Double Falsehood Revisited

Mea Culpa

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

Ideally, I try not to be hide bound about the rightness of my opinion, preferring to find out whose opinion is right. Whenever I make a mistake, better to correct it or have it corrected (whether I like it or not). If evidence conflicts with my beliefs, then beliefs must change. So, in the spirit of keeping this blog honest, I’m revisiting my last two posts on Double Falsehood: Double Falsehood • It’s not Shakespeare and the second Double Falsehood • Tho. Dekker & Tho. Middleton?. My efforts in both these posts were rewarding (in terms of what I learned by writing them) but I made some mistakes and new information (to me) deserves to be aired.

Tho. Middleton or John Fletcher?

I thought I made a good argument for Middleton, as far as it went. I still do. Some evidence does indeed suggest Middleton, but the stronger evidence suggests Fletcher. Keeping Middleton in the running might be reasonable at the outset (when considering possible authors) but the probable author is Fletcher. The evidence supporting Fletcher comes from an article by Stephan Kukowski entitled The Hand of John Fletcher in Double Falsehood.

Among the reasons for crediting Fletcher, the most compelling is a habit of Fletcher’s composition called elocutionary afterthought. At, you can find an E-Book of Charles Mills’ publication, Francis Beaumont: Dramatist. Beaumont and Fletcher were the Simon and Garfunkel of the Elizabethan era. Once they met and began to collaborate, they changed the history of British theater. So much so that during the decades immediately following their deaths, their plays were considered superior to Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s. Naturally, a book on Beaumont is going to say something about Fletcher—first and foremost, how does one differentiate their collaboration? What parts of a play are Fletcher’s, what parts Beaumont?

Interestingly, Mills offers us the following passage. I include most of it because that seems simplest. I’ve bolded the passages which most plainly parallel passages in DF.

Here we have blank verse, distinctively Fletcherian with its feminine endings and its end-stopped lines. But, widely as this differs from the earlier rhythm of The Faithfull Shepheardesse and its more lyric precipitancy, the qualities of tone and diction are in the later play as in the earlier. The alliterations may not be so numerous, and are in general more cunningly concealed and interwoven, as in lines 2 to 4; but the cruder kind still appears as a mannerism, the “fire and fierceness,” “hopes,” “hang,” and “head.” The iterations of word, phrase, and rhetorical question, and of the resonant “all,” the redundant nouns in apposition, the tautological enumeration of categories, proclaim the unaltered Fletcher. The adjectives are in this spot pruned, but they are luxuriant elsewhere in the play. The triplets,–“this man, my son, this nature,”–“admit,” “admit,” “admit,” find compeers on nearly every page:

Shew where to lead, to lodge, to charge with safetie,–[163]

Here’s a strange fellow now, and a brave fellow,
If we may say so of a pocky fellow.–[164]

And now, ‘t is ev’n too true, I feel a pricking,
A pricking, a strange pricking.–[165]

With such a sadness on his face, as sorrow,
Sorrow herself, but poorly imitates.
Sorrow of sorrows on that heart that caus’d it![166]

In the passages cited above there happen to be, also, a few examples of the elocutionary afterthought:

You come with thunders in your mouth _and earthquakes_,–

As arrows from a Tartar’s bow, _and speeding_.–

To this device, and to the intensive use of the pronominal “one” Fletcher is as closely wedded as to the repetition of “all,”–

They have a hand upon us,
A heavy and a hard one.[167]

To wear this jewel near thee; he is a tried one
And one that … will yet stand by thee.[168]

Other plays conceded by the critics to Fletcher alone, and written in his distinctive blank verse, display the same characteristics of style: _The Chances_ of about 1615, _The Loyall Subject_ of 1618 (like _The Humorous Lieutenant_ of the middle period), and _Rule a Wife and Have a Wife_ of the last period, 1624. I quote at random for him who would apply the tests,–first from _The Chances_,[169] the following of the repeating revolver style:

Art thou not an Ass?
And modest as her blushes! what a blockhead
Would e’re have popt out such a dry Apologie
For this dear friend? and to a Gentlewoman,
A woman of her youth and delicacy?
They are arguments to draw them to abhor us.
An honest moral man? ‘t is for a Constable:
A handsome man, a wholesome man, a tough man,
A liberal man, a likely man, a man
Made up by Hercules, unslaked with service:
The same to night, to morrow night, the next night,
And so to perpetuity of pleasures.


Finally, from _Rule a Wife_, a few instances of the iterations, three-fold or multiple, and redundant expositions. In the first scene[171] Juan describes Leon:

Ask him a question,
He blushes like a Girl, and answers little,
To the point less; he wears a Sword, a good one,
And good cloaths too; he is whole-skin’d, has no hurt yet,
Good promising hopes;

and Perez describes the rest of the regiment,

That swear as valiantly as heart can wish,
Their mouths charg’d with six oaths at once, and whole ones,
That make the drunken Dutch creep into Mole-hills; …

and he proceeds to Donna Margarita:

She is fair, and young, and wealthy,
Infinite wealthy, _etc._

Now compare these example to the two found in the Fletcherian portions of DF:

……………….This is a fine Hand,
A delicate fine Hnd, – Never change Colour;
You understand me, – and a Woman’s Hand (DF 4.I.168-70)

And dare you lose these to becomer Advocate
For such a Brother, such a sinful Brother,
Such an unfaithful, treacherous, brutal Brother? (DF 5.I.16-18)

To my knowledge (and reading), there are no comparable examples in Middleton. Of all the reasons for believing that Theobald might have had a manuscript (of some kind), this is, for me, the most compelling. This mannerism is obviously typical of Fletcher. Given that Theobald initially tried to pass off DF as entirely Shakespeare’s (and if he fabricated the entirety of the play) why on earth would he so cleverly and cunningly imitate Fletcher? It makes no sense. I find it easier to believe that Theobald did, indeed, have a manuscript on which he based DF.

But why is Fletcher’s probable hand so evident and Shakespeare’s so lacking?

Why Fletcher Survived

Kukowski, the writer of The Hand of John Fletcher in Double Falsehood, is sympathetic with the possibility that Theobald might have had a manuscript, but speculates that it was already a later revision of an Elizabethan original. Kukowski writes (in reference to a Davanant revision of the Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration, The Two Noble Kinsmen):

It is interesting that Davenant’s revision of this play left not a line of  the passages most confidently ascribed to Shakespeare intact, although several of Fletcher’s passages survive with only minor alteration. Thus, even if Theobald is being scrupulously honest, he may well have had his possession no more than an already much adulterated version of Cardenio.

This, in  a nutshell, encapsulates the reasoning of those Shakespearean scholars willing to concede that Double Falsehood might have been a revised Cardenio. An unidentified author, like the Restoration dramatist Davenant, might have already “improved” the Shakespearean portions. Why would Restoration revisionists single out Shakespeare rather than Fletcher? Shakespeare’s style was considered too turgid for the stage – too figurative and opaque. In a book called Shakespeare Improved , by Hazelton Spencer, Spencer sums up Davenant’s editorial intervention this way:

…by far the largest number of D’Avenent’s explicable alterations are due, apparently, to his zeal in elucidation . Shakespeare’s text seemed full of obscurities in language and thought, and for the sake of making it transparent to the audience at Lincoln’s Inn Fields the Laureate was willing to sacrifice metre, imagination, or anything else. [p. 169]

And in an earlier passage Hazelton writes:

The Restoration adapter was not trying to restore his text, the professed aim of the long line of later tamperers, but to improve it. From changing a phrase  in order to make its meaning clearer, to changing it because one things of a better phrase, is an easy step/ D’Avenent took it with complete aplomb.

He regarded Shakespeare, I imagine, almost with affection; but he was the victim of his age. The cocksureness of the Restoration intelligentsia is almost incredible. The England of Elizabeth seemed barbarous to the England of Charles II, though less than sixty years had elapsed between the great queen’s death and the accession of that graceless king. In the presence of the masterpieces of old drama, the Restoration critics (all but Rymer) experienced a certain awe; they recognized vaguely a grandeur that was not characteristic of their own art. Dryden wrote:

Out age was cultivated thus at length,
But what we gain’d in skill we lost in strength.
Our builders were with want of genius curst;
The second temple was not like the first.

The Restoration temples were constructed, supposedly, according to the French rules for classical architecture; squared by these, the Elizabethan monuments were seen to be abounding in errors. Thus the critic and adapter of Shakespeare in the later seventeenth century, though he might sincerely enough protest his admiration for the whole, found, when he actually came to consider details, so many faults crying for correction, that while he eulogized in general he had little but condemnation in particular. He was to concede greatness of soul to Shakespeare, but neither a civilized taste nor a competent craftsmanship.

That this D’Avenent’s view is shown by the character of his alterations. [pp. 145-146]

Fletcher’s verse, being much easier, more mellifluous, less figurative and rhetorical than Shakespeare’s, was far more likely to survive, in part and in whole, the restoration scalpel. For this reason, and due to prior example, it makes sense that Double Falsehood could have been a restoration revision of  Cardenio; and that Shakespeare’s poetry would have been heavily edited while Fletcher’s verse remained relatively intact.  Most interestingly, Theobald claimed that Davenant’s prompter, John Downes, was likely to have transcribed Double Falsehood. This doesn’t mean Davenant ever saw the play, but as with so much else surrounding DF, the information gives ground for speculation. [Double Falsehood, p. 85]

Anyway, that’s the theory.

It gives little reason to include Double Falsehood (DF) in Shakespeare’s canon (any more than any other Restoration revision Shakespeare). The passages, if they ever were Shakespeare’s, are no longer.

Why, then, do scholars care?

