An analysis of the form and structure of My Last Duchess

Last week, I looked at the context behind My Last Duchess, as it’s such an interesting background to the poem. Although based on historical characters, Browning’s selection of the character and time period is interesting in itself. I think it represents a real shift from the Romanticism of the earlier poems in the new AQA English Literature GCSE syllabus. Browning brings to it his particular skill in bringing characters to life – particularly the ones who are just that little bit twisted!

So… let’s look now at the form: a dramatic monologue.

That in itself gives you a clue. You could have lifted this out of any play.

The purpose of a soliloquy in a play is to share with the reader things that wouldn’t have been revealed to any of the other characters, creating a sense of dramatic irony at times, or revealing deeper insights into the mind of the character. Think of what Macbeth’s soliloquys do. They reveal all those innermost thoughts and fears that he couldn’t reveal to anybody else. They show a character’s preoccupations, desires and fears. It’s kind of like talking aloud on stage.

A dramatic monologue is a little different. It’s one person speaking. There IS an audience, but they don’t reply. You get monologues in a lot of the plays – they’re part of other scenes usually. For instance, Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida gives a very long monologue. Henry V does as well to motivate his men before battle.Their purpose is a bit different. A soliloquy, by and large, reveals the real person. A dramatic monologue might not do so since you can still do a lot of talking and be wearing a kind of disguise or façade to the people you’re talking to.

BUT… there is an audience (onstage). And the person speaking wants something from the audience. They want their support, their forgiveness, their courage, their loyalty. Or they want to impress their power and their wisdom. Either way, the speaker has a very clear purpose, and it’s still a conversation, even if we only get one side of it. That’s the same here. It’s a one-sided conversation. There is a very clear audience (in this case a marriage broker who is here to arrange the marriage of the Duke to his ‘next’ Duchess).

In fact, it’s a role that Browning kind of puts us in. Either we assume the role of the marriage broker, where it’s like he’s making us take a role, a bit like street theatre or audience participation in a stage show… or we are unwitting eavesdroppers on this pair. But, as Browning seems to address the monologue at us, putting us in the position of the marriage broker with the second person address, he definitely wants us to get involved. It’s like he pulls us out of the audience to take the part of a character on stage, which certainly pulls us into the poem and gives us a role. You can’t help but be involved in that. At the moment of the poem, then, Browning is giving a voice to the Duke of Ferrara, and we’re giving ears to the marriage broker.

It’s an interesting question as to why Browning chooses so often to use other people’s voices, adopting a character persona. It’s like a mask for him. Behind the mask of the Duke is Browning. Or, perhaps a puppet master pulling the strings. Personally, I like the idea that he is giving voice to the long-dead Duke, rather than just pulling his strings, but Browning certainly does like to play with narrative voice.

It’s interesting to ask why he does this…. and for me there are several reasons that he might choose a voice other than his own.

The first is that it allows you to be someone else. It’s quite liberating to be able to fall into a role and become someone else, if only for the length of the poem. It allows you to explore other characters. Being the character as well also gives you a better insight. It’s more real. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched something in the theatre, cinema or on television where you believe that the actor becomes the character – they’re that convincing. It allows you to be what you are not.

It may also allow you to explore characters that you have an affinity with, or you find intriguing. It allows you to get under their skin. It does beg the question why Browning enjoys so often writing as crazy psychopaths. I like to think he was just being what he never would be in real life, rather than he was secretly drawn to wondering how it would be to murder his wife for flirting with other men. For this reason, I don’t think of his dramatic personae as alter-egos, other versions of himself. I think that’s Browning’s power. He is so good at giving voice to a character that you forget he is at work behind it. It’s like he IS the Duke.

And that is something you must never lose sight of in the poem. Browning is at work behind every single word. We can’t – and shouldn’t – write about the Duke as if he were alive. Ironic, isn’t it, that the painter brings the Last Duchess to life, and Browning does the same with the Duke? That’s what power an artist has! He can bring the dead to life, just as the sculptor brings Ozymandias back to life, and just as Shelley does too. But… we should always remember that Browning is controlling and manipulating these words, and that the Duke isn’t a real person at all. If you find yourself writing “The Duke…” as if he is a real person, take a step back. You’ve fallen into Browning’s trap of convincing you that the Duke is a real person.

So we have not only a dramatic persona to consider, and how Browning brings the Duke to life, but we also have to consider the role he puts us in as his audience.

The monologue form allows us to do that. It was a form explored also by Tennyson, the other heavyweight Victorian poet. He’d published Ulysses in 1833, and had been using poetry to tell stories for a good ten years before this poem of Browning. It’s by no means Browning’s technique alone, but it’s fair to say he’s a master of it. His aim is not to tell a story but to create a portrait of the man through what he says. He’s a portrait of a type of person, rather than the Duke himself, and we must remember that Browning has added a substantial fiction to the poem. The Duke is both a picture of the petty aristocracy at the tail end of the Renaissance, as obsessed by stature and position as any Gothic hero, and a picture of a man with very deep psychological flaws. Kind of ironic, too, that you have a poem that is in itself a portrait of a man, just as Ozymandias is. It might be about the power of the artist/creator to depict an individual just so, but it’s as much a triumph of the poet as it is the painter Fra Pandolf in recreating the Duchess of Ferrara and the unnamed sculptor in Ozymandias.

