An analysis of the context, form and structure of Bayonet Charge

Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes gets its second outing as a GCSE English Literature anthology poem for AQA, having previously been included in the last. Whilst it may not be his best poetic offering, it fits well within the Power and Conflict section and compares easily with other war poems such as The Charge of the Light Brigade as well as those that explore the battle with nature such as Exposure or even Storm on the Island.

Context… Ted Hughes, like Heaney, is a poet who often explores nature in his poems. I don’t think he’s as accessible as Heaney, which is why you find fewer of his poems littering anthologies, although some of his poems are popular in collections. Like Wordsworth and Tennyson, he was also Poet Laureate, which shows in some measure his popularity. Hughes’ father served during World War One and fought at Ypres. This poem is from his first collection, published in 1957, The Hawk in the Rain, which contains a number of poems about the war. The most interesting images in this collection as you might be able to work out from the title are the way he uses animals to explore a number of themes. The Thought Fox, View of a Pig and Pike are three of his poems that focus on animals and use them to explore other themes. The collection itself is noted for its use of rhythm and the way Ted Hughes, not unlike Heaney, also uses the sounds of words for specific effect and to complement the ideas in his poems.

In terms of ideas in the poem, it compares well with Charge of the Light Brigade simply because of those graphic, violent images.

When we start looking at the form of the poem, we see that it’s written in free verse. We see those three stanzas of seven or eight lines – there’s a loose regularity, but nothing you would feel compelled to comment on. The stanzas are as long as they need to be and do not force the poem or box it into corners by requiring it to be more ‘neat’. You’ll notice the stanzas blend into one another, as we consider how the ideas are structured and we see that the first stanza runs into the second, and the second runs into the third. I think that it is more than appropriate to convey the sense of motion in the poem, to echo the way the soldier moves through the poem. The first line of stanza two seems to be very much a part of the first stanza, and then the second line changes subject, as he stops and reflects on the “cold clockwork” – almost like the soldier is frozen in motion as his mind reflects on the events, or like the poet deliberately (almost) stops him in mid-charge to interject this reflection on what it is the soldier is doing here.

Similarly as we move into stanza three, the last line of stanza two seems like it would be better placed in stanza three, but the gap between the stanzas very much emphasises the shot-slashed furrows. I’ll talk more about why he runs an idea into stanza two from stanza one, and why he leaves that little fragment of stanza three hanging back there in stanza two, but the overall effect is one of a disjointed, fragmented and fractured moment.

The poem is not driven or constrained by rhythm and rhyme in the same way that other poems are. One of the focal points we might notice about the form of the poem is that it makes a lot of use of enjambment, with two noticeably enjambed lines in stanza one, the “raw/in raw-seamed hot khaki,” and “hearing/bullets smacking the belly out of the air” where the rest of the line breaks kind of fall where you would expect them to. That begs us to consider why he runs these lines into the next, why he wants to break up these phrases. For me, he leaves that word “raw” hanging at the end of the line, making it more important somehow, especially given the repetition of the word. It really makes us reflect on that rawness. And in the second, there is a gap between “hearing” and what he hears, the “bullets”, which seems to slow them down – a tiny, mini pause on paper that we don’t hear in the reading. That word “hearing” dangles… We’d read it and wonder what it is he hears, it’s like the word “bullets” catches up a microsecond later.

In stanza two, we also have some interesting use of enjambment, focusing us on the words “running” and “runs”. The lines literally run into the next line. When you take that huge sentence, split over four lines, you are obliged to think about why Hughes has written it this way:

                                                                                     He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride.

That 35-word sentence is long. It leaves us breathless to read. That’s its first effect… we are as breathless as he is. I’m reading, desperate for the comma after “still running”, and by the time I get there, I’m breathless. It makes that breath-pause comma-stop even more necessary and when I read it aloud, I find myself stopping there for longer than I would to catch my breath. For me, it emphasises the need to get to the target (the comma) in order to breathe again… I’m conscious of needing to get there, just as the soldier must be to get to the safety of his target – “the green hedge”. I’ll talk more about how he uses enjambment to add meaning to those active verbs in the next post exploring the language and imagery in the poem.

In the third stanza, we also have some noticeable enjambment between “wide/open silent”, splitting the idea over two lines. I think this does a similar thing as it has done in other parts of the poem. The line breaks stop us in mid-phrase, leaving us hanging for a microsecond, as if time has just stopped still at that moment. I don’t know why but it reminds me of when they slow film down and you can see the individual frozen moments that make up a movie. It seems to capture that moment like a photograph and freeze it, like they’re in suspended animation. At the very least, it allows us to process the image, to take it in. But where he splits phrases across lines, those line breaks seem to me to be a chasm of a pause rather than just a line break. The effect for me is that it seems to put the soldier – or the hare – into suspension, stopping them for a brief moment before continuing.

When we consider structure, the poem starts as if the man has awoken from sleep. It drops us right into the action alongside the soldier when it starts with “Suddenly he awoke”. It’s disorienting and confusing. We have no idea what woke him or why he is running, or indeed who “he” is. Like Heaney’s and Owen’s ambiguous “we”, this “he” gives us no idea who “he” is, although the title will, of course, have filled us in on what is happening here. The title gives us a sense of what is going on and why he is running – it’s essential in order to make meaning from the first line that we understand the title. But it gives us a little of the soldier’s confusion and disorientation.

The poem narrates two moments: the soldier running, and then the appearance of the hare. We notice the word “then” at the end of the second stanza which shifts us on to the next moment. It’s a brief incident, but it is described in such detail that it becomes almost slow motion, with each action distinct. The introduction of the hare seems almost surreal, and we’re reminded that in order for the man to pass the hare, the hare’s “threshing circle” must be its death throes. It wouldn’t make sense any other way.

