The chestnuts are blooming in the Place Cambronne. At this time of year, I stop there on my way home from work (on my way to work, I study vocabulary, and don’t notice them), and rejoice in the knowledge that they will survive even the zombie apocalypse. Of course, blooming chestnut trees means National Poetry Month; since we have a thin-skinned assclown–a man-baby who rages in response to tweets and threatens the press when he doesn’t like their reporting–a bigot who accuses judges of not being impartial on the basis of their parents’ national origin–an immoral villain who equates white supremacists and neo-Nazis with the people who stand up to them–with his fingers on the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, I propose a timely bit of Robert Browning. Follow this link if you’d like to hear a pretty good recording thereof. The poem is pretty disturbing in and of itself, and all the more so with Trump in the presidency. I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together. There she stands as if alive….Notice Neptune, though…thought a rarity, which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! (Rough translation: I had her killed. Hey, look at this great thing that I have!)
The poem was published in 1842, and some of the language bears explication. I’ll give you the modern and/or non-poetic equivalents of some of the verbs:
- will’t: “will it” Will’t please you sit and look at her?
- durst: “dared” And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, //
How such a glance came there;
- ’twas: “it was” Sir, ’twas not // Her husband’s presence only, called that spot // Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek;
- whate’er: “whatever” she liked whate’er // She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
- whene’ever: “whenever” Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, // Whene’er I passed her;
…and the English notes explain some of the words that I used in writing this post.
My Last Duchess
Robert BrowningThat’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,Looking as if she were alive. I callThat piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s handsWorked busily a day, and there she stands.Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never readStrangers like you that pictured countenance,The depth and passion of its earnest glance,But to myself they turned (since none puts byThe 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 firstAre you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas notHer husband’s presence only, called that spotOf joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhapsFra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle lapsOver my lady’s wrist too much,” or “PaintMust never hope to reproduce the faintHalf-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuffWas courtesy, she thought, and cause enoughFor calling up that spot of joy. She hadA heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,Too easily impressed; she liked whate’erShe 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 foolBroke in the orchard for her, the white muleShe rode with round the terrace—all and eachWould draw from her alike the approving speech,Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thankedSomehow—I know not how—as if she rankedMy gift of a nine-hundred-years-old nameWith anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blameThis sort of trifling? Even had you skillIn speech—which I have not—to make your willQuite clear to such an one, and say, “Just thisOr that in you disgusts me; here you miss,Or there exceed the mark”—and if she letHerself be lessoned so, nor plainly setHer wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—E’en then would be some stooping; and I chooseNever to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,Whene’er I passed her; but who passed withoutMuch the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;Then all smiles stopped together. There she standsAs if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meetThe company below, then. I repeat,The Count your master’s known munificenceIs ample warrant that no just pretenseOf mine for dowry will be disallowed;Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowedAt starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll goTogether down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
Want a French translation of this poem? See the Wikipédia page here.
assclown: “someone who, wrongly, thinks his actions are clever, funny, or worthwhile.” ““someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.” A specific kind of asshole, defined as “A person counts as an asshole, when and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” Sources: John Kelly on the Strong Language blog, and Aaron James, in his book Assholes: a theory of Donald Trump.
Fra: “used as a title equivalent to brother preceding the name of an Italian monk or friar” (Merriam-Webster). My best guess is that it’s used here to suggest that the Duke things that the painter was overly familiar (brother) with his wife, and/or that his wife was overly familiar with the painter.
familiar: a word with at least two parts of speech (adjective, of course, but also noun). In the poem, it’s used with the meaning of informal, friendly; it can also mean something well-known (the familiar works of Shakespeare).