As for other aspects of the form, it’s fifty-six lines of rhymed couplets written in a very structured way, with ten syllables per line. It gives it a regularity and a control, which is particularly interesting from a character that is quite controlled in his threat, what he reveals and how he reveals it. The form is perfect for such a measured and calculating man.

It’s also one of the ways by which he creates a very eloquant and cultured speaker. I love that superficial veneer of culture, art and all things highbrow, and then he’s just a plain thug beneath. It’s a split we see often in later Victorian literature like Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde and one that we see in later psychopaths such as Hannibal Lecter. Having good taste doesn’t mean you’re not a base villain underneath. Let’s be clear: Hannibal killed a musician for being out of tune. We’ve got here the same thing – someone who thinks (or seems to think) little of life, and considers himself cultured. I love that mix of civilising influence and brute nature underneath. The meter is one way that Browning creates that calm, cool, collected speech from a calculated man.

Still, we see the marks of “normal” speech in the form: the caesura and enjambment that lead us through it. I’ll look more at the effect of those split sentences and the enjambment when we look at the words and their meaning in the next article, but there are a few bits where I find the use of caesura and enjambment to particularly highlight certain phrases, which you can see here:

… 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?

Browning is also using the punctuation to help him out here. Look how broken and brittle those lines seem, how fragmented…

… 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?

You can see it more obviously here. It’s really fractured. It’s like that veneer is cracking here. His emotions seep through and he can’t keep up that smooth and superficial meter that he had before. For me, the caesura, the enjambment, the verbs split from their object, the staccato punctuation of the dashes, exclamations and questions, the repetition, the monosyllables, it all adds up. The cumulative effect for me is that this is the pinnacle of the poem. However, it’s by no means the only fractured part of the poem. You can see a smoothness and regularity to the first lines, the polysyllabic words, the careful rhyming of “countenance” and “earnest glance” and around about line 21, where we have the caesura before “She had/a heart – ” we get these fractured, broken sentences, heavily punctuated, more heavily monosyllabic as his anger at her grows. With line 47 and “Will’t please you rise?” we have a return to control and calculation. This is by no means the same cool, collected meter as Porphyria’s Lover where the guy doesn’t miss a beat when he’s describing how he strangled a girl with her own hair, because the Duke of Ferrara can’t stop his anger and resentment seeping out.

In terms of structure, the poem is one single place and moment in time (which is one of the things that marks it as a dramatic monologue) and perhaps for that reason, it is one single “paragraph” or stanza, like Stealing The Boat. It encapsulates one single moment… where the Duke is showing the marriage broker the painting. It begins with that and ends as they leave the room. The progression that we see is in fact a disintegration: a disintegration of the calm and measured showing off of the Duke, which he comes back to once again at the end. Kind of ironic that the final image is one of Neptune “taming a sea horse” – an image of mastery and domination, power and control – something he didn’t manage to do with his wife, even in her death. This final moment reminds us of the central theme of the poem: power and mastery. It also reminds us of the crassness of this Duke, name-dropping as if the marriage broker is supposed to be impressed. It’s a bitter reminder of the central themes of the poem: you can possess as much art as you want, but your nine-hundred-years-old name will be forgotten, and you with it, unless some kind poet brings you to life. Like Ozymandias, your power and tyranny is useless beyond the grave.

(This statue is from a different time period, but I think it happily illustrates the kind of statue we end the scene with)

In the next post, I’ll explore the use of language and imagery in My Last Duchess. If you want to make sure you get regular updates, make sure you subscribe to the blog. That way, you’ll get all of these posts delivered to your email account as soon as they’re published.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

An analysis of the context in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

My goodness there are some epic poems in the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology section on Power and Conflict. From the pithy treatise on humanity in Ozymandias to the quasi-Biblical woe-begotten tale of London and then Stealing The Boat from the Romantic epic-to-beat-all-epics in Wordsworth’s The Prelude… now we come to a portrait of megalomania personified in My Last Duchess by one of the Victorian era’s most weighty and critically-acclaimed poets, Robert Browning.

Now, although it’s in the Love and Relationships section, you’d do well to read about Porphyria’s Lover as it gives you a bit of insight into another Browning monologue. In fact, this too is a twisted love-story, in a “used to love her, but I had to kill her (or did I?)” kind of way.

