Thursday, June 2, 2016

"My Last Duchess" and "Meeting At Night" by Robert Browning (1842)

"My Last Duchess"

I had two main English Literature teachers at my small, Kansas liberal arts college (I think there were some others but I can't remember their names now).  I gave away all of my college textbooks long ago, in some awful, stupid move that I periodically regret so much every so often that my heart aches.  So I don't know who taught me about Browning or introduced me to "My Last Duchess."  

I wish I could travel through time, and take that class again.

Or access the little grey cells that hold all those memories.  Alas and alack.

It's always a gratifying thing to return to a poem, or novel that I've read at some point in the past, and re-discover those same pleasures.  This week of Browning poetry is turning out to be pleasantly satisfying.  

It's a macabre poem; Browning writes a resoundingly powerful story of the kind that we still tell today (Sleeping With Enemy anyone?); "My Last Duchess" is all proto-Oprah.  In very few words, and moreover in poetic form, Browning tells a spine-tingling horror story complete with creepy plot twist ending (horrified gasp - "he's looking for a NEW bride" ..... fade to black).

This poem has been annotated here and shmooped here , interesting and well-written essays with some historical background.  There is a great essay about Browning here.  

"Meeting At Night"

A twist at the end that's not as twisted as "My Last Duchess" has strong effect all the same.  It's full of resonant imagery and word choice that creates a scene of color and sound and emotion – grey sea and the long black land and the yellow half-moon are so beautiful and evocative of every moon you've ever seen; you can imagine exactly what Browning is writing about, hear the crash of the waves and see the moon shining upon their crests. A boat comes ashore, in the dark, and then there is that furtive scramble on the beach, sneaking across fields.  You know this person is going somewhere, and you might think, maybe up to no good.  Some sort of pirate or robber perhaps?  All that mystery, in one short stanza.  Ah, storytelling, just like "My Last Duchess."

Then the tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch, again, but so loud you can hear it as you read it, see and hear the match strike blue, and the quiet joy of two lovers, who aren’t supposed to be meeting, and the sound of their hearts beating wildly and crazily for each other as they fall into each other's arms.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett had a secret romance, and there is speculation that this poem was written about them.   But it’s also a great poem for anyone who has been in love, whether secretly or not.  This could have been lovers who hadn’t seen one another for some time, for example.  The story can be understood in several ways, but regardless each way is a melt-into-a romantic-

puddle .

These two poems can be found here.  That's where I pulled the snips from. 

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