I have written before on this blog on the subject of dramatic monologues and of Browning’s use of them in his poem Porphyria’s Lover. I make no apology for turning once more to Browning’s poetry, which I love (even though Oscar Wilde damned him as a poet: ‘Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.’), for a glance at the literature which has influenced my own writing and its portrayal of the criminal mind.
My Last Duchess is a poem which works subtly on a psychological level. I remember reading it for the first time and being astonished at the way in which it made me engage with the situation it depicts, a powerful duke’s receiving an emissary and showing him a painting of his previous wife. (It is commonly thought that this man was the fifth Duke of Ferrara, seeking to marry a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I, and coming to marriage terms via her brother, Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II.) I didn’t need factual historical background to understand the poem, which itself, line by line, gradually led me along a trail of suggestions and clues to the horrified realisation that he had had his wife ‘done away with’.
In fact, the first thing that struck me as I read the opening lines (‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive.’) was that this was like Paulina’s presentation, in The Winter’s Tale, of Queen Hermione’s ‘statue’ (it is really Hermione herself) to the king, Leontes, who believes that his jealousy caused her death. Leontes says, in astonishment at the sculptor’s skill, “The fixture of her eye has motion in’t, As we are mocked with art.” The portraiture of the Italian Renaissance was, of course, sublime in its depiction of looks and character and I was initially lulled by my reading of The Winter’s Tale into thinking that this poem would similarly celebrate artistic achievement. I could not have been more mistaken.
The monologue forces the reader into the shoes of the emissary, listening to the Duke and drawing conclusions about his attitudes, opinions and personality, just as we might upon meeting someone for the first time in real life. Browning’s power lies in his understated use of speech; it is all so matter-of-fact! Line by line, we receive the duke’s description of the cheerful friendliness of this young woman, who smiled on all alike, and we gradually realise that he thought that she should smile for no-one but himself and preserve for the rest a haughty reserve. Then comes the shock: ‘I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.’ Now, with a hammer’s clang, we see why only he may draw the curtains which conceal her lifelike, smiling face: he has ensured that she will smile only for him. He passes on, leading the emissary, and talking of another artwork with equal lack of emotion.
I have read this poem countless times and it has itself the freshness of a new painting whenever I come back to it. I look for this psychological detail in the presentation of villains in crime novels and I am delighted when I find it. There is, for me, far less enjoyment in more stereotypical portrayals, which rely more for impact upon the brutality of actions than upon the workings of minds.