We’ve moved on from the Romantics with their passions and their feelings, and into the Victorian era of poetry: bleaker and more pessimistic about life. This is the era of morality – and a superficial morality at that, where your appearance was everything and yet the Victorians were a seething mass of repressed emotions. Think Jekyll and Hyde. The advent of alternative theories about the world and about history – other than the ones set out in Genesis – the rise of sociology and texts about morality, society and humanity made people really question where our morality and our values came from. On the surface, you’ve got a society that invents policemen and puts skirts on provocatively-shaped chair legs so they don’t make anyone feel a bit sexy. Underneath, you’ve got widespread prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. Victoria had been queen for five years when this poem was published, so society is stuck more between Victorian and Romantic. It’s a long way from Jekyll and Hyde which was published in 1886, the height of that very contradictory “Victorian Morality”. Still, morality, money and power are right at the heart of this poem and influence it a great deal.

And into that context comes Robert Browning. The poem was written prior to 1842, and published in his Dramatic Lyrics which also included Porphyria’s Lover. Unlike Porphyria’s Lover, which was included in the “Madhouse Cells” section, My Last Duchess was included in the “Italy and France” section. I don’t know what that means. Does it mean that Browning didn’t think the Duke of Ferrara crazy, or that he thinks him more indicative of the Italians?

I think it’s interesting that when thinking of the literary tradition into which this poem fits, I was actually thinking more of the narrative literature and prose of the time. It is some years after Oliver Twist for example, which finds the same hypocrisies in the church and in society that you may find in Blake’s poetry. It’s also a little after the publication of Nicholas Nickleby, but it is a long way from Dickens’ social epics. I find Victorian poetry a lot darker than Romantic poetry, picking up more on the ideas of Blake than of Wordsworth. Browning made a couple of visits to Italy and was influenced by the places he visited and the stories he heard. Browning is also a master of drama, which is why I find him more like a novelist in many ways than a poet: his characters seem to weave stories of their own, albeit short.

In a few lines, with few words, Browning depicts characters that it takes lesser writers many chapters to convey. He allows us to create the backstory and to work out the mysteries of what is going on in the poems. Although it would be many years before psychology would become a field of scientific interest, he creates characters that are psychologically flawed, deeply interesting and very dramatic. Murder and monologue might be his by-lines for these poems, because you see the same theme in several of his monologues, from The Laboratory to Porphyria’s Lover. 

Not unlike that other master of the psychologically-flawed, Shakespeare, Browning takes historical characters and tells their stories. He’s just as carefree with the actual details: these are not historical biographies that he is writing. And like Shakespeare, Browning creates a voice for his characters through his use of dramatic monologue. Of course, Shakespeare’s characters’ dramatic monologues are deeply revealing of their speaker and the speaker’s state-of-mind, and these are too. A difference is that this poem is not a soliloquy. It is one side of a conversation, in which we are placed in the poem and forced to adopt the role of a character.

His poetry deals often with ‘exotic’ characters and themes. His characters are often removed from the present either in geography or in time. My Last Duchess is both of those, set in Italy in the Sixteenth Century.

So who was the real Duke of Ferrara, to whom the monologue belongs? And, more importantly, is it relevant? Let’s look at the speaker of the poem.

Alfonso II d’Este was the Duke of Ferrara from 1559 – 1597 (think of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I in England, and the tail end of the Renaissance in Italy, which was very much on the descent) and he was in fact the last Duke of Ferrara. I think that in itself is kind of interesting. You’ve got the end of Italian influence in Europe and the growth of new empires: the British, the Spanish, the French and even the Dutch, as the old world begins to colonise the new. Italy’s corrupt city states are definitely declining. Add to that a man who is at the end of his family line, and you’ve got some interesting context about a civilisation that is on the decline and yet is unaware of that.

The end of family lines was a real gothic motif in literature… you see it in The Castle of Otranto, the “first” gothic tale. Oh, and there you go, a crazy Italian noble at the end of the family line. You see it in other gothic novels as well, from The Mysteries of Udolpho to The Italian. Even Frankenstein has echoes of it: the patriarchal villain who runs the family, obsessed with family names and the continuity of the line. No doubt, then, if Browning knew the story of Alfonso II, it could have been one of the details that attracted him to use Alfonso as the character behind the monologue. Cruel and tyrannical husbands are ten-a-penny in gothic fiction. The end of the family name is another frequent gothic device, as is a historical or exotic setting.

There are other details about Alfonso II’s life that may also have appealed to Browning if he was making a conscious choice about who the monologue belonged to. He could, after all, have picked the name out of a book at random, like I used to do when writing stories – opening the telephone book and running my finger down the page until I found a surname I liked. We know Browning read about Ferrara when researching another poem called Sordello so it’s not beyond reason that something about Alfonso II stuck in his mind. In fact, in 1842, the year that the poem was probably written, Browning reviewed a book called Conjectures and Researches concerning the Love Madness and Imprisonment in Turquato Tasso by Richard Henry Wilde, which is, guess what, about love and madness in Italy… Dukes, nobles and Italian history… and perfect inspirational fodder for Browning.

