Choose a suitable poem: see Browning's 'My Last Duchess" below - an ideal poem.
As you read, ask yourself:
1. How far personally are you prepared to adopt the ‘speaker’ in the poem’s position
( e.g. ‘voice’ and self image, etc.)?
2. What other position(s) do you feel yourself drawn to adopt?
Read the poem aloud.
Now decide without any detail or plan of action whether you are going to produce a text which is parallel, counter or alternative. (adopt the ‘speakers’ position, adopt the position of another speaker in the poem or produce a text which is simply quite alternative – historical, economic, religious, etc.)
1. ‘Translate’ the poem into your own way of plain speaking. In other words put it in you own words. (in as few words as possible – one or two sentences)
2. Draw up a list of every possible person or ‘voice’ in the poem. Each of these is a potential subject for an alternative text.
3. Now look closely at the poem and make up a list of ‘excluded participants’. Every poem is teeming with these and they again provide a centre, often of fascinating interest for a potential text. (e.g. who cut the grapes? Who painted the wall? Who drove the taxi? Who knitted the wool?)
4. Remind yourself, perhaps with a diagram to add the actual writer and some actual readers (you and me) to the poem. Just as the writer will have ‘relationships’ with participants in the poem so will we and these will differ from reader to reader.
5. It is time now to re-consider what participant(s) you personally would prefer to construct a ‘new’ text around as a parallel, counter or alternative.
6. Firstly give your idea a working title. Draft a version. Briefly give an explanation-rational for your choice.
7. Complete your text. The piece of course does not need to a poem. It could be a letter, an advertisement, a text message, a radio play – even a visual representation.
My Last Duchess
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
Robert Browning’s inspiration for My Last Duchess came from the Duke and Duchess Ferarra. The Duchess died under very suspicious circumstances. She was married at fourteen and dead by seventeen. Browning uses these suspicious circumstances as inspiration for a poem which dives deep into the mind of a powerful Duke who wishes to control his wife in every aspect of her life,
including her feelings. Browning, of the Victorian age, wrote real life poetry that reflected upon some of the darkest aspects of Victorian life. One of those aspects, of course, being the treatment of wives by their husbands. Everyone is familiar with Henry the VIII and his many wives whom he accused an executed when he tired of him. Browning reveals that this mentality was widespread during this time. Wives were viewed as disposable, and their husbands would often accuse them to do away with them when they desired to marry someone else. The life of a Victorian wife was a perilous one.
©Jeff Guess 2019
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