For the same reason that a few fossil fragments pique the curiosity of paleontologists. If DF is indeed the lost Cardenio, then at least we know what Cardenio might have been like. If the Fletcherian parts can be shown to be, in all likelihood, by Fletcher, than that circumstantially (if only slightly) strengthens the case for Shakespeare (who was known to have collaborated with Shakespeare around this time). If the remaining text were by Middleton (as I suggested) then the case for Shakespeare is mildly weakened.

  • Shakespeare collaborated with Middleton in the writing of Timon of Athens. In the now (what I consider) unlikely event that Middleton were shown to be the author of DF, Acts III-V, Shakespeare still wouldn’t be out of the question. A Fletcher ascription, however, does make Dekker (more on that next) less likely.

Fletcher Matters

Since the non-Fletcherian parts of DF are so hopelessly mangled, the best evidence for Shakespeare is to identify DF as Cardenio by, in part, showing that Acts III-V are by Fletcher. And that is exactly what Brean Hammond, in his introduction to Double Falsehood, emphasizes. Hammond writes:

With Theobald’s own further alterations engrafted upon DF, what we now have is a palimpsest or pentimento — at all events, nothing that is straightforwardly Shakespeare-Fletcher. Nonetheless, sophisticated recent analysis of authorship based on linquistic and stylistic analysis lends support to the view that Shakespeare’s hand, and even more plainly Fletcher’s, can be detected in the eighteenth-century redaction. [p. 6]

Hammond doesn’t tell us what sophisticated recent analysis he is referring to. Fletcher? Yes. Shakespeare? I remain very skeptical and I think Brean overstates the case for Shakespeare when he compares the stylometric

Elizabethan Dramatist John Fletcher

evidence to that supporting Fletcher. To my knowledge, none of the Shakespearean scholars (with an established reputation in stylometrics) have demonstrated reasons for favoring Shakespeare. Brian Vickers, author of ‘Counterfeiting’ Shakespeare, writes:

“There is the doubtful tradition that Lewis Theobald acquired the manuscript, adapting it for his own Double Falsehood (1727), but the arguments claiming that Theobald’s text preserves something of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s original seem to me unconvincing.”

Ward Elliot and Robert Vaenza peg Double Falsehood with 11 Discrete Rejections. This puts DF far outside the realm of Shakespearean authorship (on another planet they would say). (To be fair, it appears that they didn’t examine the “Shakespearean” portion separately.)

Only MacDonald Jackson believes that ‘the case for supposing The Double Falsehood to preserve something of the Shakespeare-Fletcher Cardenio is quite strong’. Whether Jackson is basing this statement on stylometrics or Hammond’s claims is unknown. That said, Jackson’s endorsement is qualified. On the last page of the introduction to the Arden edition of Double Falsehood, Brean adds the following:

Yet the concentration of diverse Shakespearean characteristics in, for example, 1.3.53-6 brings Jackson out on the side of [Shakespeare’s] presence in the play. Jackson reserves the right, however, to test a hypothesis that what Theobald owned was a collaboration between Beaumont and Fletcher  rather than Shakespeare and Fletcher. [DF, p. 160]

By the close of the introduction, Hammond himself seems to qualify his earlier confidence. He writes:

“The evidence for Shakespeare’s hand is, as we know, much scantier — in truth very scanty.”

The best evidence for Shakespeare appears to be Fletcher.

William Shakespeare or Tho. Dekker?

One of the theories I advanced in my previous posts was that the playwright Thomas Dekker was as good a candidate for the “Shakespearean” parts of DF (if not better) than Shakespeare. After writing the posts, I received the following correspondence from Matthew Partridge, one who was involved in a production of Double Falsehood. He wrote:

I have recently been involved in a production of “Double Falsehood”, which has got me interested in the whole debate around Shakespeare’s authorship of the play. I was intrigued by the two posts on Double Falsehood in your blog Poem Shape. While I don’t necessarily agree with your conclusions, since it is possible to find examples of Shakespearean imagery that corresponds with each of your categories, and examples where he clumsily repeated a word in a speech, they were still thought provoking.

I asked him for examples and he provided them. So, let’s go over them. (This probably won’t interest most of my readers unless, like me, you peculiarly enjoy forensic poetry.) I present Mr. Partridge’s responses, not to argue with them, but so that a reader can more easily weigh the validity of my previous posts.

eyes & their beams

Here’s what I wrote:

Hope’s methodology contributes to identifying authorship, but can’t be the final word (as he himself would assert). There are other reasons for my thinking that Dekker is behind the first two acts. Consider beams. It was as commonplace during Elizabethan times, that the eyes saw by projecting beams. Poets were quick to make use of this conceit, except for Shakespeare. Only once, in his Sonnet 114, does Shakespeare play on this conceit. There are 25 usages of beams in his plays but not one of them is in the context of the eyes’ beams. The beams are always in reference to the sun, the moon, or candles – always in reference to an object that gives off light. By contrast, consider the following from Double Falsehood (Act I Scene i:

Eyes, that are nothing but continual Births
Of new Desires in Those that view their Beams.
You cannot have a Cause to doubt.

This flies against Shakespeare’s practice. (My theory is that Theobald probably would have kept the imagery of the original author, who I believe to be Dekker, while dolling it up with figurative language.) However, Dekker did make use of this conceit in his imagery (from The Shoemaker’s Holiday):

Why, tell me, Oateley : shines not Lacy’s name
As bright in the world’s eye as the gay beams
Of any citizen ?

The Honest Whore Part I:

If ever, whilst frail blood through my veins run,
On woman’s beams I throw affection…

Partridge was able find one other example of the use of “beams” in Shakespeare’s plays. I too, however, found another example of beams in Dekker’s play Old Furtunatus (see below). More importantly, he found further examples wherein Shakespeare played on the conceit. Here are his examples (all comments are his):

Love’s Labour’s Lost has a direct reference to “eye-beams”.

So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not / To those fresh morning drops upon the rose / As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote / The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows:” (LLL.4.3)

Additionally, a lot of the imagery involving women and light centres around the brightness/lustre of their eyes.

Her eyes, like marigolds, had sheathed their light (Rape of Lucere)

For she hath blessed and attractive eyes. / How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears (MND.2.2)

‘if you can bring Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye (WT.3.2)

How and which way I may bestow myself / To be regarded in her sun-bright eye. (TGV.3.1)

The ape is dead, and I must conjure him / I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes (RJ.2.1)

Although it involves a slightly different context, the following extract from Henry V also refers to eyes, lustre and breeding in a way that closely parallels Double Falsehood.

That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not / For there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.(H5.3.1)

So, I was flatly wrong in my assertion that Shakespeare never played on this conceit. I was right, however, to the extent that Shakespeare’s use of the word beams in reference to eyes is exceedingly rare: once in his sonnets and once in the entirety of his plays. Does any of this diminish my argument for Dekker? No, but it ups the chances for some small vestige of Shakespeare. On the other hand, the reference to beams could just have easily been an interpolation by a Restoration poet or Theobald’s own meddling. We’ll never know until Cardenio is found.

the image cluster of heat, cold, the eye, frost, burning, kindling, thawing, sun/Hyperion

Double Falsehood

Jul. I do not see that Fervour in the Maid,
Which Youth and Love should kindle.  She consents,
As ’twere to feed without an Appetite;
Tells me, She is content; and plays the Coy one,
Like Those that subtly make their Words their Ward,
Keeping Address at Distance.  This Affection
Is such a feign’d One, as will break untouch’d;
Dye frosty, e’er it can be thaw’d; while mine,
Like to a Clime beneath Hyperion’s Eye,
Burns with one constant Heat.  I’ll strait go to her;
Pray her to regard my Honour:  but She greets me.–

Now here is Dekker from Shoemaker’s Holiday:

And for she thinks me wanton, she denies
To cheer my cold heart with her sunny eyes.
How prettily she works, oh pretty hand!
Oh happy work! It doth me good to stand
Unseen to see her. Thus I oft have stood
In frosty evenings, a light burning by her,
Enduring biting cold, only to eye her.
One only look hath seem’d as rich to me
As a kings crown; such is loves lunacy.
Muffled He pass along, and by that try
Whether she know me.

In response to these parallels, Partridge offered his own. He wrote:

There are plenty of extended Shakespearean image clusters related to heat, cold, burning etc. Three examples are:

To flaming youth let virtue be as wax, / And melt in her own fire: proclaim no shame / When the compulsive ardour gives the charge / Since frost itself as actively doth burn (Hamlet.3.4)

His falchion on a flint he softly smiteth, / That from the cold stone sparks of fire do fly; / Whereat a waxen torch forthwith he lighteth, / Which must be lode-star to his lustful eye; / And to the flame thus speaks advisedly, / ‘As from this cold flint I enforced this fire, / So Lucrece must I force to my desire. (Rape of Lucere)

‘Such devils steal effects from lightless hell; / For Sinon in his fire doth quake with cold, / And in that cold hot-burning fire doth dwell; / These contraries such unity do hold, / Only to flatter fools and make them bold: / So Priam’s trust false Sinon’s tears doth flatter, / That he finds means to burn his Troy with water.’ (Rape of Lucere)

Some shorter instances:

Thou wouldst as soon go kindle fire with snow / As seek to quench the fire of love with words. (Verona.2.7)

Gods, gods! ’tis strange that from their cold’st neglect / My love should kindle to inflamed respect.(Lear.1.1)

A largess universal like the sun / His liberal eye doth give to every one, / Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all, (H5.4.Pro)

Against love’s fire fear’s frost hath dissolution. / The eye of heaven is out (Rape of Lucere)

The following extract from Henry V is also notable since it (1) involves an image cluster of heat, sun & frost (2) is an instance of Shakespeare using the word “frosty” (3) is an example of Shakespeare clumsily repeating a word – (in this case “frosty”).

Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull, / On whom, as in despite, the sun looks pale, / Killing their fruit with frowns? Can sodden water, / A drench for sur-rein’d jades, their barley-broth, / Decoct their cold blood to such valiant heat? / And shall our quick blood, spirited with wine, Seem frosty? / O, for honour of our land, Let us not hang like roping icicles / Upon our houses’ thatch, whiles a more frosty people / Sweat drops of gallant youth in our rich fields! (H5.3.5)

Similarly, as well as involving heat, burning, sun and eye, the lines below also associate dew with coldness.

From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels: / Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye, / The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry (RJ.2.3)

My illustration of the image cluster wasn’t so much meant to exclude Shakespeare, but to demonstrate that this sort of image cluster was also typical of Dekker. (I have a soft-spot for Dekker – the most poetic dramatist after Shakespeare.) Whereas some patterns of thought can be atypical, I meant to show that the imagery of DF could also be found in Dekker’s work. So, while the imagery doesn’t exclude Shakespeare, it also doesn’t exclude Dekker. To balance the many examples from Shakespeare, here are some more by Dekker (notice the combination of eyes, burning, and night):

Come therefore, good father, let’s go faster, lest we come too late: for see, the tapers of the night are already lighted, and stand brightly burning in their starry candle-sticks: see how gloriously the moon shines upon us.

[Both kneel.]

1st O. Man.
Peace, fool: tremble, and kneel: the moon say’st thou?
Our eyes are dazzled by Eliza’s beams,
See (if at least thou dare see) where she sits:
This is the great Pantheon of our goddess,
And all those faces which thine eyes thought stars,
Are nymphs attending on her deity.

Here’s another example from Dekker:

The same sun calls you up in the morning, and the same man in the moon lights you to bed at night; our fields are as green as theirs in summer, and their frosts will nip us more in winter: our birds sing as sweetly and our women are as fair…

Dekker’s extent plays are far fewer than Shakespeare’s, and so finding a commensurate number of examples from Dekker isn’t possible.

of dew & flowers

Here’s what I wrote:

When Shakespeare associates dew with flowers, it is refreshing and always life affirming. When searching through Fletcher’s plays, I notice that his imagery also revolves around dew’s restorative powers. Not so, Dekker. Dekker’s associations with Dew are cold and frequently associated with death and illness…

Partridge countered with the following examples:

There are a few Shakespearean juxtapositions of dew, plants and coldness/sadness/death.

And that same dew, which sometime on the buds /Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls / Stood now within the pretty flowerets‘ eyes / Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail.

The herbs that have on them cold dew o’ the night / Are strewings fitt’st for graves. Upon their faces. (Cym.4.2)

Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew / O woe! thy canopy is dust and stones / Which with sweet water nightly I will dew / Or, wanting that, with tears distill’d by moans / The obsequies that I for thee will keep / Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep. (RJ.5.3)

Compare these examples with DF:

O Kiss, sweet as the Odours of the Spring,
But cold as Dews that dwell on Morning Flow’rs!

And Dekker:

a sensible cold dew
Stood on thy cheeks, as if that death had wept
To see such beauty alter. [The Honest Whore Part 1]

The frosty hand of age now nips your blood,
And strews her snowy flowers upon your head,
And gives you warning that within few years,
Death needs must marry you… [Old Fortunatus]

I was wrong to write that Shakespeare’s associations with dew and flowers are always life affirming. I might more accurately have written that the preponderance of these associations are life affirming.

women & light

Here’s what I wrote:

Double Falsehood

Th’Obscureness of her Birth
Cannot eclipse the Lustre of her Eyes,
Which make her all One Light.

The Honest Whore Part 1

Those roses withered, that set out her cheeks:
That pair of stars that gave her body light…

Notice the appearance of eyes in both passages. In fact, the habit of thought is almost identical. In both cases, the eyes/that pair of stars give light/Light to her body.

Furthermore, if I search through a Shakespeare concordance, nowhere does Shakespeare equate a woman’s beauty (or body) with light. In fact, Shakespeare usually associates femininity and lightness with… well… being a light-brained wench. The imagery is much more typical of Dekker.

Mr. Partridge countered with the following examples:

Associations of female beauty with light are relatively common in Shakespeare.

‘Tis but her picture I have yet beheld / And that hath dazzled my reason’s light / But when I look on her perfections, (TGV.4.2)

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (R&J.2.2)

For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light. (R&J.5.3)

Devils soonest tempt, resembling spirits of light. /O, if in black my lady’s brows be deck’d, (LLL.4.3)

‘Fair torch, burn out thy light, and lend it not / To darken her whose light excelleth thine: (Rape of Lucrece)

My statement that “nowhere does Shakespeare equate a woman’s beauty (or body) with light” is wrong. In fact, I just rechecked my concordance and can’t fathom what I was thinking. I apparently wasn’t? I’d like to blame it on something. What remains though, is the strong parallel between the habit of thought in DF and Dekker’s passage. The parallel by no means diminishes Shakespeare as a possible source, but it also stands in agreement with Dekker.

the fox & her den

Here’s what I wrote:

Spurgeon also points out that Dekker comes nearest to Shakespeare in his imagery of sport and game. Consider the following from Double Falsehood:

Cam. I profess, a Fox might earth in the Hollowness of your
Heart, Neighbour, and there’s an End.

(Notice the anthimeria of earth, probably an addition by Theobald.) None of Shakespeare’s fox imagery seems drawn from actual experience and none refer to the fox’s den or desire to hide. Shakespeare’s references to the fox are more symbolic. Dekker’s fox imagery, on the other hand, seems drawn from real experience:

The Honest Whore Part 1

Faugh, not I, makes your breath stink like the
piss of a fox.

The Honest Whore Part 2

But the old fox is so crafty, we shall hardly hunt
him out of his den.

The Noble Spanish Soldier

Young cub’s flayed, but the she-fox shifting her hole is fled. The
little jackanapes, the boy’s brained.

Partridge responded with the following examples:

There are 37 references to foxes in Shakespeare’s works. Most of them either relate to (1) a predator (2) someone untrustworthy (3) a bad smell. Given the context it seems that Camillo is clearly comparing Don Bernard’s (un)trustworthiness to that of a fox.

There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune; nor no more truth in thee than in a drawn fox (H4-1.3.3)

Suspicion all our lives shall be stuck full of eyes; For treason is but trusted like the fox, (H4-1.5.2)

O’ the t’other side, the policy of those crafty swearing rascals, that stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese, Nestor, and that same dog-fox, Ulysses, is not proved worthy a blackberry: they set me up (Cressida.5.4)

false of heart, light of ear / bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth (Lear.3.4)

Or at the fox which lives by subtlety (Venus)

In this case, I think my observations hold up. Shakespeare’s references to fox strike me as largely symbolic while Dekker’s seem more drawn from experience. Also, Shakespeare more readily associates the “den” with lions. I couldn’t find an example of Shakespeare meantiong the fox with his “den”. In DF, the den is implied in the phrase “Hallowness of your heart”.

swiftest wing

Here’s what I wrote:

Consider this passage from Caroline Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery:

We have seen that Dekker, alone of these five other dramatists, shows in his images something of Shakespeare’s sympathy with the poor and oppressed, especially with prisoners. There is one characteristic seen in another group of images altogether -that of birds- which I may just mention, as it emphasizes this point. This is the quite remarkably large number of images he has from ‘wings’: soaring and riding on wings, being transported on the wind’s swift wings, escaping by putting on ‘winged feet’, clapping on swift wings and the like… ¶ Next to those of Shakespeare, Dekker’s images… seem more alive and human, more charged with his personality and direct experience that those of any other of the dramatists here analysed… [p. 40]

Double Falsehood

Jul. Fear not, but I with swiftest Wing of Time
Will labor my Return…

Mr. Partridge offered a number of examples from Shakespare:

The three word phrase “swiftest wing of” appears in Macbeth

thou art so far before / That swiftest wing of recompense is slow / To overtake thee.

Shakespeare also associated “wing” with swiftness/time in Henry V

Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies / In motion of no less celerity / Than that of thought.(H5.3.Pro)

He also associated love with wing in Hamlet

I would fain prove so. But what might you think, / When I had seen this hot love on the wing—(Ham.2.2)

Shakespeare also associates “swift” with time

Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets, And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time, (Son.19)

Experience is by industry achieved / And perfected by the swift course of time.(TGV.1.3)

And why not the swift foot of Time? had not that / been as proper? (ASYL.3.2)

Let him have time to mark how slow time goes / In time of sorrow, and how swift and short / His time of folly and his time of sport; (Rape of Lucrece)

‘Mis-shapen Time, copesmate of ugly Night / Swift subtle post, carrier of grisly care, (Rape of Lucrece)

As in previous examples (those which have held up), I wasn’t so much claiming that this imagery didn’t appear in Shakespeare, but that another Shakespeare critic, Caroline Spurgeon, had especially noted and appreciated its presence in Dekker.

oaths & exclamations

I picked up a copy of MacDonald P. Jackson’s Studies in Attribution: Middleton and Shakespeare. It was from his work that I concluded that some of the language in the latter three acts of DF were more typical of Middleton than Fletcher. That evidence remains unchanged despite the stronger evidence, in isolated cases, for Fletcher. (The appearance of Middletonian contractions, such as on’t, to’t or h’as/sh’as are not typical of Fletcher. However, their appearance may be due to revision by a Restoration author or may simply be a statistical anomaly. It may also, just to add to the speculation, be because Middleton touched up the original Cardenio? — certainly within the realm of the possible.) Lastly, Dekker, like Shakespeare,  shows a preference for hath and doth. We find the language in the first two acts of DF.

Jackson devotes a chapter to differentiating between Middleton and Dekker. One of the ways he does so is by Dekker’s favored use of oaths and exclamations. For example: in God’s name, alack, sblood, O God, God so, God’s my life, sheart, Godamercy, zounds, by God, God’s my pittikins, tush, snails, marry gup, plague found you, God bless him.