So does it matter who the real Duke was? I don’t think so. I think there are aspects of Ferrara’s real life that Browning would have found intriguing, and it was a name in common circulation at the time. He had three wives, and the first of which, Lucrezia di Medici, came from an interesting family herself. Poison was suspected in her death, but it could equally have been any number of natural causes or diseases, like TB, which it is now believed that she died of. Alfonso’s death and lack of children meant that the Ferrara name all but died with him.

Ferrara was also a patron of the arts, paying for artistic works and supporting the works of many young artists, including Turquato Tasso, mentioned before. His name might not mean anything to you (or much to me) but he was one of the most popular and well-known Italian poets. A poet, who, guess what, was obsessed by the fact that he thought Ferrara was going to murder him. He also became obsessed with some of the subjects of his poetry. Still, instead of the madness of a love-tortured poet, Browning adapts it slightly and we see it from his jealous patron’s view. Like Ozymandias which picks up on the notion of the relationship between artist and patron, this does too. No wonder the true life story of Tasso and Ferrara was one that Browning thought interesting enough to write about.

So, you have the essential ingredients for a tale of intrigue: a rich aristocratic Italian, jealousy, a dead wife, artists and their subjects, Not unlike Shakespeare’s version of Richard III, however, there is a lot of fiction added to the facts, and many people believe the Browning fiction rather than the fact that it was the artist who was a bit crazy jealous.

What it is very important to do, however, is remember that this is a piece of literature, a poem, a fiction. You don’t have to know much more than the fact that Browning borrowed from real life and seemed very interested in the mysteries, intrigues and plots of late medieval Italy. Poisons, murders, plots, jealousies, suspicion, violent outbursts, intrigues… what’s not to like? There is little to link the poetic version of Alfonzo with the real life one, excepting he was an Italian noble with considerable power who had a number of wives and who was a patron of the arts.

The fictional Mrs Ferrara, a.k.a. the “Last Duchess” is therefore Lucrezia di Medici, the Duke’s first wife. The relationship depicted in the poem is as fictional as the character of the Duke himself. Still, some believed that she was poisoned.

What do we know for real?

First, she was young – only thirteen when she married Alfonzo in 1558. He was older, aged twenty-four. She died only two years into their marriage, and it was rumoured that they spent most of their marriage apart as her husband was away fighting. Some people believed that she’d been poisoned, but most people believe she died of natural causes. Still, her death, as in the poem, is all a bit of a mystery. Her family LOVED art, and her father founded one of Italy’s best art collections, the Uffizi. Her oldest sister Maria was engaged to Ferrara, but she died in 1557, meaning that Cosimo de Medici’s attempts to unite the Este family and the Medici family fell to Lucrezia. Her other older sister was in fact murdered by her jealous husband – and therein you have a loose plot that links us to My Last Duchess. In fact, her youngest brother, Pietro, some ten years her junior, was ALSO murdered by his wife because he cheated on her. However, the Medici dynasty was a relatively new dynasty, founded on a banking family, so no doubt the Medici patriarchs tried hard to make marriages that bonded the family to others. They did a good job as well, with several Popes and Queens in the mix.

The poem is actually one side of a conversation between Ferrara and the marriage broker who has come to arrange another marriage. We’d assume then that it’s either the person who’s come to arrange his second marriage or his third. Or even, why not, a mysterious fourth marriage that wasn’t forthcoming. It’s a fiction, in any case, since the first marriage he had was one to a new and upcoming family (who would have been grateful for that gift of a nine-hundred year old name) and not the second or third. His second wife lasted seven years. Interestingly, crazy poet Turquato Tusso wrote a few sonnets about Barbara, Ferrara’s second wife. She definitely died of TB. You can see Browning picking up another bit of the story that interested him (the dedications of a crazy poet) and conveniently forgot the other bits. She was the daughter of a king, so I’m pretty sure the real Ferrara wouldn’t have felt the need to impress his status upon the marriage broker. She was from the Habsburg family, not some up-starts like the Medicis. Between his second and third wife, there were seven years – suggesting perhaps an intenser period of mourning. Still, he marries his third wife, Margherita Gonzaga in 1579. She was fifteen and he was forty-five. Still, they were married for almost twenty years until the Duke died. Although she was from a minor family line, Ferrara would have had no need to threaten the marriage broker about fidelity, given that all evidence suggests that he and his second wife had a happy marriage. A story, then, that Browning plays with, without sticking to those mundane things that you or I might call facts. There is no evidence that Ferrara killed any of his wives, that he was a jealous man, or that he was the arrogant, maniacal villain depicted in the poem. That’s all from Browning’s imagination.

In terms of the context, then, you can see a little about the types of things that Browning wrote about, often using the dramatic monologue to explore the darker side of people. You can see the advent of Victorian morality and the decline of those passionate, emotion-filled poems of the Romantics. Browning has picked an interesting back-story from which he picks out some big ideas such as morality, power and fidelity, as well as exploring the relationship between artists and their subjects, as well as their patrons.

In the next post, I’ll look at the form and structure of the poem, as well as a bit of background about the monologue itself.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.


