Robert Browning

October 11, 2006


During his lifetime, was often referred to as “Mrs. Browning’s husband”: was a relatively unknown experimenter whose poems were greeted with indifference
gained a public and was recognized as the rival of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the 1860’s
Poetry was admired by two groups of readers widely different in tastes: Browning was seen as a wise philosopher and religious teacher resolving doubts seen in Tennyson’s poetry, and also as a poet interested in solving the problems of how poetry should be written (Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell recognized that Browning became the main road of twentieth-century poetry)
Uses dramatic monologue to separate the speaker from the poet
Born in Camberwell, a London suburb
Until marriage at age of 34, Browning was rarely absent from his parents’ home
Preferred to pursue his education at home
Overwhelmed with embarrassment, avoided confessional writings and exposing himself too explicitly before his readers
Wrote plays instead of narratives, but stage productions remained failures
Carried dramatic monologue to poetry and enabled him through imaginary speakers to avoid explicit autobiography
Became an atheist, vegetarian and liberal at 14 after discovering Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works, retained Shelley’s influence in poetry, but grew away for atheism
The random nature of his education later surfaced in his writing, leading to criticism of his poems’ obscurities
After reading Elizabeth Barrett’s Poems (1844) and corresponding with her for a few months, Browning met her in 1845 and they were married in 1846,


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 to 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 hustand’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps / Fra Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantel 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 sa? -too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. / Sir, ’twas all one! My favor 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 to rise? We’ll meet / The company below, then. I repeat, / The Count your master’s known munificence / Is ample warrant that no just pretense / 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!

-My Last Duchess (in whole)

A duke speaks of his dead wife in a one-sided conversation
Reader must piece together the past and present situation and infer what sort of woman the duchess really was and what sort of man the duke really is


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