This Tusitala conversation between Pam Hunter and Janet Lewison explores Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess and Picasso! We examine the ironies surrounding the non-existent portrait of the Duchess and offer teachers, students and interested readers, plenty of lively ideas about Browning’s dark and disturbing monologue.
That’s interesting Pam and links to what you said earlier about how the Duke hears the details of his wife’s death. The Duke seems to inhale deeply as he savours the full irony and impact of this utterance; he is a revelation even to himself. ‘There she stands /As if alive.’ The repetition of ‘as if alive’ makes me shudder and asks questions about the relationship between art and death.
The fact that he seems to come out of his reverie and to address his listeners again politely adds psychological disturbance to the poem-not that we needed more! It is as if he has been talking about his gardens only rather than revealing he has had his wife murdered.
I do find the seemingly casual ‘I call/That piece a wonder, now…’ really cruel-even sadistic. It lingers over the time frame of the picture and relegates the Duchess to being a mere ‘piece’ a thing devoid of humanity. Where is the ‘now’ we wonder: how much time has passed between the lack of ‘wonder’ and the present ‘wonder’ and how much does such an ambiguity lend itself to a rare insight into the Duke’s inner life? Think about the world weary tone that the Duke may adapt to add theatrical pathos to his disclosure.
In fact the Duke’s reverie seems to leak out here, and he jolts himself back into his rehearsed, polished story through the mention of Fra Pandolf; ironically another human being beholden to the Duke through money.
The Picasso painting is so vivid and yet so broken. I can see why you think it might give us another way into the Browning poem. And I have noticed how broken the actual narrative of the poem becomes when the Duke becomes emotionally destabilised by the Duchess and what he sees as her indiscriminate friendliness and even flirting. There are several significant uses of the dash indicating broken thought or the Duke’s raised emotional temperature:’ Somehow-I know not how-as if she ranked..’ The simplicity of the Duchess seems insulting and rankles deeply with the Duke so it destabilises his narrative process.
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