An Analysis of an extract from Wordsworth’s The Prelude: Stealing The Boat Part II

In the last post, I looked at the context and form of the extract called Stealing The Boat from Wordsworth’s The Prelude. In this post, I’ll be looking more to analyse the language and the ideas of the poem.

We’ll start with the narrative voice. Here, we have a first person narrator, Wordsworth. It is a self-titled autobiographical poem, so we have no reason to suspect it is anyone other than Wordsworth himself. Like London, the poet is at the epicentre of the experience. Unlike London, the poem is much more about what happens to Wordsworth himself, rather than him wandering about observing screaming prostitutes and unlucky soldiers. This is a private and personal event. There isn’t an audience as such, either. For that, we feel, perhaps, that we are intruding on a private moment, a confessional if you like, like reading part of his memoirs. It was a poem unfinished, so we can’t even know if Wordsworth would have wanted us to read it, though we must assume so. We are not addressed, however, and it is almost as if we are eavesdropping on this story. When we are privy to such stories, we may wonder about why we are being told, what relevance it has to us, the poet’s purpose in explaining it. We should ask: “Why is he telling us this?”

For some poems, it is didactic – a teaching poem. It has a moral message. It might be an overt moral message, or one we take from it. For instance, I take from Ozymandias the message that power is pointless. You can be the world’s biggest dictator, but all you are is dust in the desert and a long time dead. For some poems, it is as if the poet is holding up an image of the world for us to study. It’s like he has a bit of the world under a microscope and he’s using the poem to draw it to our attention. Like “Here, have you seen this?” which is what Blake is doing. It’s a political and moral message. The poem is like an exposé. So what is the purpose of this story?

For me, I think the purpose is an explanation of a sort, but it also allows him the freedom to explore an event and reflect on it. To be honest, with this poem, it’s not like he has a lot to share with you. It’s a poem that’s about him, for him. Sure, it gives you a bit of insight into his character, but beyond that, it’s a personal poem. Perhaps it seeks to explain and justify his outlook on things.

Where also the first two poems in the Power and Conflict section of the anthology are about the present, about issues or ideas that are happening in the here and now, which have a sense of the current, too, as if they will always be true, this poem is very much an event set in Wordsworth’s past. In that way, it is very different from the poems you may have explored so far.

From the beginning, Wordsworth creates a pleasant and gentle feel. It is “summer” and it is “evening”, words which create a pleasant atmosphere. None of the barren desert of Ozymandias or the blood-ridden streets of London. There’s a sense of timelessness, too, with “one summer evening”, as if he can’t pinpoint exactly which one. It has that kind of hazy memory feel, where all the days in a summer holiday seem to blend into one. We certainly wouldn’t get the impression that this is an evening of ill-omen, where bad things would happen. I’m just looking at the description of Frankenstein’s monster being made, and that is very atmospheric with its ‘dreary November’ and ‘rain’ and being ‘one in the morning’. This is decidedly NOT. It’s mild, temperate, serene and tranquil.

On that first line, we also have the parenthetic “(led by her)” in which we are asked to consider these brackets themselves, as well as the addition of the “led by her” bit. Let’s look at the brackets themselves. For me, brackets are very much an aside, an addition. There are ways and means you can do this. First, with the drifty dashes. Second with a pair of commas, and third with brackets. That’s kind of an odd choice. Were I a Poet Laureate, I might have gone with the old commas there. So why the brackets? The information contained within them is somehow less important, less part of the sentence, more coincidental. So there’s that. For me, they’re also more colloquial and less formal, which I think is important too. Many editors steer away from them, and they are something that I don’t think I use very often in my own formal writing. It lends an odd sort of addition, more informal than you might expect.

Plus, we are no doubt wondering who the mysterious female referred to is… we have no reference back to help us. Still, it’s not deliberate. Or, at least it’s not Wordsworth’s fault. He’s referring us back to earlier in the poem where he is talking about “Nature”, which he personifies as a woman.

I know she’s a hundred years later, but I like Alphonse Mucha’s version of “Summer” and I can imagine Wordsworth’s “Nature” in a similar style.

I suspect she would be a whole lot less sultry though.

Either way, she’s not such a mysterious “her” since Wordsworth’s just referring to an earlier bit the poem that you don’t have.

The final words, “I found” split up the subject and verb from their subject, causing the idea to drift onto the next line. It gives us a momentary pause before revealing what it is he found, but it also allows the idea to drift. I like the way the idea drifts – not only like Wordsworth’s memory, but like Wordsworth as a boy too. The willow tree adds to the looseness of the image as well. It’s a very “drapey” tree, with its branches trailing the water. Now, either it was really a willow tree – not a surprise given the fact that willows like watery places – but it could also be a tree that Wordsworth has chosen for its symbolic nature (like Romeo with his sycamores in Romeo and Juliet) We refer sometimes to willows as ‘weeping’ – firstly because they have drooping branches, but with the idea also comes the notion of sadness and grief. It could, then, be a tiny sign that something is wrong.