I find the ending the most interesting aspect of the structure: does the soldier get to the hedge or not? We don’t know. It is left unfinished. The fact that the poem is also past tense means that Hughes could have made that clear, had he wanted to, but it finishes with the final moment being the soldier’s wish to get to the hedge, “to get out of that blue crackling air” – and that’s where it finishes. We never know if he survives or if he dies. It’s a bit of a philosophical dilemma – like Schrodinger’s cat. You’ll need to get someone better at explaining complex quantum physics to tell you about Schrodinger’s cat, but essentially the dilemma is this: there is a cat in a box. It’s either alive or dead. Until you open the box, it is BOTH alive AND dead. I have no idea what the comparison is supposed to explore, but the soldier is in that same state. It’s possible he lived, it’s possible he died. Both things are true and not true. The poem finishes with the uncertainty over the man’s life. We don’t know who he is, which war this is, when this is, where this is, and we finish the poem not even knowing if he is alive or dead. In this way, Hughes leaves us with an enormous mystery which leaves us feeling unsettled.

The poem is not just observational – there are moments where we go into the mind of the soldier. By the last four lines of the poem, it has become much more subjective as Hughes takes us into the inner thoughts of the soldier. What had been largely observational and focused on external actions is now focused on telling us that the soldier has forgotten all the nobility, the glory of war and is only now fixed on saving himself. We have a structural shift then from external actions to internal thoughts as we arrive at the final lines. That subjectivity touches us too as a reader: we cannot help but feel like we want him to get to safety, but we are cheated of that knowledge.

In the next post, I’ll look at how Hughes uses language and imagery in Bayonet Charge, exploring the words he chooses and how he uses the sound of language for effect as well as some of the ideas within the poem.

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 form and structure of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

In last week’s post, I looked at the context behind Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology, “Power and Conflict”. The poem was one of the first real-time responses to war reportage in the newspapers, written in Tennyson’s role as Poet Laureate. This post will look in more detail at the form and structure of the poem to help you write about it in any exam.

Some of you may be wondering what I have in my head when I come to a poem to think about the form and structure. I have a kind of loose framework of things I might want to think about:


How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form? 


This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening? 

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

So how do I apply this to “The Charge of the Light Brigade”?

One thing I know about Tennyson is that he loves rhyme, rhythm and metre. I’ll be looking at how he uses these three techniques to give a really rollicking rhythm to the poem, and why he does that. I’ll do my usual as well: bit of feature spotting, which is all very well, but not worth very much, and a bit of commentary on the writer’s purpose as well as the effect on the reader.

Firstly, the stanzas. There’s no real regularity, is there? 8 lines, 9 lines… then 9, 12, 11 and 6. Not particularly even. So I can wonder to myself if he’s just used the number of lines that felt natural to use, or whether there’s a kind of sense of build up to something in the fourth and fifth stanzas. Six lines seems like a brief conclusion.

Then there’s also the way it reads, the way Tennyson has used rhythm. We’ll explore more about that later, but it’s a poem that’s very easy to read aloud. That’s very purposeful. It reads like a poem designed for performance, not a poem designed to be constrained by the page. The line breaks, the rhythm, the rhyme and the metre all make the poem very easy to read aloud. You’ll not notice yourself tripping over words.

But when you get down into the mechanics of those techniques, it’s not always so neat. I don’t think you notice the lack of neatness when you are reading it, but it’s not quite so neat as you’d expect.

First the syllables. Well, it’s a bit like the stanzas. Loosely regular, but then not. Lots of six-syllable lines in there, and some sevens. The five-syllable final line might not be all that it looks, so we’ll look at that a little more.

All six stanzas finish with what appears to be a five-syllable line:

Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Not the six hundred
Left of six hundred
Noble six hundred

But you could actually say “hundred” (normally two syllables, hun-dred) as three syllables: hun-der-ed. According to one of Tennyson’s friends, W. F. Rawnsley, in Lincolnshire, Tennyson’s home county, the pronunciation would have been hun-der-ed. That gives you something else to think about.

Still, there are reasons I like it to be five syllables and not six. The first is that we’ve got another line in each stanza that is most definitely five syllables:

Rode the six hundred
Some one had blundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the world wondered
Shattered and sundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the wold wondered

Now apart from the fact that these lines rhyme with the end line of each stanza, they’re also five syllables. I’m pretty sure, whilst I can accept hun-der-ed as a pronunciation, nobody would say thun-der-ed or won-der-edSo for that reason, I like it as a five.

I’m pretty sure with the rhyme of these two pairs of lines that Tennyson is using them to not only weave the poem together but also to form these pairs of lines, which are a bit like stopping points holding the poem together. Each stanza has at least two. If the stanza has eight lines, the fourth and eighth are these ones. It’s like the mid-point of each stanza (or just before). In my copy, the lines are also indented on the page. That’s three reasons that these lines form neat pairs. So five is what I’m going with.

These lines have a really driving rhythm. Dactyl (STRESS-unstressed-unstressed) and then a trochee (STRESS-unstressed) You start off with a really strong beat and kind of get carried along with it. These are probably random and pointless words to you. But a dactyl was a bit new-fangled. You see it a lot in that crazy-eyed Walt Whitman in the USA, and also in Browning. Not only does this then emphasise certain words but gives it a great pace:

SHATT-ered and SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and THUNDered

In fact, this poem is one of the best examples of dactylic rhythm that there is. The dactyl is the first three syllables and the trochee is the second:

SHATT-ered and /SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and /THUNDered

All of this complicated stuff about rhythm is not so important. Saying there’s a dactyl followed by a trochee won’t impress the examiner any more than identifying a simile would. What is important is that the rhythm is rousing and fast paced, easy to scan and read aloud. It’s a galloping beat. The effect is more important than the techniques. Tennyson used these rhythms to give the impression of the speed and haste of the battle, the confident beat emphasises the ‘charge’.

The other noticeable thing about the form is that it includes such a lot of monosyllabic lines. The first two lines give it a kind of echo of horses at full gallop

DUM-dee-DUM, DUM-dee-DUM

The rhythm and monosyllables give it a real pace, like the men, like the cavalry charge.

