"This Is the Favorite Poem"
Hear Mike Wallace read Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”
Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Sex and violence are at the roots of drama. The word tragedy may come from an ancient Greek word meaning something like goat-play or goat-song. Or, it may come from a word for grape meaning wine-play or wine-song. Killing the horned, randy animal and drinking fermented juice (or doing both at once?) seem like plausible anthropological settings for the origins of dramatic entertainment. For dramatists and script-writers the conflict is a technical term.
The dramatic monologues of Robert Browning are a time-honored, highly stylized illustration of such matters. For the Victorian Englishman, creating the voices of murderous, lustful, and ambitious Italian Renaissance characters was a fertile, exciting source of art. Conflict in the lives of the speakers is amplified and focused by an inner conflict between the attractiveness of these passions and moral rejection of them.
Often, for these Classic Poem introductions, I have tried to present poems that are not familiar from anthologies and textbooks. In contrast, Browning's “My Last Duchess” is a familiar, long-standing favorite of many. This time, the unusual element is the reader on the audio file, the late Mike Wallace.
Wallace took part in a Favorite Poem Project reading at New York's Town Hall in April 1998. (His fellow readers included the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, Geraldine Ferraro, and an adult literacy student.) Wallace reads the poem rather well, and mentions having memorized it when he was in high school. It isn't hard to imagine the broadcasting eminence as a leading figure in the drama club.
The unexpected initial success of 6o Minutes may be an important moment in the history of news reporting and media, questions of art and truth. Mike Wallace's career and his relish for this work of art belong in that history. More recently, effective criticism of Fox News and CNN comes from the creative minds of Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Art and truth have a dark, interesting relation in Browning's poem. The proud, aristocratic, and homicidal Duke patronizes artists in two senses: He is their patron, and he feels superior to their abilities. About skill with language, Browning has his speaker say: “Even had you skill/ In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will/ Quite clear to such an one. ...” Browning skillfully creates the Duke's self-revealing speech, in which the Duke abjures skill in speech. You can hear, in Mike Wallace's voice, his expert communicator's pleasure—the pleasure of a particular reader, in the spirit of a favorite poem—in that bit of dramatic irony.
“My Last Duchess”
By Robert Browning
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!
Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.