There’s no sense of who the boat belongs to, or what it’s doing there. We sense too the free-spirited Wordsworth as a child, just taking somebody’s boat (okay, let’s call it theft then) and going on a little journey. What a lovely notion that we could just take something we ‘found’ and return it later without any consequence or anyone telling you off for taking their stuff without asking. It seems like an idyll, a heaven, where things don’t belong to angry neighbours. It also shows us the innocence of the boy that he doesn’t understand the concept of theft.

Don’t forget, too, that in 1802, Paley published his premise about the Watchmaker (which also provides a bit of context for Ozymandias) in which he states that if we came across a watch on our path, we would necessarily wonder about who made it, what it was doing there. In the same way, it suggests that perhaps the boat was there for a purpose. It makes us wonder about who the boat belongs to, what it is doing there, why Nature would take Wordsworth to it. Now I don’t know whether Wordsworth ever read or even heard of Paley’s Watchmaker theory about the world and God, but in the same way (just as in Ozymandias) it forces us to ask the same questions. Whose is the boat? What is it doing there? Why is it there? Who left it there? Those questions in themselves are puzzles.

You will find different renditions of “cove” or “cave” by the way. My Bloom and Trilling edition of Romantic Poetry and Prose says “cave” but I don’t think trees grow in caves. Cove seems to work better. See how important it is that your editor checks your work?

There’s a determination and energy about Wordsworth as “Straight I unloosed her chain” – it’s interesting that both Nature and the boat are females (well, boats are girls… ask any shipbuilder) but in the use of these ambiguous pronouns, the “her” of the first line seems to link with the “her” in this line too. You could read it as if it’s the same “her”, or not. Either way, there’s a female mystique at work in this passage, a gentle, playful spirit that encourages Wordsworth to break away from society and explore. If you want to read the first “her” as the same, you could see it as if the boat itself compels Wordsworth to come and free her, like he’s a knight in shining armour. For me, though, I think the first “her” goes back to the lines you don’t have, to Nature, and the second is a “her” as in the boat. I don’t think it’s ambiguous when you have the whole poem.

You’ve got three active verbs in this bit “unloosed…. stepping… pushed…” which gives the poem a bit of energy at this point, a bit of action.

Were we in any doubt about the innocence of the boy and his taking of the boat, the next lines clear that up. “It was an act of stealth.” Now either the young Wordsworth knows this at the time, and he is therefore not the innocent boy he would have you believe, or he realises it as an adult. For me, I think he knew well at the time that he was stealing the boat, not quite the innocent. Why is this important? Because we have a character who is already moving into adulthood, who is already “experienced” as Blake would tell you. Wordsworth’s very much a man who believes in the fact that children are born innocent, are born good, (like Blake) which he takes from a very influential idea by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Without meaning to reduce ideas to something digestible for GCSE, essentially, Rousseau thought that children should learn more through life, and much less through education in school. He thought that if we all looked at the world around us, if we all became curious explorers, we’d make sense of the puzzles that the world lays out before us and come to an understanding ourselves.

Is that not what happens in this poem? A boy goes on a journey and discovers the world for himself?

But what we have is a boy who learns a very powerful lesson indeed that day, as he takes the boat.

He understands very well that it was “an act of stealth/And troubled pleasure”

The first part of his journey is quite beautiful, as the boat leaves “behind her still” only the ripples as it cuts through the water. I think the ripples too are important: how it reminds us that everything leaves an imprint, as this is what the poem is about: the events in life that leave an imprint on us. For instance, I remember when I was about 9 or so, my friend and I threw a rosehip at a car that went past. The lady who was driving got out and told us off. It was the first time I think that anyone had really told me off, and the first time that I recall realising that you can’t just have fun and hope that it doesn’t leave a mark on someone else. I know it’s the first time I remember feeling really ashamed. This kind of experience is what the experts call a “formative experience” – one that shapes who you are, that alters the very course of your life. It has a strong influence on everything that comes after. For Wordsworth, this incident is about to become a formative experience – the events that happen in your life that determine what you think and believe.

When he describes the “small circles glittering idly in the moon”, I think it’s very beautiful. The repetition of the “i” sound (both short and long) gives it a kind of interesting sound and you can make of that what you want. For me, the “i” is a kind of short, detached sound, maybe not unlike the drops from the oars themselves. What Wordsworth notices is the way the individual droplets all join together eventually to form the wake of the boat as it cuts through the water. That in itself is not unlike the experiences in The Prelude, how they are all separate and distinct events that merge together to trace the route his life has taken. It picks up on the ideas of ripples and reflections. When we think of our lives as adults, we too can track back to those formative experiences that have had an impact on us now, and just like someone staring at a puddle, we can track back through the ripples to find the source. He could also be playing with the notion of “reflection” which works as an actual physical reflection, like in a mirror or in water, but in an abstract sense to say those things which we consider deeply and seriously.

I just love the way those “glittering” circles merge together into “one track of sparkling light”. It sounds magical and perfect. It’s the kind of scene that painters would seek to capture.