In terms of the structure, this is a third-person narrative, so it has an outsider’s point of view: this is Tennyson’s poem and his feelings about the event, narrative as it may be. Where we see words like “noble”, this is Tennyson’s view of the event. Our first question must always be to wonder what his view is, and what his aim is. Why write this poem?

For me, despite the error that caused this catastrophe, it’s a celebration of the battle, a commemmoration. Tennyson wanted to put it onto the historical map. Of all the battles, this is one he thought worth memorialising. What is it about the battle that he finds worth commemorating? The bravery of the men against all odds seems to be the one thing that Tennyson finds worth writing a poem about. Their blind loyalty. Their continued courage despite the fact they know they’re outgunned.

It’s also past tense, which also gives it a quality of a narrative in the same way as the third-person viewpoint. I’m guessing everyone who read the poem at the time would have known the situation and the outcome – a bit like a poem about 9/11 maybe. The ending is never going to be a surprise for someone reading this at the time that Tennyson published it. It might be for a more modern audience – there are few battles that we remember outside of individual events, and most of those are fairly well known… the battle of Hastings… the battle of the Somme… the battle of Agincourt… the battle of Waterloo… the battle of Trafalgar.

But some of those battles fade in our minds or blend into the whole war itself. I’m guessing, unless you are a bit of a history buff, that battles like the battle of Fulford, the battle of Tewkesbury or the battle of Corunna are less well known to you. The Charge of the Light Brigade isn’t even a battle in itself, it’s just an event within a battle within a war. I bet even if I said the Battle of Balaclava and the Crimean War, you might still be none the wiser. It’s through Tennyson’s poem that this event has been remembered.

We start in the middle of the action, with no preamble or introduction to the event. The title itself would be enough for Tennyson to give contemporary readers the knowledge they would need of the who, the what, the where and the when. For modern readers, it’s a little less clear: we might need to do a bit of research to know where this takes place and who was involved, when it happened and what went on. Starting in the middle of the action puts us bang slap in the middle of the action. The technical term for this is in medias res which means to drop you into the middle of the action and fill in the details afterwards. Usually, writers will use flashback or description of past events to tell you what happened, which is exactly what Tennyson does. Starting in the middle of the action makes it really dramatic – it’s a technique used in narrative all the time. Think of how often you get it in films or in fiction.

For this reason, the poem is non-linear. We get stanza one, which inserts us into the action in the moments that the ‘Charge!’ command has been given. In stanza two, we get the backstory behind the charge – “someone had blundered” – and we dip into a little observational comment from Tennyson, “Their’s not to make reply…” before coming right back to the action again with the cannon on either side of them, the sabres flashing. In stanza four, we shift perspective a little as we step back from the battle scene to consider “while/All the world wondered”. In stanza four and five, they also mark their retreat. The final stanza acts as a conclusion, another Tennyson commentary on the events, including some direct commands in “Honour the charge they made” and his final interjection: “Noble six hundred!”

The structure, then, is mostly linear with a tiny bit of exposition about why this happened, but no context at all. The narrative is peppered with Tennyson’s own commentary and feelings as he comments on the events.

The poem takes place in one single setting: the battlefield outside Balaklava in the disputed Russian/Ukrainian province of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. It is also one single moment in time: the charge itself. It has a brief exit from the setting and time, when Tennyson steps back to consider how the rest of the world feel about the event and to step back in time to comment that “someone had blundered”. We get a focus on the six hundred as a whole without considering any specific cavalryman individually. As such it sees the troops as one single force.

Tennyson creates a poem that has many threads that hold the narrative together. First, there are rhythmic threads and there are threads held together by rhyme. There are repeated threads, with echoes of the six hundred throughout. We’ll look more at repetition and the language devices used by Tennyson to create a cohesive narrative in the next post which will explore language and imagery in much more detail.

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 language and imagery in Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess

So, you’ve read the last two posts on the context, form and structure of Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess and now you want to know more about the language… this post will help you understand some of the main ways in which the poet is using language.

There are two real purposes in Browning’s use of language in the poem. One is to create the portrait of the Duke through what he says, and one is to create a verbal portrait of the Duchess (as opposed to the artistic portrait mentioned in the poem)

As always, I’m interested in what Browning is doing and why he might be doing it. I’m conscious always of what it makes me think about the aspects Browning talks about in the poem. On former exam papers, we called this technique and purpose and although the language might have changed a bit, the ideas are the same.

From the beginning of the poem, it’s clear we’ve entered in mid-conversation and that this is one side of a discussion. The word “That” is a pronoun that indicates an object  – a pointing word if you will – that refers to something that has been mentioned before. Thus, it’s clear from the word that there is some preceding context that we’re not aware of as a reader, but it also puts us into an active scene where the Duke is indicating something. Think of “this” and “that” and how they ‘point to’ an object. “That” doesn’t just refer to an object, it can refer to a person as well, in this case, and the first line makes it clear that he is indicating the Duchess, rather than the painting. Browning’s using it as an indicator to talk about something we can’t see, only imagine: the Duchess, not the painting. I don’t know about you, but it feels kind of dismissive and desultory, insulting even, calling her “that”.

We also get the possessive pronoun “my” which sets out his stall straight away: she belonged to him. Or rather, she didn’t. As we learn later, she never truly belonged to him. But the possessive pronoun shows a kind of interesting idea of ownership and belonging, which is picked up through the rest of the poem.

And then “last” – also a little rude, kind of throwaway. It’s like when men refer to their wives jokingly as “The current Mrs Jones” implying that there will be others. It implies an unspoken time limit in a way, which is what makes it sound throwaway to me. Forget all of this “in sickness and in health” business, or mourning periods that went on for years like Queen Victoria’s. It’s careless and there isn’t the remotest sense of grief, sadness or guilt in that word “last”.

It becomes clear that not only is Browning taking on a role, but he’s also inviting the reader to take on one as well: that of the person he is speaking to in the scene. We don’t know whose part we are playing yet – that only becomes clear at the end – but it’s like we’ve been transported onto this stage, in front of this painting, and the Duke has suddenly come to life, talking to us.

