Robert Browning – Poems

“My Last Duchess,” from Dramatic Lyrics (1842) – A poem about the violence of making art. Told in heroic couplets. The Duke is entertaining a Count who is trying to arrange a marriage with the Duke and his daughter. Walking through the palace, he shows him a painting of his latest wife: My Last Duchess. She was “too easily impressed” with other men’s gifts, ranking them with the Duke’s gift of “nine-hundred-years-old name,” and so he “gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together”–that is, he order her execution and subsequent (?) transformation into a work of art. “There she stands / As if alive.” All this story is told in a highly aesthetic situation–the Duke has created a special little room and curtain and bench form which viewers can aesthetically be impacted (“impressed”?) by the painting. The “aliveness” of the poem is conveyed through the “spot of joy” that mimics the involuntary blush that betrayed her enjoyment of the men’s advances: the question is where the excess is located: is the it the excess that characterizes life (that which goes beyond mere life) or the excess that characterizes art (makes it living). These converge in a painting that is predicated on the death of the represented object. In Duke’s words: “Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint . Half-flush that dies along her throat.” What does do is convert this dying “half-flush” into an artistic “full-flush” that cancels that violent life and death. Thus, in My Last Duchess, Browning is laying out the stakes of art’s relationship to life: a theme that EBB will take up in a more positive manner, by attempting to write a Verse-Novel that refuses to kill anything  by its formal inclusiveness. In the process, she kills the poem with a novel–but that’s what’s necessary for preserving the poem as a poem.

 

“Porphyria’s Lover” (1836, published in Dramatic Lyrics, 1842) – 5 line stanzas, rhyming ABABB. Porphyria visits her lover and, with startlingly agency, puts his arm around her waist, and makes his cheek lie on her shoulder while her yellow hair is “displaced” “o’er all.” The lover discovers that Porphyria “worships” him, and the transfer power follows from the declaration of possession:

That moment she was mine, mine, fiar,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.

The unprovoked violence connects with the violence inherent to the act of painting (and all forms of representation) in “My Last Duchess,” even to the extent of a blush appearing appearing “bright beneath my burning kiss.” In the last stanza, the time of narration converges with the time of the story: “And thus we sit together now,” which implies that the writing of the poem has taken place while her head is on his shoulder (reversal of agency). The last line: “An yet God has not said a word!” is a giddy, childlike rupture of guilty consciences, disjunctive with the rest of the poem. Yet it draws a contrast with the violence of speaking for someone else–that is, free indirect discourse. The agency of the first part of the poem is therefore qualified by this final outburst. God has no said a word, but the artist’s imposition on the object of representation bears a guilt that cannot be exculpated within the sphere of art.

 

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” (published in Dramatic ROmances and Lyrics, 1845)

Unlike “My Last Duchess” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” which employ highly intricate rhyming schemes, this poem, spoken by the bishops, is told in iambic pentameter, unrhymed, blank verse, a more traditional vehicle for dramatic monologue. The Bishop wants to arrange his tomb to be better, more monumental, then Old Gandolf’s tomb of onion stone–but he fears that his inability to oversea all the particulars will end in a product that is as disappointing. But above all the poem is about identifying difficulty of identifying the line between life and death:

For as I lie here, hours of the dad night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s-work

In other words, the Bishop is readying himself for death be being dead, taking on the qualities of the dead stone that is supposed to memorialize his life. Of course, this confounds the whole idea of the monument, which is suppose to represent a life. Living in order to die short-circuits the aesthetic. Does the aesthetic convey a life or a death?

 

“Fra Lippo Lippi” (from Men and Women, 1855) – About the ability of daily artistic practice to sustain an individual life (and along the way, perhaps, the life of the object the subject is representing).  Fra Lippo Lippi, who has penchant for drinking and sleeping with prostitutes, is picked up one evening by some authorities and tells his story: abandoned by his parents, he gets by on eating rubbish and, when taken in by a cloister, learns to paint. He is clear that he became a painter, and continued to become a better painter because of hunger:

Soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger pinch.

He refines his craft so well that some townspeople declare: “it’s the life!” The priests declare that his job is not to be a realist–“Faces, arms, legs, bodies like the true”–but to “paint the souls of men.” He has violated, in other words, the ban on graven images. He asks the question: “Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flesh?”–a question inherited from The Winter’s Tale: what fine chisel has cut breath? But he is unable to “unlearn” the “value and significance of flesh,” and stages a defense of mimesis:

For don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have
passed
perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted–better for us.

He then proceeds to take the connection between hunger and art full circle: “To find its [life’s] meaning if my meat and drink.” The narrative frame closes with his release by the authorities. He returns to the cloister and the poem finishes with a “Zooks!” one of those Browning interruptions that somehow capture that which escapes the formal structures of the poem: there’s an uncontrollable quality to the language and bodies that populate these poems.

 


 

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