None of these oaths and exclamations appear in the first two acts or anywhere else in the play. That argues against Dekker (or they could have been removed by revision). Is there anything else? Jackson writes:

Dekker does not use by this light, berlady, or with a vengeance in the six plays of his undoubted sole authorship, but I notice that both by this light occur in The Merry Devil of Edmonton, a play which has been attributed to Dekker on a fair accumulation of internal evidence.

In DF, by our light appears in the second act:

D. Bern. Mad; Mad. Stark mad, by this Light.

Is this evidence for Dekker? Maybe. It could also be evidence for Shakespeare, since Shakespeare also preferred this oath. Interestingly, The Merry Devil of Edmonton was thought, by some, to be by Shakespeare and has long been included in Shakespeare “apocrypha”. Dekker’s poetic imagination is similar, in some ways, to Shakespeare’s.

the verdict

The argument for Dekker is diminished once Fletcher is assigned the latter three acts of DF. There are, to my knowledge, no other collaborations between Fletcher and Dekker. While there may be hints of Dekker in the first two acts, those same hints could also be construed as evidence for Shakespeare. If the choice were between Dekker and Shakespeare, and if one accepts Fletcher’s presence in the last three acts, then the evidence more strongly suggests Shakespeare than Dekker. I go where the evidence goes (if reluctantly). So, hat’s off to Mr. Hammond. As he himself states, any attempt to identify the progenitors of Double Falsehood must end with caution.

My thanks to the blog Shaksyear, his post Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Baked Beans, Spam, Egg, Sausage, and Double Falsehood: Hasn’t Got Much Shakespeare in It (Part 1 of 3), for prompting me to finally write my own re-visitation.

Also, I am especially grateful to Matthew Partridge for his corrections and response.

Let’s all hope Cardenio shows up.

The Best of Poetry: Internet 2010 – A Call for Submissions

After my last post, I imagined creating an anthology called Way Better than the Best American Poetry: 2010.Then I had a better idea.I’d like to take submissions from all you who blog on the Internet. I’d like to create an E-Book out of our best and most popular posts. The posts can be essays and a poem, but not a poem without “a post” and not more than one. In an ideal world, I would pay each of you for your submission. What I’m willing to do is to create an E-Book out of our posts that we can each sell on our blogs (among other places). We would sell the E-Book for the same price – maybe a dollar. I would like to produce something by the end of June.

.:Please circulate this post:.

This is a new era. This is for those of us who publish on the web rather than in print media. We all have readers who enjoy what we write. Let’s look after each other and celebrate what we do.

The entry requirements are as follows:

  1. The subject is poetry.
  2. Keep it to the English language.
  3. The rights to your post or poem needs to be yours.
  4. It can’t have been published in any print format.
  5. The post or poem has to have been posted in 2010.
  6. The focus is on articles and/or editorials. However, if you don’t post articles or editorials, I’ll consider a poem from 2010 if something new is written to accompany it.
  7. Please include  the number of hits your post or poem has received since publishing it.
  8. Please include a link, your name, the name of the blog, and how many hits your overall blog has received.

Deadline: May 31, 2011 (Or at least let’s try that.)

Will everything be accepted? No. I’m going to be judicious. I want to put something together we can be proud of. The length will depend on the interest. My feeling is that the E-Book should max out at 35 entries but, again, this depends on interest.

Please include, with your post, a suggested category. This will help me decide how to organize the E-Book: Poetry, Personal, Essay, Confession, Rant, etc… Make up your own if you like.

Lastly, this is a new idea. Dates and goals might change. All of you can help shape it. I can’t make it happen without you.

If any of you would be willing to help (to be an editor or proofreader or a second opinion with a better idea) I’m glad to accept.

You can find my contact information here.

.:Please circulate this post:.



Back when I was in college, I sat with three other poets in a pub. The question came up, what’s greatness or genius in poetry? Each of us expounded and each of our definitions were incompatible. A woman sitting with us, leaning back and bored with our posturing, ended the discussion with a nice observation. She said: Each of you is defining genius in your own image.

No, I wanted to say, I really am impartial; but she was right.

It’s a curious thing when full grown editors and publishers, who should know better, dismiss self-published poets and authors as Vanity Publishers. The implication is that editors are impartial judges. Yet every day that they approve a sheaf of poetry, their decision is an unrivaled act of vanity. They might respond that the writer who self-publishes, like the defendant who represents himself, has a fool for an editor, but that hardly exculpates their own vanity.

The Best Poetry in America

One of the most stratospherically presumptuous publications in the world is David Lehman‘s The Best American Poetry Series. There’s no anthology that so glorifies the vanity of Lehman, its editors and poets. The series is more accurately titled, Me and My Favorite American Poets, but one doesn’t have to be a marketing guru to guess why it isn’t.

The title is absurd. I’ve seen enough reactions to the series to know how many readers find the contents tear-inducingly dull and tedious. But don’t disregard Internet Rule 36. It applies to real life too.

No matter what it is, it is somebody’s fetish. No exceptions.

There are always going to be readers who, like the editors, consider the anthology’s poems unassailably great. Don’t be swayed. The editors have no more claim to what’s best than all those editors of dusty and yellowing anthologies from the early 20th century. They’re filled with aging Victorian poets who are strikingly similar to the poets gathered in current anthologies. They epitomize the aesthetics of an era.

The Academy of American Poets Website, for instance, claims that the series “remains one of the most popular and best-selling poetry books published each year”. I love science. Whenever I read claims like this my inner skeptic sharpens his knife to a fare-thee-well. First of all, you know you’re in trouble when you see the phrase “one of”. I tried to confirm this through independent sources, like the Nielsen Bookscan, but no list confirmed their claim.  But here’s what I found at the Poetry Foundation. Apparently, the qualifications are as follows: It is among the best-selling poetry books when sales are broken down into contemporary poetry, children’s poetry, poetry anthologies and small press poetry publications (and only when the anthologies, “published each year”, are considered as a series). In other words, it is among the most popular and best-selling books among A.) poetry books B.) poetry anthologies C.) during the year it is published D.) in America.

A triton among minnows (given that there just aren’t that many anthologies to compete with).

Given this sublist of sublists, for how many weeks, in each year, was The Best American Poetry (BAP) listed as a top seller?  2010:10. 2009:17. 2008:14. 2007:18. 2006:19. This represents 5 different years for five different anthologies (each year a new anthology is released). That means that The Best American Poetry: 2006 anthology doesn’t appear as a top seller after 2006. (That’s the reason for the qualification: “best-selling poetry books published each year“.) Taken singly, and once their year is up, they’re neither best-selling nor popular.

Let’s consider the lists from 2006-2010: 260 weeks.

By 2010,Good Poems for Hard Times, by Garrison Keillor, had appeared in the top ten for 224 weeks. This means that Keillor’s book was 11 times more popular than Best American Poetry’s 2006 anthology (which only appeared in the list for 19 weeks over the same period of time). Thats right, 19 out of 224 weeks. Once the year was up, the anthology vanished from the top ten.

What if we add all the anthologies together?

As a series, The Best American Poetry has appeared 78 times (out of 224 weeks) in the top ten list. That means Keillor’s single anthology is still 3 times more popular than five (5) separate editions of Best American Poetry. The Best Poems of the English Language, by Harold Bloom, is just over 2 times more popular than the entire series over 5 years. Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds, which was only published in November of 2009, was already in the top ten list 57 weeks by the end of 2010. This means that, in one year, Collins’s single book nearly equaled the record of Best American Poetry’s over five years!

I think that helps put things in perspective.

If the Academy of American Poets is going to tout sales records, then Garrison Keillor, Bloom and Collins all know more about good poetry than Lehman or his editors. But all artists, critics and editors define greatness in their own image. When they pick the “best” poetry, they’re creating an anthology in their own image. The Best American Poetry series is itself no more than a very partial exercise in vanity.

The other moral is that if your poems didn’t or don’t appear in Lehman’s anthology, count yourself lucky.

The guy you want to impress is Garrison Keillor.

Your Poem & an Entry Fee

I’ve always been of two minds when it comes to competitions. On the one hand, the individuals and organizations who offer them want to encourage what they value. That’s cool. However, to the extent that they encourage, all competitions have an agenda. There’s no such thing as an award that celebrates what’s “distinguished”. That claim will always come with so many provisos and stipulations as to render it suspect, if not laughable.

Poets win competitions and grants because their aesthetics best appeal to the vanity of the jurists. In a very real sense (and in all competitions) jurists are awarding themselves. They define what’s distinguished and exceptional in their own image. And that’s what bugs me about grants, competitions and awards: not that they do it, but that they assume the mantel of impartiality by using words like these and best of.

There’s no such thing as impartiality.

Don’t ever berate yourself if you don’t win the approval of anthologists or jurists. These platforms aren’t so much about you or your poetry, but the vanity of the editors and jurists who have created them. Maybe your poetry will strike a chord, maybe it won’t.

Are there other poets and editors who have a better sense for good poetry than you? Probably so.

But try to sort out what is, and isn’t, impartial.

Thinking Aloud

Pulitzer Prize Poet Natasha Trethewey

This was part of the header in an E-Mail I received announcing Natasha Tretheway’s upcoming reading at the University of the Vermont.

I had never hear of Tretheway so, given a Pulitzer prize, I was curious to find out more. The first thing I did was to look up some of her poems. I was disappointed. I then looked up the Pulitzer Prize — more disappointment. The Pulitzer Prize website looks cheap and washed up, in desperate need of a makeover. (Any number of free WordPress templates would do the job if they can’t afford a professional.) I also found no clearcut criteria for what constituted a Pulitzer Prize. After 10 minutes of searching, here’s all I could find on the Pulitzer website:

  • The award in poetry was established in 1922 and that for nonfiction in 1962.