It’s a very beautiful, tranquil image and Wordsworth recreates here that moment in a very visual and atmospheric way.

We have a caesura mid-line with “But now, like one who rows,” where the scene takes on even more momentum. This feels like a Wordsworth driven to explore, to achieve something. He determines on a goal, the “utmost horizon”, his focus absolute, “an unswerving line”. You can find a very good link to a wonderful diagram that shows this whole purpose of navigation and how also that mountains can appear out of nowhere, rising up from behind such a craggy point. You’ve got plenty of words here that suggest that he is driven, focused, he is “fixed” and “unswerving”, dedicated and tenacious, and I wonder what it is that is driving him on, spurring him on in his journey, except that desire, perhaps, to conquer the “utmost boundary” – it’s like he’s chasing the horizon itself. I think we get a sense of Wordsworth’s drive to discover.

The magic continues with his description of the boat as “elfin”, as if the boat is something quite supernatural, something perhaps enchanted.

At the end of the “elfin pinnace”, Wordsworth leaves the word “lustily” dangling there, kind of demanding contemplation and discussion. Lustily. So, full of energy and enthusiasm, like if you have a lust for life. It suggests to me this passion, his desire to get to his destination, wherever that might be – for all journeys are about a destination, aren’t they? His desire to reach “the horizon’s utmost boundary”, to get to the answer to whatever mystery it is that he is chasing.

Wordsworth’s simile captures the smoothness and the grace of his movement in the boat, “like a swan”, which gives that notion of cutting through the water effortlessly, like he too has become part of nature. There’s a gracefulness and also a sense of his effort. The word “heaving” gives us both of those – the difficulty of moving a boat through water with nothing but oars, as well as the rhythmic and easy way in which he makes the boat move. It’s tough and physically demanding, but he makes it look easy. Wordsworth is feeling on top form and ready to take on the world.

NOW… and only now, after painting this magical picture, do we get a turning point, where Nature takes on a more frightening presence. It starts with the “When,” which is followed with a comma, adding a bit of weight to it. But we have a delay with an embedded detail that follows, “from behind that craggy steep til then/the horizon’s bound,”… you could take this whole detail out. These ten words only serve as a precision, not a necessary detail at all, and it forces us to slow down, adding suspense and delay to the action that follows, “a huge peak,” which he reiterates as “black and huge” – six monosyllabic words, two of them repeated, “huge”, serves to emphasise the threat. Wordsworth uses a simile to bring it to life, “as if with voluntary power instinct, upreared its head.”

I want to look a little at the sentence that ends with “upreared its head”. Look where it starts.

“She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,”

That is a full eight lines before! That is one enormous sentence indeed.

Look at it without line breaks:

“She was an elfin pinnace; lustily I dipped my oars into the silent lake, and, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat went heaving through the water like a swan; when from behind that craggy steep till then the horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, as if with voluntary power instinct upreared its head.”

57 words, two semi-colons, six commas, two conjunctions (one subordinating and one coordinating), a simile, a metaphor, some personification, plenty of embellishment, nine adjectives. That’s a pretty monumental sentence.

Let’s strip it back to bare essentials. No metaphors, no similes, no adjectives. No semi-colons and no commas

“She was a pinnace. I dipped my oars into the lake. My boat heaved through the water as I rose upon the stroke. A peak appeared from behind a hill.”

You can see then just how much drama Wordsworth embeds into the sentence. He’s playing with you, the reader, trying to inspire the same feelings in you as he had himself, leaving you breathless with the effort of reading that enormous, mountainous sentence yourself, just as he was breathless with the effort of rowing. He gives you the magic, the “elfin”, he gives you his zest for life, “lustily”, he gives you the shock factor, that mid-stroke, he sees the peak appear. He gives you sooooo much delay and a colossal build-up… “And, … as I rose upon the stroke, … my boat … went heaving through the water like a swan; …… when, … from behind that craggy steep till then … the horizon’s bound, … a huge peak, … black and huge, …… as if with voluntary power instinct … upreared its head.”

What happens is ‘a huge peak appeared.’ but look at the way Wordsworth makes us wait from that turning point “And.” THIRTY-SIX redundant words “And… a huge peak… upreared its head.” as well as TWELVE pauses of a sort (commas, semi-colons and line breaks). It’s like Wordsworth is doing everything in his mighty poet power to stop you getting to the end of that sentence speedily. In one sentence we go from magic to terrifying. One single stroke of the oars turns the evening from enchanted to horrifying.

Magnificent, Mr Wordsworth, quite magnificent.

Well, it’s no wonder I was thinking of Frankenstein’s monster here… who also comes to life in a mysterious and mystical way. That previously benign supernatural fairy-like magical presence suddenly takes on a chill turn. You too would no doubt be a little frightened if a huge mountain seemed to wake up.