In the second line, the phrase “looking as if she were alive” also tells us part of the story: it perhaps refers to the quality of the painting, but also refers to his wife’s life. On the one hand, the painting is so realistic that it literally looks like it might move any minute. On the other, it reveals to the reader that his wife is dead. We actually need this information if we are going to play the part of the marriage broker (which we later realise that we are), since I’m pretty sure the marriage broker for the “next” Duchess would be aware that his previous wife was dead. This kind of double meaning is evident through the whole poem, and you can take many things in a dual way, especially the threats.

Funnily, I said last time that the Duke reminds me in some ways of Hannibal Lecter, and he does here. All these double meanings remind me of Hannibal saying that he was “going to have an old friend for dinner” – normal, obvious meaning is that he is having an old friend around to eat dinner with. Psychopath crazy meaning is that he is going to eat an old friend for dinner.

Here, it prompts a re-reading, a reassessment, as we find out more about the Duke and can see the way he plays with words. (Or, the way Browning makes him play with words).

You might, for instance, on first reading, think that the Duke calls the “piece” a “wonder” because he is grieving and it allows him to remember his wife. Often, people keep photographs of their dead loved ones and the photograph or painting reminds them of how much they loved their husband or wife. They get great pleasure from it because the person is no longer with them. Those paintings or photos are wonderful to them because they allow them to ‘see’ their loved one again. On second reading, we wonder who “that piece” refers to… and it seems to be the painting (well, the way he feels about his wife as we later see, he certainly wouldn’t be calling her “a wonder”) which is our first hint that there is something a little hinky about him. Why on earth would you think the painting was wonderful in itself and not because it reminded you of your late wife, unless the painting has come to mean more than your wife ever did?

Imagine the scene: your loved wife has died. The photographer who took your wedding photos gives you a photo of your wife. Your first reaction is “what wonderful lighting and I love the way the shot is composed!”

You just wouldn’t, would you?

Browning shows us that the Duke certainly appears to be more interested in the painting itself than he is in what it captured. We even get that in the next lines where he says “she” and “her” – it seems fairly ambiguous at points that he’s even talking about his wife and not the painting (some people do use gender-specific pronouns for inanimate objects, like calling cars and boats by female pronouns) If you like, apparently, you can even use “she” to talk about a country, like “Mother Russia” or even your gun. I don’t think that the Duke is using it to talk about the painting, but even so, there’s a real sense that he’s more admiring of the woman immortalised in the painting (and more pleased by the painting itself) than he is about his actual wife. Again, it smells like a psychopath to me, someone who seems to appreciate art, but not life.

On line 3, we have the first name-dropping. Browning creates a real portrait of a man who loves to name-drop artists. Who does that and why would Browning give us this detail? One reason is that it shows the Duke to be more obsessed by names and status, than by his wife. He wants to impress the marriage broker. It’s all: “Look at me, with my original artwork by arty geniuses”. You look at the people who have artwork on their walls… it’s often a status symbol rather than actual art appreciation. Let’s face it: all the people who really love art aren’t likely to have a genuine Picasso or Van Gogh on their wall. You can look at all the people who own original artwork by famous artists and you’ll see that it’s a) rich American business men b) rich Saudi business men c) Kings and the likes d) rich Russian business men or e) massive great big businesses. You can add rich Chinese, Japanese and Mexican businessmen to the list as well. So who owns fancy artwork? People who want to show their power, their wealth and their culture. Not people who truly appreciate art.

That’s exactly what that “Frà Pandolf” reference is designed to do: show the marriage broker how powerful, how rich and how cultured the Duke is. He doesn’t just namedrop once though, he repeats it with “I said/’Frà Pandolf’ by design” as if the negotiator might not have heard him.

And what does it really do? Show us how vain, possessive and foolish the Duke really is. It shows us a man who pretends to have this cultured side, this appreciation of art, this delicacy and ability to recognise fine art, yet it reveals him to be a crass snob who is more bothered by status and possessions than he is by any actual appreciation of art.

On line 5, Browning is using mock-polite language in an interesting way… look at that question, “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” Do you think the marriage broker is of an equal status to the Duke? I doubt it. I doubt too that this is a genuinely polite request, more a “sit and do as you’re told whilst I make it clear to you how it’s going to be…” kind of question. I don’t think there’s any point at which the audience (or in this case the reader) is supposed to say, “no, thanks. I don’t want to look at a painting of your dead wife, thanks.”

However, the way the question is asked makes it seem as if we – the marriage broker – have a choice. I think it’s that question that reveals the Duke’s thinly-veiled threats. He has the ability to make everything seem charming, but really you don’t have a choice.

It also reiterates another very important point: the Duke is clearly in control of who looks at his wife (well, the portrait of her) and it’s his decision who sees her or not. This is seen again when he adds the aside later of “(since none puts by/the curtain I have drawn for you, but I)” which again shows how now the Duke has absolute control over who sees his former wife and who doesn’t. He is in absolute control over her (or the image of her). Ironic, really, since he could not control in real life who looked at her or who appreciated her.

When he says, “for never read/Strangers like you that pictured countenance”, the Duke is reiterating his control: this portrait and the look it captured is very much under his control. He chooses who sees it and who doesn’t.

What I find particularly interesting in the poem is this “pictured countenance” as it seems the Duke is obsessed by the look on his wife’s face, her “earnest glance” and “the spot of joy” on “the Duchess’s cheek”. Either it captures the blush of a woman who is flattered by the attentions of the painter, or the feelings of the painter for his subject, but it captures this very intimate moment between the painter Frà Pandolf and the Duchess.

Now that’s a bit weird.

Either the Duke thinks they’re cheating on him, or he’s angry that his wife was so easily flattered…. whatever was going on, or not, between the painter and the Duchess, it’s a painting that captures a private moment between the two of them.

And this is the painting the Duke chooses to keep.

