if I may say so) 

   as to ascertain 

a pre-nuptial alliance which must persuade 

   and please the most punctilious (and 

         impecunious) 

         of future husbands. 

   Principally, or (if I may be 

allowed the amendment) perhaps Ducally, 

   His Grace acknowledged 

   himself beguiled by 

Cranach's portrait of our young Countess, praising 

   the design, the hues, the glaze--the frame 

         and appeared averse, 

         for a while, even 

   to letting the panel leave his hands! 

Examining those same hands, I was convinced 

   that no matter what 

   the result of our 

(at this point, promising) negotiations, 

   your daughter's likeness must now remain 

         "for good," as we say, 

         among Ferrara's 

   treasures, already one more trophy 

in His Grace's multifarious holdings, 

   like those marble busts 

   lining the drawbridge, 

like those weed-stained statues grinning up at us 

   from the still moat, and--inside as well 

         as out--those grotesque 

         figures and faces 

   fastened to the walls. So be it!  



               Real 

bother (after all, one painting, for Cranach

   --and My Lord--need be  

   no great forfeiture) 

commenced only when the Duke himself led me 

   out of the audience-chamber and 

         laboriously 

         (he is no longer 

   a young man) to a secret penthouse 

high on the battlements where he can indulge 

   those despotic tastes 

   he denominates, 

      half smiling over the heartless words, 

"the relative consolations of semblance."  

         "Sir, suppose you draw 

         that curtain," smiling 

   in earnest now, and so I sought--

but what appeared a piece of drapery proved 

   a painted deceit!  

   My embarrassment 

afforded a cue for audible laughter, 

   and only then His Grace, visibly 

         relishing his trick, 

         turned the thing around, 

   whereupon appeared, on the reverse, 

the late Duchess of Ferrara to the life! 

   Instanter the Duke 

   praised the portrait 

so readily provided by one Pandolf--

   a monk by some profane article 

         attached to the court, 

         hence answerable 

   for taking likenesses as required 

in but a day's diligence, so it was claimed... 

   Myself I find it 

   but a mountebank's  

proficiency--another chicane, like that 

   illusive curtain, a waxwork sort 

         of nature called forth: 

         cold legerdemain! 

   Though extranea such as the hares 

(copulating!), the doves, and a full-blown rose 

   were showily limned, 

   I could not discern 

aught to be loved in that countenance itself, 

   likely to rival, much less to excel 

         the life illumined 

         in Cranach's image 

   of our Countess, which His Grace had set 

beside the dead woman's presentment...And took, 

   so evident was 

   the supremacy, 

no further pains to assert Fra Pandolf's skill. 

   One last hard look, whereupon the Duke 

         resumed his discourse 

         in an altered tone, 

   now some unintelligible rant 

of stooping--His Grace chooses "never to stoop" 

   when he makes reproof... 

   My Lord will take this 

as but a figure:  not only is the Duke 

      no longer young, his body is so 

         queerly misshapen 

         that even to speak 

   of "not stooping" seems absurdity: 

the creature is stooped, whether by cruel 

   or impartial cause--say 

   Time or the Tempter-- 

I shall not venture to hypothecate. Cause 

   or no cause, it would appear he marked 

         some motive for his 

         "reproof," a mortal 

   chastisement in fact inflicted on 

his poor Duchess, put away (I take it so) 

   for smiling--at whom?  

   Brother Pandolf? or 

some visitor to court during the sitting? 

   --too generally, if I construe 

         the Duke's clue rightly, 

         to survive the terms 

   of his...severe protocol.  My Lord, 

at the time it was delivered to me thus, 

   the admonition 

   if indeed it was 

any such thing, seemed no more of a menace 

   than the rest of his rodomontade; 

         item, he pointed, 

         as we toiled downstairs, 

   to that bronze Neptune by our old Claus 

(there must be at least six of them cluttering 

   the Summer Palace 

   at Innsbruck), claiming 

it was "cast in bronze for me."  Nonsense, of course.  



   But upon reflection, I suppose 

            we had better take 

            the old reprobate 

   at his unspeakable word... Why, even 

assuming his boasts should be as plausible 

   as his avarice, 

   no "cause" for dismay: 

once ensconced here as the Duchess, your daughter 

   need no more apprehend the Duke's 

            murderous temper 

            than his matchless taste.  

   For I have devised a means whereby 

the dowry so flagrantly pursued by our 

   insolvent Duke ("no 

   just pretense of mine 

be disallowed" indeed!), instead of being 

   paid as he pleads in one globose sum, 

            should drip into his 

            coffers by degrees--

   say, one fifth each year--then after five 

such years, the dowry itself to be doubled, 

   always assuming 

   that Her Grace enjoys 

her usual smiling health.  The years are her 

   ally in such an arbitrament, 

            and with confidence 

            My Lord can assure 

   the new Duchess (assuming her Duke 

abides by these stipulations and his own 

   propensity for 

   accumulating 

"semblances") the long devotion (so long as 

   he lasts ) of her last Duke... Or more likely, 

            if I guess aright 

            your daughter's intent, 

   of that young lordling I might make so 

bold as to designate her next Duke, as well... 



               Ever determined in 

   My Lordship's service, 

   I remain his Envoy 

to Ferrara as to the world.  

                              Nikolaus Mardruz.

 


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