There you have it. Wikipedia was only mildly more forthcoming:

  • Poetry – for a distinguished volume of original verse by an American poet.

And that’s that. No explanation for what constitutes “distinguished”. “Original”, I assume, excludes translations and me submitting North of Boston under my own name. Here’s what Pulizer’s own website offers us for Trethewey:

  • For a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Not much to go on. Who were the jurists?

  • Cynthia Huntington, professor of English, Dartmouth University (chair)
  • Rafael Campo, associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • Claudia Emerson, professor of English, Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry, University of Mary Washington

All of them appear firmly ensconced in academia — no reason to disqualify them, but also no reason to trust their judgment. Cynthia Huntington was a New Hampshire Poet Laureate and I found the following poem at Orion Magazine, called All Wet and Shine:

It sounds like the cracks and clicks of the house settling
as the room warms in morning, it sounds like a fan
whispered up. It tastes of wood smoke—sweet and then stale.
It looks like the curve of a mountain
under streaked sky, and everything pale blue
just before sunrise, everything translucent,
even stone. The stone is blue, it tastes, after all,
like tea in a glass cup, it feels like wanting a
blanket on your lap, nesting, hovering around
a wound, no a break, where the mountain opens,
wanting to heal, to soften the gap, to close it (….)

This kind of poetry isn’t my cup of tea, but I can see why others would enjoy it. The first strike against it, for me, is the free verse. It’s flavorless compared, for instance, to Ferlinghetti. All free verse is prose, but some is more like prose and some less. The free verse of Whitman, T.S. Eliot or Ferlinghetti is less like prose and, in my view, the more interesting because of it.  That’s a personal bias, I admit. The imagery is vivid, but there’s nothing innovative. There are no similes that give me pause. What do I mean by that? Consider the beginning to Frost’s Hillside Thaw:

To think to know the country and now know
The hillside on the day the sun lets go
Ten million silver lizards out of snow! (….)

Frost’s simile as striking and arresting. Or consider these opening lines to Frost’s Hyla Brook:

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow)—

The simile, Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow, is a show stopper. You might think it’s unfair to compare Huntington to Frost. I don’t. She’s a former New Hampshire Poet Laureate and is a professor of English at Dartmouth University. Huntington’s poetry is the poetry of competence but, in my judgment, not much more. After reading All Wet and Shine, I walk away thinking that I’ve read something poetic, but not what I would call poetry. Here’s another poem by Huntington, Curse One: The Wraith:

You are a small shape of death crouched among leaves.
The twist of your red mouth is the torque of poison.
Tangle of leaves, spill of leaves, slow rot of leaves. . .
Misery, ruin, iniquity. You are the scuffling thing in dry grass.
Rodent, snail, the curly-legged spider, centipede, rat snake.
I see you by the back-hooded barbecue in November, brooding
like the smoke of burned meat. (….)

The poem works harder, but offers no insight beyond the cleverness of its invective.  It’s fun. It’s vivid, but it’s not something I want to go back to or memorize. Our second judge on the list is Rafael Campo – a professor at Harvard Medical School. Curiously, the brief bio doesn’t mention why he was sitting on the panel. But, in case you didn’t know, he also writes poetry. An example can be found at

The Distant Moon
by Rafael Campo


Admitted to the hospital again.
The second bout of pneumocystis back
In January almost killed him; then,
He’d sworn to us he’d die at home.  He baked
Us cookies, which the student wouldn’t eat,
Before he left–the kitchen on 5A
Is small, but serviceable and neat.
He told me stories: Richard Gere was gay
And sleeping with a friend if his, and AIDS
Was an elaborate conspiracy
Effected by the government.  He stayed
Four months. He lost his sight to CMV. (….)

Like Huntington’s verse, the free verse is flavorless. One could just as easily write it as a paragraph. There is nothing particularly poetic about the poem – no imagery or simile stands out. This reminds me of a passage I once read by, I think, William Logan. I can’t remember but I’ll write my own version.  It goes something like this:

The muse of poetry does not reward the deserving. The muse of poetry is fickle, mercurial and coquettish. If she were just, she would pour her elixir into the mouths of the wizened bishop, the statesman in times of war and the war-weary soldier, the struggling mother and the bereaved father, or the doctor at the Harvard Medical School whose hands finesse life from the grip of death. She doesn’t. Banality is strewn through the poetry of the deserving. It is the theme of Amadeus. Why did God favor the vulgar creature who was Mozart, rather than the vastly more deserving Salieri? Why did the muse of poetry favor the short-lived John Keats, rather than the hundreds of poets who extinguished their long lives in obscurity? As it is, the Harriet Monroe’s of the world tried to right that wrong. Organizations like the Pulitzer Prize give right of judgment to the deserving — the department chairs, the doctors and the distinguished laureates — but the muse of poetry will have none of it. She is as willful as ever. The verses of the deserving, whose lives are rich with experience, she scorns with undeserved banality.

Campo’s poem ends with the embarrassingly banal: In the mirror shines/The distant moon.

Claudia Emerson is not only the holder of the Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry, but a Pulitzer Prize winner herself. If I had to choose a favorite among the three, I would choose Emerson. A nice collection of her poems can be found at Blackbird: An online journal of literature and the arts. Even so, I find her verse flavorless, barely rising above a well written paragraph by any fiction writer. Her poem, Pitching Horseshoes, begins:

Some of your buddies might come around
……..for a couple of beers and a game,
……………..but most evenings, you pitched horseshoes

alone. I washed up the dishes
……..or watered the garden to the thudding
……………..sound of the horseshoe in the pit,

or the practiced ring of metal
……..against metal, after the silent
……………..arc—end over end. (….)

These are straightforward, unvarnished statements of fact. Once again, there’s nothing poetic. Anyone could have the same conversation and arrange their statements with the same cascading nod to formality. There is nothing extraordinary or even memorable about her imagery.  Another of her poems, Surface Hunting, assumes the same first person voice addressing a generic you. The poem appears to be syllabic — seven to eight syllables per line — but the choice doesn’t feel, in any sense, organic.

You always washed artifacts
…… the kitchen sink, your back
…………… the room, to me, to the mud

you’d tracked in from whatever
……..neighbor’s field had just been plowed.
……………..Spearpoints, birdpoints, awls and leaf-

shaped blades surfaced from the turned earth
…… though from beneath some thicker
……………..water you tried to see into. (….)

The most compelling poem that I could find was Bone. The verse remains flavorless but the imagery comes nearer to the poetic:

It was first dark when the plow turned it up.
Unsown, it came fleshless, mud-ruddled, nothing
but itself, the tendon’s bored eye threading
a ponderous needle. And yet the pocked fist
of one end dared what was undone
in the strewing, defied the mouth of the hound
that dropped it. (….)

Unfortunately, the poet’s descriptiveness is lost in confused obscurity. What is the reader to make of the “pocked fist” and what is the “one end” and how did it “dare” and what was “undone/in the strewing”. The “pocked fist” must be the end of a bone but the rest is something the poet seems unable to effectively control or communicate. I’m sure there’s an explanation; however, the skilled poet manages to compress and still communicate. There’s a favorable review of her poetry by Randy Marshal called Platform: An Introduction to Claudia Emerson, but Marshal’s writing is vapidly academic. He writes:

By virtue of their formal range alone, these poems transcend mere confessionalism, to say nothing of the poet’s uncanny ability to craft absurdly, breathtakingly perfect metaphors from the raw material of her own witnessing.


Abundantly populated as they are with a host of such multivalent avatars, Emerson’s new poems titillate and trouble, they cajole and instruct. Not so much through narrative or rhetoric, but with a deft, almost painterly lyricism that suggests as much as it asserts.


Emerson returns to her technique of crafting very subtly linked imagery across the individual texts that, paradoxically, encourages acute analysis and amazing synthesis with the same set of gestures. The result is prismatic and, just as a prism deconstructs a ray of white light into its component wavelengths, the poems in Figure Studies refract and attenuate various ad hoc aspects of gender through Emerson’s poetic rendering of different scenarios and contexts from which that unifying idea derives its power. They tease out macro from micro; they make effects explain cause.

Got that? What’s so interesting about the review is that it reveals what is esteemed among, as Frost put it, “the critical few who are supposed to know”.  Theirs is a rarefied air, completely divorced from the “general reader who buys books in their thousands”.  One gets a sense for how these three poets became Pulitzer Prize jurists and why they chose Natasha Trethewey. This is how many of these poets write and talk to each other in academic exchanges. Don’t believe me? A while back I came across a book called American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan Poetry Series), I commented on it at Amazon and selected a few choice quotes. Here they are:

“Central to Spahr’s work of moving the poem away from poetry’s implicit emphasis on individuals and toward collectivities is the understanding that collectivities are often composed against a constitutive outside.” p. 144

“Morris effectively valorizes somatic experience to dispossess and repossess the language of identity. This is no hairsplitting intellectual argument…” p. 226

“As the remainder of this essay will demonstrate, the “cobbled solutions” Wheeler devised in her own attempts to invigorate poetry’s radical cultural force involve foregrounding, both formally and in her poems’ content, the contemporary “problems” of “steamroller” consumerism/commodification and of artistic assimilation so as ultimately to recast them as opportunities and resources.” p. 306

“In other poems, performivity asserts the constructed identity over the essential self when poems speak from the male voices of Casanova…” p. 58

“She tests the potentials of the work she samples in relation to their points of contact and fracture — where the palindrome meets the merry-go-round. What happens to both structures upon contact and what futurities are proposed at the point of contact?” p. 284

This is the language which circulates among contemporary poets. This is the intellectual arena in which aspiring poets will succeed or fail. Marshal’s review, like those above, is revealing in that he spends the lion’s share of his effort examining the contents of her poetry. What is it about. When he turns to more mechanical aspects — simile, metaphor, figurative language — he is reduced to bland and unexamined generalities:

Crafted in staggered couplets and tercets (which Emerson has noted were “modeled somewhat after William Carlos Williams’ triadic line”) the visual instability of the poems in “Divorce Epistles,” the book’s opening movement, helps the poet convey the themes of imbalance and dissolution that animate these texts.