I kind of wonder if he keeps it behind the curtain so that people won’t ask him why his wife had “a spot of joy” on his face, or if he himself can’t bear to look at this image that is in essence a private moment between the Duchess and the painter. Either way, it’s a weird thing to keep around.

Like… say for instance a famous rock star wrote a song about your girlfriend or boyfriend, when it was clear there were pretty intense feelings between the two, would you buy the limited edition and keep playing it?

That’s a weird, weird thing to do. Whether the Duke thought they were being unfaithful or whether he just thought his wife was a dumb social climber who wasn’t discerning enough to ignore the flattery of a poor artist, why would you keep around an image that reminds you of the one thing that really annoyed you about them?

The only reason I can think the Duke might do this is that the painting by itself (or even the person who painted it) is more significant than the feelings he had for his wife. It emphasises that the painting in itself may well remind him of how much his wife irritated him, but the value of the painting is more than the irritation. Or, he likes being reminded about how much that wife annoyed him. Kind of like keeping a photo of your ex-husband on the mantlepiece just to remember how much wrong they did by you.

Either way, not particularly healthy behaviour.

In Line 11, we also get the little embedded clause “if they durst,” which hangs at the end of the line, meaning that most people are too terrified to ask anything about the painting, or the circumstances in which it was painted. We get the feeling that Browning is giving us an image of a man who wants to paint himself as frightening, how most people “dare not” ask about the painting. It shows a little of the terror that we also see in Ozymandias. Not only that, we see an artist who captures the true qualities of his subject. Instead of capturing the terror that the subject instills in people in this case, the painting manages to evoke the terror that the Duke himself instills in people.

Still, also a bit weird that the Duke thinks that he was in some way responsible for “that spot of joy” even if the rest of it was the annoying flattery by the painter that made his wife blush.

In fact, we then have five lines that depict the relationship between Frà Pandolf and the Duchess:

Frà 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:’

I mean, that speaks to a bit of obsession on behalf of the Duke, don’t you think, to spend five lines speculating about what Frà Pandolf had said to the Duchess to make her blush? And that inane flirtation really needles the Duke. He imagines the kind of compliments the painter might have paid to the Duchess and it really gets on the Duke’s nerves to remember it. In fact, it’s not the compliments that needle him, but the effect they have on his wife. I’d argue that it’s not a particularly private moment between the Duchess and the artist. You’d have to be pretty dumb to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him if he’s the kind of guy that the Duke seems to be. Also, Frà Pandolf says “her throat” which implies that he is not talking TO the Duchess, but ABOUT the Duchess… these are his excuses for not being able to get the exact colour right to the Duke, rather than attempts to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him. Either way, the Duchess finds it flattering, thinking it good manners, “such stuff was courtesy” and the Duke finds it a sign that she is just too dumb to appreciate things as she should. By that, I mean too dumb to appreciate “his nine-hundred-years-old name”.

I don’t know what irks him most: the flirtation, his wife’s reaction, or the fact that the compliments were coming from some lowly painter.

I mean, it’s hardly saucy flirtation, is it? “Your cloak’s covering a bit too much of your wrist, love.” or “that’s a nice bit of light on your neck, darling…”

It doesn’t seem to be the stuff of wildly passionate flirtation, does it? (If you want to see that, dip into some of Spenser’s sonnets where he’s comparing his girlfriend’s nipples to flowers)

And yet… yet the neck and wrist ARE erogenous zones. The Japanese geisha have a whole line of ritualised flirtation involving the nape of the neck and the wrist. And if you think about vampires and which bits they suck… always necks and wrists, the kinky devils. Apparently, and I kid you not, body language experts think that neck and wrist signals can be some of the really flirty stuff.

Now Browning didn’t have body language experts and behavioural psychologists to help him… but those Victorians were also a bunch who covered up and covered up, so that those occasional glimpses of a wrist or ankle were, well, a most massive flirtation indeed.

So whilst at first glance you might think there’s nothing so saucy about what Frà Pandolf is saying to the Duchess, you might find it completely harmless and innoffensive, I think there’s something quite suggestive about it – another story to be told. That said, in the second part of those five lines, he’s quite clearly NOT talking to the Duchess directly, but to the Duke, so the jury’s out on the flirtation or whether it’s just an artist with good manners who wants to see a bit more wrist.

Does the Duke miss this saucy subtext? Does the Duchess? He tells us that she thought it “courtesy”. Either she means just plain good manners, respectful and polite, or that of “courtesy books” which were popular guides to etiquette and behaviour in Renaissance Italy… but the Duke tells us that the Duchess found nothing wrong with this.

All those layers of “he said… she said…” as well, that’s interesting. The Duke is a third wheel in that relationship between the painter and his subject. But we only have his word for what happened, and a many-layered story.

You have Frà Pandolf, who may or may not be a gentleman, who may or may not be flirting with quite serious intentions… or making excuses for why he can’t get the colour right on the woman’s neck.

Then you have the Duchess, who may or may not believe Frà Pandolf to be a gentleman or to have only honorable intentions.

And then you have the Duke, who may or may not believe what Frà Pandolf’s intentions were in flirting with his wife, or even that the Duchess said these things at all.

Confusing, much?

What we can agree on is that it’s a very biased and one-sided account of what happened, where we are asked to make our own judgements about it. You make up your own sub-story.

So was there anything going on between them?

I think not. I think it better suits the poem that the Duke is jealous and controlling. It suits the story better for the Duchess to be charmed simply by the painter, who is perhaps a little free with his compliments in the presence of the guy paying the bills. I like to see the Duchess as an innocent victim in all of this. It serves no purpose if we think she was up to mischief with the painter. Indeed, it may even make us sympathise with the Duke.