For the first time here, Wordsworth’s feelings about the joy and beauty of nature take on a menacing and ominous presence. Nature, here, feels dark and dangerous. It’s no longer a gentle “she” as the mountain is an “it”, like a monster. The young Wordsworth is frightened by the sudden appearance of the “huge peak” and rows faster to escape it – but all that happens is that it grows (you really need to check out the link earlier that explains why that happens – nothing magical about it!). The repetition of the word “struck” in “struck and struck again” shows the poet’s growing fear and panic, as he tries to get away from the monstrous appearance, but the “huge peak” continues “growing still in stature”. He calls it the “grim shape” which makes it seem sinister and fierce, and the word “towered” emphasises its enormity.

In a way, I wonder if the “huge peak” and the fear it inspires in him is Wordsworth’s growing guilt at having stolen the boat and taken off on a watery joy-ride. Either way, it gets bigger and bigger, terrifying the young poet. Not only does it grow to menacing and terrifying proportions, it also seems to move, “with purpose of its own/And measured motion like a living thing,” – it, not unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, is alive – or seems to be. There are moments where Wordsworth says “as if” and “or so it seemed” which shows an adult voice reflecting on his childhood fear, but I have little doubt that the young Wordsworth believed very sincerely that the mountain had come to life and was pursuing him. Just like Victor Frankenstein, you’ve got a creature that pursues you just as actively as your guilt does. No escaping a feeling of guilt!

So much, then, for all of his innocent “in’t nature brilliant?” feelings at the beginning. In this moment, he sees Nature as something terrifying and frightening, looming and menacing. Wordsworth, the great nature lover, with his poems about daffodils and wandering lonely as a cloud and the heavenliness of nature, beauteous evenings and the loveliness of rainbows, is here terrified by the duality of Nature. Nature’s dark side. But what is it that provokes Nature’s dark side?

The stealing of the boat itself maybe?

The image becomes more horrifying indeed when Wordsworth tells us that the peak “strode after” him. That’s a very telling and interesting word, conveying both the passion and the haste of the peak – it seems to gain in life very quickly indeed.

For this reason, the story takes on another turn. Wordsworth turns around and rows back “through the silent water”. The use of the word “stole” here in “stole my way” is interesting. It echoes the stealing of the boat, of course, but it also means that he moved back through the water stealthily. It’s a word that means “theft”, referring to taking the boat without permission, but it also means moving stealthily and secretly, with none of the pride and passion he felt before. Gone is that pride in his marvellous rowing and now he creeps back home. Before, he was all “Proud of [his] skill” and ‘look at me with my marvellous rowing like a swan in my stolen boat’ and now he’s creeping back through the water, like the thief he is, trying to escape this half-man/half-mountain who’s risen out of the ground like a monster to chase him in the dark. There’s a real contrast between his going and his return. In the going, it was magical and enchanted, but now it is “silent’ and dark.

He takes the boat back to the place he took it, the covert of the cave/cove and then goes home “in grave and serious mood”.

The event lingers in his mind though as he struggles to come to terms with the two sides of nature, and what troubles him are these “unknown modes of being” – how little we know about the planet, about how there is so much more to understand about the world. It leaves him feeling lost, alienated and alone. Rowing out on that lake has left him with a profound sense of isolation and loneliness, “call it solitude/Or blank desertion.” The caesura there adds a nice emphasis to the “blank desertion” to show how Wordsworth feels utterly lost, abandoned by a world in which he felt at one. He’s haunted by the “huge and mighty forms” that move slowly “through the mind by day” and give him nightmares at night. Sounds very much like Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” there.

So where is the power, and where is the conflict?

First, you have the power of Nature, which we’ve not looked at before. The terrifying nature of the world around us is certainly an issue explored in other poems (my favourite is Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist in which he is terrified by some loved-up frogs) and this is a moment at which Wordsworth, who usually wanders like a cloud and whose mind “dances with the daffodils”, comes to realise there are some weird and preternatural things out there. In fact, it puts me in mind of the sands in Ozymandias which have more power over life and death than Ozymandias himself, who have eternity on their side, long, long after tyrannous dictators have disappeared. We are a long time dead, and the world around us will live on when we are long-since forgotten. It’s like Wordsworth has woken up to the power and might of the world, which forces him to contemplate our own puny and short-lived, insignificant existence. making him realise that the world is a cold and lonely place. Instead of enjoying that solitude as Wordsworth does in other poems, he is frightened by it. That anxiety and anguish in feeling our own insignificance can be a depressing and frightening experience.

As for conflict, unlike Blake who sees the conflict of man vs mind around him, but does not feel it within him, this is a first-person account of the conflict that comes from within, where we battle with two different ideas and can’t make sense of the world. It is very much an internal conflict that Wordsworth explores here, a conflict of conscience in many ways, as he links the notion of stealing the boat with the sense that Nature itself will rise up to punish him.

There is such a lot going on in this poem that it is no doubt going to be one that challenges you to write about it, especially in consideration to the difficulty of selecting a few brief moments to write about and compare with other poems in the Power And Conflict section of the anthology. Some poems just give you such a lot to get your teeth into. This is one of them. Good luck!

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