Modern poets live or die on content, and so it’s no wonder that a self-interested cottage industry of fellow poets and “fellow” reviewers extol content. The mechanics of contemporary free verse offers little to nothing for the modern reader. In other words, there is little which separates one poet’s verse from the next or all of their verse from prose. There is little that separates one poet’s use of image or metaphor from another. They all seem to carve with the same chisel. This means that reviewers are forced to discuss poetry as if they were reviewing a short story or novel: content, content, content. The poet, like Trethewey, will be extolled because of what she writes about. For example, here’s an introductory from Octavia Books:

Trethewey found inspiration in Robert Penn Warren’s book Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, in which he spoke with southerners about race in the wake of the Brown decision, capturing an event of wide impact from multiple points of view. Weaving her own memories with the experiences of family, friends, and neighbors, Trethewey traces the erosion of local culture and the rising economic dependence on tourism and casinos. She chronicles decades of wetland development that exacerbated the destruction and portrays a Gulf Coast whose citizens—particularly African Americans—were on the margins of American life well before the storm hit. Most poignantly, Trethewey illustrates the destruction of the hurricane through the story of her brother’s efforts to recover what he lost and his subsequent incarceration.

Notice that there isn’t one word about her skills as a poet. You will find this laudatory description  typical, not just of Trethewey, but of all (to my knowledge) contemporary poets who have achieved (among themselves) any sort of recognition. Are we to attend Trethewey’s poetry readings because her subject matter is deserving? Or is it because she’s a good poet? Evidence seems to argue for the former. There are numerous examples of poets being awarded recognition not for the quality of their poetry but because of their poetry’s subject matter and who they are. How do we know? Because poets have entered contests giving false names and ethnicities. Some of these poets won the competitions they entered; but when their identities were revealed, their awards were revoked. The question begs to be asked: If not the poetry, then what exactly were the jurists awarding?

The fictional Salieri of Peter Shaffer’s movie Amadeus would be well gratified by the 20th and 21rst century. The “deserving” are now rewarded. The Mozarts of the world, tactless creatures that they are, are relegated to obscurity. Write mediocre poetry; but if the content of your poetry is timely or, in some way, judged to be meaningful, you will succeed and be recognized. It’s not the stories of Mozart’s operas that make them great, it’s his music. The stories are insipid. Today? Not so. Those in the know don’t care about the music. They care about the story. The mediocre artist is avenged. Poetry’s coquettish muse has been vanquished.

Or has she?

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, let a lone a Greek muse. I suspect she’ll consign 9,999 out of 10000 modern poets to well deserved obscurity. Just give her time.

What about Natasha Tretheway’s poetry? It is exactly what one would expect. Here is the poem Providence:

What’s left is footage: the hours before
………….Camille, 1969—hurricane
…………………..parties, palm trees leaning
in the wind,
………….fronds blown back,

a woman’s hair. Then after:
………….the vacant lots,
………….boats washed ashore, a swamp

where graves had been. I recall

how we huddled all night in our small house,
………….moving between rooms,
……………………..emptying pots filled with rain.

The next day, our house—
………….on its cinderblocks—seemed to float

………….in the flooded yard: no foundation

beneath us, nothing I could see
………….tying us………….to the land.
………….In the water, our reflection

when I bent to touch it.

It bears an eerie resemblance to the poetry of at least two of those who sat as jurists. The verse is just as flavorless and the imagery doesn’t rise above the ordinary. The poem closes with imagery that is mawkishly obvious. But why the Pulitzer? Maybe because the content of her poetry is deserving?

To me, the conclusion is hard to avoid:  It’s not how your write; it’s what you write.

the annotated “My Last Duchess”

the poem

Much is made of Edgar Allen Poe’s dark and chilling poem The Raven. Rightfully so, but to me, the most chilling, gothic, and horrific poem remains My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. If there was ever a surer portrayal of the sociopathic killer, I don’t know it. I’m reminded of the fabled Bluebeard when I read the poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

My Last Duchess

1….That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
…..Looking as if she were alive. I call
…..That piece a wonder, now: Frà 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
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed 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, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà 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
20 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, ‘t was 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
30 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
40 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
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine 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!

the annotation: lines 1-3

Let’s jump right in.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: (….)

The opening lines have a lot of history behind them, and speculation. As regards the poem’s greatness or meaning, none of it matters. It’s almost more of a parlor game — forensic poetry for literary scholars in need of an argument. But because inquiring minds like to know (including my own), here we go. An analysis found here places the setting for the poem “on the grand staircase of the ducal palace at Ferrara in northern Italy”. The writers don’t say how they know this but I think I may have found their source. In a fictional work by Elizabeth Lowry, the author closes with some recommended reading: My Last Duchess. In that section, she writes:

Browning drew on an actual episode in Tuscan history for his donnee, but the interpretation, and the glittering diction, are all his own. The scene is the grand staircase of the ducal palace in Ferrara, in northern Italy; time: the mid-1500s. The speaker is the lusty, avaricious Duke of Ferrara ,and as the poem opens he is brokering a marriage deal with the envoy of the the Count of Tyrol, whose daughter he intends to acquire as his second duchess–for Ferrara’s “last” ducess, we realize, is dead. [The Bellini Madonna: A Novel p. 343]

Lowry’s scholarship is as fictional as her novel. No scholar has ever asserted that Browning’s poem is based “on an actual episode”.  An actual duke? Maybe. An actual episode? No. And no reference was ever made to a grand staircase. This is nothing more than a fiction writer’s fiction.

Who was the actual duke and duchess? Some scholars might say that Browning had the Duke Alfonso II d’Este in mind. Yours truly has tried to get to the bottom of this – to sort out baseless assertions from fact. With a visit to Dartmouth, I was able to read an article by Louis S. Friedland, Studies in Philology Vol. 33,  No. 4 (Oct., 1936), pp. 656-684, called Ferrara and My Last Duchess. I was interested to read it because sometimes you will find statements like the following (both on the web and in text books):

“It is this Duke, Louis S. Friedland has shown, who is the Duke of My Last Duchess, as we shall see below. This means that the poem was written in the summer or early fall of 1842.” [A Browning Handbook William Clyde DeVane p. 108]


“That these historical figures were the prototypes of Browning’s characters is convincingly established by Louis S. Friedland in ‘Ferrara and My Last Duchess,'”… [The Heath Reader Santi V. Buscemi p. 566]


“Friedland conclusively proves, I think, that the person from whose character and career Browning’s duke is drawn is Alfonso II, Fifth Duke of Ferrara, and the duchess was Lucrezia de’ Medicia, who was fourteen years old at her marriage and died at seventeen…” [The Victorian Poets: A Guide to Research, Frederic Everett Faverty p. 81]

There are oodles and oodles of references to Friedland’s article, so I just had to read it. Here’s what I found out. First of all, contrary to Faverty or Devane’s claim, Friedland did not show (in the sense of prove) that Alfonso II d’Este was “the Duke of My Last Duchess”. He did not, contrary to Buscemi’s claim, convincingly establish the Duke’s identity. Don’t believe the hype. (After all, every day another scholar is “proving” that Queen Elizabeth or her poodle, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.) Rather, Friedland’s article takes aim at another scholar who had the effrontery to identify the Duke as Vespasiano Gonzaga (which, in itself, tells you something). The rival scholar, Professor John D. Rea, also identified the Duchess as Diana, daughter of Don Antonio die Cardona and the Duke’s first wife. Friedland’s article is not a treatise on why Alfonso is the Duke, but only an argument for why Alfonso might be a better fit than Vespasiano. Here’s how Friedland puts it:

…the studies by Griffin and Minehin, W.C. DeVane, Brocher, Hovalque, and Stewart W. Holmes prove Browning’s familiarity with the early history of Ferrara. We know that after his trip to Italy in the summer of 1888, Browning altered his scheme for Sordello, which at first took no account of Ferrara; by 1840 Ferrara “became the scene of half his poems”. The new conception led him to read widely in the mediaeval history of Ferrara, and the authorities he consulted have been identified. [p. 666]

And that, for the most part, is as good as the case gets — circumstantial evidence. At  the outset, Friedland rhetorically states: “Hence we have every justification for assuming that Browning joined the word Ferrara to My Last Duchess by design and malice aforethought.”

The obvious rejoinder is: OK, then why didn’t Browning entitle the poem Ferrara from the get-go? Browning originally entitled the poem I. Italy, not My Last Duchess: Ferrara. We know that the Duke of Ferrara was hardly the only Renaissance grandee with a long-lived ego and short-lived wife. Friedland himself admits that a wife’s death, by treacherous means at the hands of a Duke is a “Renaissance commonplace of foul play and domestic murder.” If Browning was all that familiar with Alfonzo’s history, would he have known that Alfonzo’s young wife was thought to have died a natural death? Was he only aware of the rumors and gossip? Friedland himself writes that “Lucrezia suffered from chronic lung-trouble” and “that her father and her brother Francesco were kept constantly informed with regard to the progress of her last illness.” Friedland adds:

“In any event, it is difficult to believe that Alfonso was so rash as to poison the young daughter of the powerful Cosimo, his near neighbor and a man not to be trifled with.”

On the other hand, historians can assert that Diana, Rea’s candidate for Duchess, was essentially forced to commit suicide by her husband, the Duke Vespasiano Gonzag, on suspicion of infidelity. If, in the history available to Browning, the scholarly consensus was against the rumored murder of Alfonso’s young wife, than that might explain why he didn’t initially title the poem Ferrara (if historical accuracy was all that important to him). Why base the poem on a Duke who might not have murdered his wife? There’s also this interesting tidbit of information, provided by Friedland.