We wouldn’t be the first people to be in doubt over the Duke’s nature though. One critic (B. R. Jerman) intepreted his behaviour as ‘witless’, meaning he is simply stupid and foolish, perhaps not even seeing the affair happening right before his eyes. Another interpreted it as ‘shrewd’ and suggests that the character is cunning, knowing absolutely what it is that he is implying (Laurence Perrine)

And behind all of this you have Browning, pulling strings. What do we know about Browning? He LOVED ambiguity. He adored the fact that you never quite knew. And I have to agree with him… it makes it all the more tantalising as a story if we don’t know if the Duke is just stupid, or if he is really just issuing a veiled threat about the behaviours he expects of his next wife. (Although… if you were a marriage broker, would you advise your boss to let his daughter marry this guy? Even with his “nine-hundred-years-old name”, fancy paintings of dead wives and statues of Gods taming seahorses) I think it is very deliberate that we have this beguiling story that we can’t get to the bottom of. It just makes the poem so much more delicious in its intrigue.

Either way, from line 22, we get to the seed of the real source of irritation for the Duke. “She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad, too easily impressed ;” All those fragments we’ve discussed before. This is a seasoned speaker, who speaks easily and fluently (compare it with lines 7 and 8 which end with “countenance” and “earnest glance”) yet here, his speech falls apart. He stumbles. The dashes show us his pauses, his hesitation. Is he trying to find a polite way to talk about her?

And what does he mean? The Duchess liked stuff. She liked things and she was happy. How utterly appalling. “She liked whate’er she looked on”. She liked everything. Oh my word, well, that would make a man miserable! Kind of ironic how many men complain that they can’t choose the right present for their wife and here’s one who likes everything. No pleasing some husbands. We really sense the Duke’s indignation in “Sir ‘t was all one!”

Those monosyllables truly reveal his feelings. He is insulted that she likes everything and treats everything the same. He finds that disgusting. The Duke is deeply offended by the Duchess’s happy nature and the way she likes stuff.

Browning uses a list of things that the Duchess liked (I can imagine her on Facebook, ‘liking’ everything and the Duke watching her in his feed, getting more and more cross with the stuff she’d stick a heart or ‘thumbs up’ on!) and we get a sense of the Duke’s growing frustration and indignation. She liked the Duke’s compliments about what a nice rack she has (as so she should, because he is obviously not a man who finds favour in many things) but she liked sunsets, cherries, her pony… Good Lord, how is a man to cope with a wife who likes watching sunsets, eating cherries and riding a horse?! His list of things she likes seems pathetic when you think that IF he had her murdered, these are the reasons he had her murdered. She liked all of these things, ” – all and each/would draw from her alike the approving speech,”

And he doesn’t stop to think that the Duchess herself might just be being courteous or polite.

Now for the thing that REALLY gets his goat. As if cherry appreciation wasn’t enough. Look at how fragmented this bit is as he struggles to keep his temper in, even now, despite her being dead,

“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.”

Outrageous isn’t it? She just wasn’t grateful enough, wasn’t appreciative enough of his “gift” of a surname. And the Duke is so cross about that. We can see his anger building up through those fragments (which I’ve deliberately put on separate lines so that you can see clearly) The way that ‘MY’ falls at the beginning of a line, even though it is the object of the verb “ranked” and belongs with it in that phrase, on that line, it really emphasises it. It is a personal insult, he feels, that she treats everything the same.

The Duke finds this absolutely and utterly incomprehensible, with the rhetorical question, “Who’d stoop to blame/this sort of trifling?” and becomes even more angry. We see in the poem the way that this anger played out and built up.

So it’s her graciousness in receiving compliments, her appreciation of nature (and perhaps even true “beauty” – unlike the Duke with his obsession with manufactured art) of sunsets and cherries, white horses and the likes, that sets him off, since she doesn’t seem to appreciate his name as much as she should.

So the Duke becomes dictatorial, when he says “to make your will/Quite clear”, to “make your will”… that in itself sounds like a massive euphemism for what the Duke may have done to the Duchess in order to point out what he considered to be the error of her ways. The way he calls her “such an one” I think really stresses his frustration with her, and his loathing of her behaviour. The way the Duke repeats what he said to her, “just this or that in you disgusts me ; here you miss or there exceed the mark” reveals him to be a control freak who wants to ‘iron out’ all the ‘imperfections’ that he sees in his wife. If it is indeed “just this or that” and he finds minor aspects of her behaviour to be irritating, it reveals him to be a very pathetic kind of guy indeed, especially by our standards of relationships. It reminds me very much of a petty, pathetic armchair dictator, who wants to ‘direct’ all of his wife’s behaviour, just as the painter does when he says her coat hangs a little too low on her wrist. It’s like the Duke is trying to ‘mould’ or ‘shape’ the Duchess – despite the fact that Browning paints her as a remarkably lovely person, with her “spot of joy” on her cheek and her love of ponies and cherries. She is a woman who prefers the simple things in life. Although the Duke finds her behaviour to be lacking, his despotic behaviour when pointing out his wife’s every flaw reminds us that our characters and personality, like art, is all a matter of opinion. He is an autocrat who wants everything his way.

What becomes clear is the Duke finds that he is socially superior to his wife, that he finds he has to “stoop” or lower himself to her level. When he says he chooses “never to stoop”, he makes it pretty clear that he himself is perfect, that he finds he has no need to modify his behaviour or compromise in any single way at all, revealing his deep arrogance and vanity. The story then becomes a lesson for us, in the place of the marriage broker. It is an account that reveals that the Duke is making it clear that he will make no compromise and that he expects his next wife, whom you are representing, to be perfect. Like the dictatorial Ozymandias, he “gave commands” and “all smiles stopped together”. That, for the Duke, is the end of the story. He moves from “all smiles stopped together” back to the painting, or the Duchess’s images, “There she stands/As if alive” which not only refers to the quality of the painting, which is incredibly life-life, but is an ambiguous reference to the Duchess’s fate and what happened to make “all smiles” stop.

So what did happen to the Duchess?

Did the Duke order her murder? Are those “the commands” he “gave”?