“How was her death occasioned? The poem does not say. No other lines of the monologue have called forth the critical discussion that turns on the words: “I gave commands, etc.” An early reviewer maintained that the proper interpretation of the Duke’s statement was the sentence of death. Extremely loath to accept this view, Hiram Corson asked the poet for the true meaning of the lines. As usual, Browning’s answer was as cryptic as the passage that prompted the query. “He replied meditatively,” says Corson, “‘Yes, I meant that the commands were that she be put to death.’ Then, after a pause, he added, with a characteristic dash of expression, and as if the thought had just started in his mind. ‘Or he might have had her shut up in a convent.”  [Ferrera and “My Last Duchess” p.676]

If Browning based the poem on Alfonso and Lucrezia (and accepted the rumors of poison to be true) then why not say so in the poem? I think the anecdote says more about the critics Friedland and Corson, than Browning. Friedland, after pouncing on the fact that Browning renamed the poem Ferrara, downplays Browning’s own commentary (since it counters his argument) by calling Browning’s comment “cryptic”. Corson adds that “the thought had just started in [Browning’s] mind”. (Corson, apparently, is not only a reader of poetry but a reader of poets’ minds.) Both critics have a dog in the hunt and downplay whatever counters their narratives.

I personally don’t see anything “cryptic” about Browning’s reply. It runs counter to the notion that Browning had a particular Duke in mind, but so what? It supports the notion that Browning was less interested in who the poem was about than the dramatic fiction. Browning won’t even commit to the notion that the Duchess was murdered! Remember, the Duke never says that the Duchess was murdered, only that (in the painting) she looks “as if she were alive”. In the elliptical poetic language of iambic pentameter, he might just as easily be saying that the painting is “lifelike” in how it captures her. I personally prefer the former interpretation (that she was murdered) because so much else about the Duke’s monologue is darkly suggestive, but that’s only an interpretation. She could have been hustled away to a convent with a bunch of unsmiling nuns – the Italian version of Stalin’s Siberia.  (I personally would prefer Siberia to nuns.)

Here’s how I read the the facts. The theme of the wife poisoned by the grandee, as Friedland wrote, was a commonplace of Renaissance gossip. Browning could easily have been inspired by any number of stories (think Bluebeard). Professor Rea gives just one example. In the case of Rea’s Duke – Vespasiano Gonzag – Friedland argues that  the “facts” of Browning’s poem (as if they even could be called facts) don’t fit Rea’s Duchess (married to Gonzag for eleven years). Friedland italicizes eleven as though this, in and of itself, were somehow proof that Rea was delusional; but he gives us no reason why the Last Duchess couldn’t have been married to the Duke for eleven years except that, in Friedland’s interpretative opinion, Browning’s Duchess just sounds young. And that’s that. That’s Friedland’s “evidence”. Here’s how he puts it:

Now, even if we grant Diana not more than nineteen years at the time of her marriage, she was thirty years old when she died, — a mature woman by Rennaisance standards. Eleven years is a long time to “cease all smiles.’ It is difficult to fit this situation into the framework of My Last Duchess. Browning’s Duchess has nothing in common with Diana; far from being gay or flirtatious, or worse, she is young, inexperienced, happy-natured, radiant; she has been married but a short time when death overtakes her. There is no foul stain upon her joyous expectancy of life, her love for all living things and all things of beauty. [pp. 661-662]

A portrait of Lucrezia that Browning never saw.

Fair enough. I’m inclined to read the Last Duchess the way Friedland does, but I’m also prepared to assert that Browning does not tell us that the Duchess has been “married but a short time” or even that she was young. Every statement that Friedland makes is a matter of self-serving interpretation, not fact. The facts could just as easily fit Professor Rea’s candidate. However, all of this, especially Friedland’s article, makes the assumption that Browning wasn’t fictionalizing (despite the fact that both Frà Pandolf and the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck are fictional). But just as Shakespeare changed history and character to suit dramatic ends, so could Browning. The assumption that Browning must have been tying events to real historical personages is, in and of itself, an unsubstantiated, circumstantial assumption. That he wasn’t inspired by Alfonso is suggested by the fact that he didn’t initially entitle the poem Ferrera. It’s also suggested by the fact that, when asked, he offered that the Last Duchess might not have been murdered, but sent to a convent.

  • Why was the painter a member of a religious order? Frà means Brother, as in Brother Pandalf. The likeliest reason is that Browning didn’t want the reader to wonder whether Lucrezia was having an affair with the painter. As will be seen below, the supposition did occur to contemporary readers of Browning’s poetry. Browning wants Lucrezia to be blameless and innocent — all the more vilifying the Duke’s behavior.

He probably wrote the poem with the general theme in mind  — self-aggrandizing Duke murders or exiles insufficiently appreciative wife. As he increasingly familiarized himself with the history of Ferrara (the place) in the course of writing other poems, he might have seen resemblances to real historical figures or, more likely, that the events of My Last Duchess could easily be imagined within such a culture.

In their book The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Volume III: Bells and Pomegranates I-VI (including Pippa Passes and Dramatic Lyrics), the editors Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler offer a welcome moment of sanity. They write:

When the poem was first published Browning cannot have expected his readers to associate it with any particular Duke and Duchess, or with any particular city. Even when he named Ferrara, he can hardly have expected them to associate it with any particular episode. While Friedland may well be right in his conjectures, it is also possible that ‘Ferrara’ was simply added as a general stage-direction. [p. 185]

All this is to say: Take the identities of the Duke and Duchess with a walloping dose of skepticism. Don’t believe everything you read on the web, wikipedia, or even in “scholarly” publications. Alfonso II d’Este and Lucrezia have not been identified as the Duke and Duchess. They just happen to fit better, circumstantially, if one is willing to downplay a number of  historical inconveniences and the poet’s own comments.

: lines 3-13

………………..Frà 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
10 The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
…..And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
…..How such a glance came there; so, not the first
…..Are you to turn and ask thus.

The old Ducal Palace. Browning never visited Ferrera.

The implication, in the poem itself, is that the Duke is speaking to an emissary (come to arrange or negotiate a marriage to another aristocrat’s daughter). The Duke instructs the emissary to be seated. “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” he asks.

The next line is one that gives many readers trouble. When the Duke says: “I said “Frà Pandolf” by design…” What does he mean by this? My own interpretation is to read “said” as “I requested” or “I demanded”. To a man possessing the Duke’s obvious ego, his word is his command. One imagines the Duke’s internal conversation:

Question: Which painter did you request?

Answer: I said “Frà Pandolf”; and said so “by design”.

He chose the skill of Frà Pandolf “by design” knowing that no stranger would ever read “that pictured countenance” without wondering at the “depth and passion of [her] earnest glance” – something Frà Pandolf alone, it seems, was capable of. The Duke  knew, by design, that every stranger would ask him “if they durst,/ How such a glance came there’.

Interestingly, Browning himself was asked as to the meaning of the line. He answered: “To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it…”

Much of the rest of the monologue, as far as the Duke is concerned, is the “illustration”  for why he chose Frà Pandolf. In the course of the illustration, he reveals much (whether intentionally or unintentionally is debated). My own feeling is that he knows exactly what he’s up to. As he says himself, he chose Frà Pandolf by design. My thinking is that he meant the painting to serve as a warning and since none but him will ever draw the curtain, the tour will be guided. In other words, he’s going to make certain that the moral of the painting is understood just as he “designed” it to be understood – a stern warning.

  • The “you” in the poem is said to be Nikolaus Mardruz, but this conjecture depends on ones agreeing that the Duke was Alfonso II d’Este. The evidence, as demonstrated above, is purely conjectural and is, in truth, irrelevant. Whether the speaker was this Duke or that Emissary, the poem’s meaning doesn’t change one whit.

: Line 13-21

……………………Sir, ‘t was not
…..Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
…..Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
…..Frà 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
20 Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
…..For calling up that spot of joy.

And now begins the Duke’s dark warning. Frà Pandolf has done his job. The emissary has presumably asked into the striking depth and passion of the portrait. “…so not the first/ Are you to turn and ask thus.” The Duke expounds: It wasn’t only her husband’s presence (his presence) that brought that “spot”, or flush of joy to the Duchess’s cheek. Browning’s usage of the Shakespearean word spot is telling — her blush is a flaw, a blemish. In the Duke’s opinion, her joys were trivial. Perhaps Brother Pandolf happened to say that the lady’s mantle lapped over her “wrist to much. She smiled or blushed with joy. Perhaps Brother Pandolf praised the “faint/ Half-flush that dies along her throat”. That was “cause enough” for producing that “spot of joy”.

  • The detail (it’s worth noting) of the half-flush “that dies” along her throat is an exceedingly sinister detail. I can’t help but wonder whether Browning (or the Duke) isn’t hinting at the method of her murder. Details like this are what compel me to think she was murdered rather than sent to a nunnery. Was she? There’s no right answer. That’s for every reader to interpret individually.

: Line 21-34

………………………………………….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, ‘t was 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
30 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.

  • …my favor at her breast…” referred to a ribbon given, in this sense, as a sign of love (a love-favor). In the poem, however, one gets the sense that such a ribbon was intended less as a love-favor and more as an indication that she belonged to him. He had marked her with a ribbon.

The Duke gets to the “heart” of the matter. The woman was “too easily impressed”.  She liked “whate’er she looked on”. She ranked his gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with the cherries some “officious fool” gave her, or the white mule she liked to ride. Some of the more interesting commentary on this portion of the poem relates to Victorian attitudes toward gender and their effort to delimit female sexuality. Victorians and their attitudes toward gender are a big, big subject. I’m not going to attempt it, except to say that the topic fills books. The Duke’s desire to fix the behavior of his wives could be said to parallel Victorian society’s obsession with individual behavior and reputation. The Duke, in this sense, is possibly more typical of a Victorian aristocrat than any 16th century figure. But the absolute power of the 16th century nobleman allowed Browning to dramatize Victorian preoccupations carried to their dark extremes.

  • …and her looks went everywhere…” There’s no small symbolism in the fact that the Duke keeps her visage curtained. Her looks will no longer go anywhere without his permission.

But there’s a fascinating anecdote about the poem that nicely illustrates Victorian attitudes toward women. Although the anecdote is commonly referenced, I found a more complete account at Google books in a book published in 1890. I copied the dedicatory page on the left. Maybe because I just lost my dog, my companion of 14 years, I’m feeling a little tender when I read something that says “in memory of”, but notice how the book was given in 1899 by the class of 1890. Robert Browning died on 1889. This meant that Robert Browning was alive and well while the class members were enrolled. Many websites and scholars will refer to the anecdote, but they don’t do it justice. Here’s the full story:

In the early days of 1888 a club, styled “The Day’s End Club,” was formed in the city of Exeter, to study contemporary literature.

On February 18, 1889, a member read to the Club six of Robert Browning’s shorter poems. He had paraphrased some, and his reading and notes provoked much discussion. The Rev. Sackville A. Berkely, who had become acquainted with Browning at Oxford, offered to write to the poet, and state the difficulties of the members.


My Last Duchess

[Berkely] Was she in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour: or did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?

[Browning] As an excuse — mainly to himself — for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognise his superiority in even the most trifling matters.

[New poems: by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ed. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon p. 178]

What’s so interesting, to me, isn’t so much Browning’s answer, which is how most of us would probably interpret the poem, but the question! The question reveals much about Victorian attitudes. As I read it, the questioner is basically asking whether the Duchess deserved it! Berkely asks, was she really that shallow? In other words, Berkely, and presumably the members of the “The Day’s End Club”, concluded that if the Duke was telling the truth, that if she really was so shallow as to enjoy a bough of cherries as much as the Duke’s 900 year old name then… well… she must have been “in fact shallow and easily and equally well pleased with any favour.” Conclusion? She deserved it. We, in the 21rst century, whether the Duke is telling the truth or not, condemn the Duke’s behavior. Readers of the Victorian era? Not so. They need clarification. This is the society and attitudes in which Browning’s poem appeared.

We, like Friedland, consider the Duchess, whether the Duke exaggerated or not, a “happy-natured” and “radiant” woman, not shallow. It’s the Duke who is shallow and easily and equally well insulted by any triviality. But this interpretation doesn’t seem to occur to Exeter’s book club members. They want to know about the Duchess, not the Duke.

The second part of the question is equally damning! He asks, “did the Duke so describe her as a supercilious cover to real and well justified jealousy?” OK, let’s translate this. What the questioner is asking is this: Was the Duke correctly describing her (albeit superciliously) as shallow, or was she an adulterer? In other words, the poor Duchess’ reputation goes from the frying pan into the fire! Either she’s incredibly shallow or she’s a whore! (I don’t think I’ve ever used so many exclamation points in a post, but wow.) In any event, the question just enforces what Browning was up against. Browning’s reply is terse. If I were to read between the lines, I might call it exasperated. Browning squarely puts the blame where it belongs — on the Duke.

: Lines 34-43

“…exceed the mark…” When the arrow overshoots the target.

………………….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
40 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.

As if responding to a hint of incredulity on the emissary’s part, the Duke excuses his own behavior with breathtaking arrogance and entitlement. He couldn’t be bothered to blame, in the sense of correct, her behavior, by saying this “disgusts me” or “you miss,/ Or there exceed the mark'”. He then says, curiously, that he lacked the “skill/ In speech”. The Duke claims incompetence while defending himself in flawless iambic pentameter. Interestingly, even the Duke seems aware of the absurdity. As if responding to some subtlety in the emissary’s body language (or so I would have it if I were to stage the monologue), the Duke quickly corrects course. He says: “E’en then would be stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop.” Translation: “Even if I had tried to correct her behavior I would have been, in effect, asking for or requesting something. A man in my position never stoops to request anything from anyone – let alone my wife!”

: Lines 43-47

…………………….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.

And there we have it. Whenever she saw him, she smiled. But the Duke considered that smile cheap currency. Her smile was indiscriminate, and that was intolerable to a man with a 900 year old namesake. He gave commands. All smiles stopped together. Did he have her murdered? Was it the half-flush that died along her throat? Or was she sent to a convent to live out the rest of her days with a gaggle of unsmiling nuns? You decide. And does it make a difference? Would the Duke’s behavior be any more forgivable if he exiled her to a convent? One or the other possibility seemed to satisfy Browning. I have always interpreted the lines as murder and the Duke as sociopathically evil. The beauty of the poem, if you can call it that, is how the Duke manages to (or wishes to) portray himself as the victim. This is classic sociopathy. His arrogant self-regard easily dismisses any suffering other than his own. On the other hand, maybe calling him a sociopath is to excuse him.

: Lines 47-56

………..Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
…..The company below, then. I repeat
…..The Count your master’s known munificence
50 Is ample warrant that no just pretense
…..Of mine 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!

“…no just pretense Of mine dowry will be disallowed…”

The closing lines are lovely. In terms of their psychological portrayal, they are perfection. After displaying the portrait, the Duke gets down to business. That his former wife has been reduced to a curtained portrait is highly symbolic. No longer will she smile at anyone unless it’s by the Duke’s “design”. In other words, she will only smile with his permission (when he has pulled back the curtain). She has been reduced to just another artwork and possession at the service of his ego and reputation.

That said, and despite his protestations that he would never “stoop”, he will walk “together down” with the emissary when a dowry is at stake. With a kind of nervous obsequiousness, he “repeats” his statement (as though seeking reassurance) that the emissary’s master, the Count, won’t find any pretense to disallow (lessen or reject) the Duke’s dowry.  A dowry is the money or property brought by the woman into her husband’s marriage. The tradition is alive and well in many religiously and traditionally backward countries. And there’s no doubt that the Duke is alive and well in those traditions.  The Duke adds, almost as an embarrassed afterthought, that the Count’s “fair daughter” nevertheless remains his object. The Duke, apparently, will stoop for money and property.

“…Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse…”

Claus of Innsbruck is another fictional character. The statue at right is modern. You can own it for $89.99, just click on the image. I personally find it incredibly tacky; and I suspect that Browning did too. After all, despite the grandiloquence of the statue, a seahorse is a tiny little creature and if it needs to be tamed before it can be ridden, that doesn’t say much for the Neptune riding it. One of the all time great put-downs was when a character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus  asks: “Hear you this Triton of the minnows?”

I can hardly think of a tackier or more trivial subject. Neptune taming a seahorse?

After all the Duke’s posturing over the triviality of the Duchess, we see that the Duchess, her white mule, her bough of cherries, the “dropping of the daylight in the west”, were more beautiful, significant and bountiful than the trivial stupidity of “a Neptune” taming a seahorse. The beauty of the moment is in Browning’s ability to confer on the Duke all the sins of triviality and superficiality he imposed on the Duchess. The art, of which the Duke is a patron and collector, appears to be of the most shallow and lifeless sort. If there were any Victorian questions as to whether great art could be a byproduct of such a corrupt culture, my feeling is that Browning puts that to rest.

  • “…thought a rarity…” Browning wants the reader to notice the Duke’s observation that the lifeless and tacky statue  is a “rarity”, whereas the “spot” of joy (the Duchess’s easy joy) was, in the Duke’s judgment, common and banal.

In the reference to the seahorse there may also be a glance at the Duke’s treatment of the Duchess and his future bride. That is, he narcissistically thinks of himself as a Neptune and his wives as seahorses to be tamed.

What are the final words of the Duke’s monologue?

…for me.

And that’s that. The Duke will have nothing in his life that is not “for me”.

The duke lives in a world dedicated to him, his position, his reputation. Any wife should expect to be nothing more than another accoutrement and adornment dedicated to his vanity. He’s managed to do just that with the Duchess. She has become nothing more than a portrait that smiles at his command and, as he stresses in the first lines, his alone.

His warning? The next Duchess can expect the same if she doesn’t appreciate the gift of his reputation.

The Scansion

In order to keep the scansion down to a manageable size, I tried something different. I didn’t add any scansion marks, using color coding instead. The key is as follows:

  • Trochaic Foot
  • Pyhrric Foot
  • Spondaic Foot

I use the same color code in all of my scansions. There’s nothing official about the colors. They’re just something I came up with to make scansions easier to read and far less “busy”. All unmarked feet are Iambic.

  • The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter.
  • The rhyme scheme is that of open heroic couplets (as opposed to closed heroic couplets – a nicety that no other website, to my knowledge, has mentioned).
  • Notice how the Spondaic feet are beautifully placed in congruence with the Duke’s heightened emotions — esp. when he states his nine-hundred year namesake, when he says E’en then, and esp. when he says: Then all smiles stopped… You will never find a more perfect use of Spondaic feet, maybe the equal, but never better.
  • There are two examples of headless feet (lines missing the first syllable).
  • I’ve read some commentary on the placement of end-stopped verses enjambed lines, but my own feeling is that it’s all too easy to read more into such techniques (in this case) than the text warrants. One risks veering into Enactment Fallacy.
  • All in all, Browning’s verse is conservative but beautifully done.


Other Analyses

The best site that I’ve found is here: Representative Poetry Online

  • Also, I recently wrote a dramatic monologue called My Last Husband that riffs on some of the themes discussed above—and turns the tables on the social mores implicated by Browning.

If I find another, or you can recommend one, I’ll post it. I hope y’all have found the post helpful and enjoyed it.