Is she actually dead? Divorce wasn’t a regular thing in the time that the poem is set, but a marriage annulment could be possible. Another possibility is that she could have simply been to send her to a nunnery. When he was asked about what had happened to the Duchess, Browning said, “the commands were that she should be put to death… or he might have had her shut up in a convent.” (Corson, 1886. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry)

So what does Browning reveal about the Duke?

He is an autocratic monster, who has a façade of an art connoisseur or collector, who collects wives as he collects art. He comes across as a Victorian Bluebeard, a monster who cannot see his own flaws, despite noticing every single flaw of his “Last Duchess.” Browning has chosen someone whose “nine-hundred-years-old” name is about to become extinct, which I find deeply ironic. But did Browning do that on purpose or not? Who knows. It is certainly ironic that this man who finds himself to be such a “gift” is a footnote in history books, completely forgettable except to Italian Renaissance history buffs, except for Browning’s poem. It’s deeply ironic too that Browning, like the sculptor in Ozymandias and Frà Pandolf, has the power to keep the Duke alive and to breathe life into him. Perhaps then, the real power lies in the hands of the artist, the writer or the sculptor, who has the power to immortalise (well, sort of, and if they are lucky!) their subject as well as how they are remembered. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare here, who is largely responsible for how we view Richard III or Macbeth, despite the fact his art is fiction.

What Browning does in the poem is skilfully create an image of a petty, autocratic monster who cannot see beauty where it truly is. Browning’s use of language creates deliberate ambiguities which leave us wondering if the Duke is just stupid and ill-bred, despite his family name, or whether he is indeed a man who has ordered his wife’s death, a petty tyrant who is using the painting to give a subtle threat to the marriage broker that the ‘next’ Duchess better be more biddable and more appreciative of his “gift” of the family name.

The end of the monologue ends in a very business-like way, with a discussion about the bride-to-be. The Duke asks the marriage broker to come with him, putting an end to the viewing, “Will’t please you rise?” And the Duke says that they will meet the rest of the group downstairs. When he says, “I repeat,” he seems to be picking up something he was talking about before, the generosity or “munificence” of the Count, whose daughter the Duke is arranging to marry. It is like he is flattering the broker, saying that the Count is known for his generosity. The mention of the dowry, the money, property or goods that a wife brings with her as a “gift” from her family to the husband shows this to be a business transaction, despite the Duke saying that he is interested in the Count’s “fair daughter”. He comes across as mercenary. His discussion of business and money in such an overt way also comes across to me as being crass and ill-mannered. Goodness only knows who instilled upon me the rudeness of talking about money. Emily Post, one of the most famous people who decided on good manners and wrote books about etiquette and manners, said that it is very vulgar to talk money. Maybe that’s why I find it very vulgar of the Duke to be discussing money. But then he is a very vulgar man. Mind you, I’m of the generation that finds it rude and unthinking to give money as a present, so I’m no doubt hideously old-fashioned and that view of the vulgarity of the money talk at the end is mine and mine alone!

The Duke can’t resist, as he goes, a final show-off moment. Have a look at my wonderful bronze statue of a God taming a sea horse, if you will. I think it remarkably telling, revealing much about the Duke. Perhaps it acts as a metaphor for his relationship with the Duchess, that he too tried to “tame” her or “break” her. Either way, the moment leaves us in no doubt that the Duke is a collector of fine art and likes to show off about it.

What I think, then, is that we have a man who thinks he is cultured, a collector if you like, who has no true appreciation of what is beautiful. He is ill-mannered and snobbish, the worst of the aristocracy. He has not merited his title and his ugly personality is far from refined or cultured. He is a boorish show-off. If you ask me, I don’t think his last wife died of anything in particular. I don’t think the Duke’s words show that he cared about her, only in that she was his possession, in return for his name. He is a colossal snob, who doesn’t realise that his artwork as well as his speech reveals him very perfectly. He is a petty dictator, but he couldn’t even manage to get his wife to bow to his bidding. Kind of ironic that her painting, which he may choose to only reveal to a very select few, is a depiction of her ‘defiance’.

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 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.

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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!

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 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 London by William Blake: II

Last week, we looked at the context and form of London, which is in the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology in the “Power and Conflict” section. In this post, I’ll be exploring the language side of things and considering how this relates to the context, as well as how it is supported by the form of the poem itself.

If you remember, we start the poem with the visionary Blake wandering through London like some Old Testament fire-and-brimstone prophet looking for the innocent in the city to protect them from a bit of savage firey reckoning by God on account of all the sinning they’re doing.

The metre gives us a very grinding rhythm as we start:

“I wander thro’ each charter’d street”

So we’ve got a first-person narrative, maybe a persona, but in this case, I really feel like that’s Blake speaking. None of the distance of Ozymandias and the travellers and the far away lands. This is him telling us directly how it is. That’s made doubly effective by that present tense “wander” – this is the here and now. There’s a timelessness to that – it’s as if it’s continuously happening – but has a similar effect to the timelessness in Ozymandias. You get the distinct impression that the messages of the two poems are as timeless as society itself. But where Ozymandias seems to slip the bonds of time and remind us that this kind of pointless power-crazed behaviour won’t stand the test of time, London is very much about a specific London in time – the time of Blake. I think he would be disappointed if he came back today and realised it was still the same. That’s the whole point of visionary poetry. You’re supposed to say “Look at this misery!” and people are supposed to learn from it, not just carry on as they always did. So… first person, present tense… immediate, current. We’re living this wandering through Blake’s eyes. Interestingly, Ozymandias also has a wanderer narrator of sorts in the traveller. There’s a sense of Blake not belonging, not fitting in, a bit of an outcast.

That word “wander” is sharply contrasted by the “charter’d” so we’ll have a look at those words. “Wander” suggests a freedom, an aimlessness or carelessness. Then the word “charter’d” suggests its very opposite. First, it’s kind of a pun on “charted” which means mapped out. Second, a charter is a legal agreement that sets out who has what rights. Often it’s a Royal Charter which gives individuals certain rights and powers, like chartered surveyors and chartered accountants. A city also needs a charter if it wants to be a city instead of a town. A charter can also refer to hiring something, like a chartered plane or boat. It can also mean ‘restricted’ or ‘bound’ – in that the streets and the river Thames is restrained and bound. It’s both a literal chartering, that the river is bound in and restricted, and also a dig at the lack of rights that English citizens had. It’s a pun on how the Thames is mapped out and marked out, with no free bits anymore. Blake puts an additional emphasis on it by repeating it in line 1 and in line 2. It’s obviously a word that is important to him.

As Blake walks, all he sees around him is that the people are “marked”. This too is a great word to get your teeth into, as nobody can quite agree the sense in which it is being used. Is it a Biblical marking like that of Cain? Kind of ironic, since Cain was set to wander the earth following murdering his brother. Here it’s Blake who’s wandering. Plus, I never can think about Cain and Abel without wondering what the Dickens God was up to. Sure, he was angry. Cain had killed his favourite human. But why mark him and set him to wander? Nobody was allowed to touch Cain or hurt him. Why would you protect someone who’d killed your favourite human? Most people think it’s a reference to the Book of Ezekiel, where Ezekiel was asked by God to walk through the city and put a mark on all the people who were “weeping” and “sighing” over the terrible state of the city. Blake seems to do just that, though it’s not him doing the marking, the people are already “marked”.

This is a play on words as well. He says he “marks” (like ‘remarks’ or notices) in “every face” and then twists the word from a verb to a noun in the fourth line to mean that he sees the signs of people’s weakness and people’s sadness. When he looks around him, all he sees is suffering.

In stanza two, he builds up with another long sentence to say that a lot of these restrictions are things we do to ourselves. We’ve got a lot of repetition of “every” (just in case you hadn’t realised that he hears the suffering everywhere, just everywhere!) and we see him picking up from things he’s seen in stanza one into things he hears in stanza two. Blake still continues with his Biblical words from Ezekiel with all the wailing. It sounds like a living hell. He does the same thing he did with the word “charter” with the word “ban” which also has layers of meaning. He doesn’t like to let you off lightly, does he, Blake?

Let’s talk about the ban. A ban can mean a restriction or a command to refrain from doing something. If there’s a ban on something, it’s legally prohibited. You can’t do it. So in the “bans” Blake hears, he could mean all the things he hears that are prohibited that you’re not allowed to do. A “ban” is also a pun on the “banns” which churches announces that people are about to get married. A “bann” was just a proclamation.

However, by the end of the verse, things are beginning to shift and we come to understand something with the crucial phrase “mind-forged manacles.”

A manacle is a way of chaining a person up – the metal cuffs that are attached to people’s legs or arms (or necks) in slavery are manacles. Basically, it’s anything that restricts you, that inhibits you from moving, that keeps you restrained. But these manacles are “mind-forged”. Forging is of course the process of heating and hammering metals in order to weld them together. If the manacles are “mind-forg’d”, it means that we make them ourselves. These are our self-imposed limitations, the things that hold us back, the prison that we create in our own mind. In other words, Blake finds us entirely responsible for our own misery, pain and suffering. The idea of the forge in itself is interesting and it’s an idea Blake picks up on in perhaps his most famous poem, Tyger Tyger where he takes up this idea of the forge. It’s a very industrial image really (despite the fact that forges are a rural thing too for all the metal-y stuff you need making in the countryside), all these furnaces, smelting and manufacturing.

Either way, those mind-forg’d manacles are the restrictions that we place on ourselves that are so strong and so binding that they are like the manacles a slave might be forced to wear. We are basically slaves to ourselves, restricted by our own fears and doubts, according to Blake.

In stanza three, Blake starts to lay the blame beyond our own limitations and restrictions. First, he talks of the chimney-sweep, which was also a popular image he used in other poems. Like many jobs carried out by children in the early decades of the Victorian era, it required children to do it because the work needed a smaller body than an adult had. There’s an awful lot of information out there about chimney sweeps, but I think Blake found something deeply ironic about the blackened little faces of these innocent children that struck him more than any other child labourer. It’s not the children who work in mills, who lose limbs fixing machines that the owners are too money-grubbing to stop, it’s not the children in coal mines or the child weavers, it’s the chimney sweep. From just before the time of Shakespeare, it had been legal for churches to take on children and “apprentice” them out. If your parents were poor or dead, or they had too many children, the Church authorities could take you over and put you to work. The aim was to stop there being lots of beggar children on the streets, but it gave the Parishes (the area each individual church controlled) the right to put children to work if their parents couldn’t look after them. The churches in return required businesses to help out and take on a child as an apprentice. It didn’t matter if they were as young as seven, or even if the work was very tough. The chimney sweeps made the most of these young, malnourished children to send them up chimneys. Life expectancy was very poor.

It’s without doubt that Blake likes the chimney sweep image for its incongruous black-faced children who are so innocent beneath the dirt. That soot and dirt is very much representative of mankind’s ‘mark’ on children. In fact, it’s not mankind who are responsible but the parishes, the churches.

In line two of the third stanza, you’ve got a couple of words that work in different ways to mean different things. The first is “blackning”. The churches are literally responsible for blackening the children: it is the churches who pass them on to unscrupulous businesses who would send the children to sweep chimneys, thus “blackening” them. It is the churches who are doing the blackening. It works on a metaphorical level as well. Churches should be purifying people, cleansing them, not “blackning” them. It’s deeply ironic that what the church is supposed to do on a metaphorical level is the opposite of what happens to the children on a practical level. The churches themselves are “blackened” by soot from industry, hence they too are literally becoming black.

The word “appalls” works on just about a hundred levels. It means to horrify or to shock, like saying something is ‘appalling’. The churches should be, in a world where they function as they are intended, disgusted and shocked by child labour, not engaging in it themselves. But the churches are not “appalled” by the children in that way. The root of the word is a-pall or ‘to make pale’ – another reference to the ‘enlightening’ role that churches are supposed to undertake, even though the word has taken on another meaning these days (to turn someone pale with shock). But this word is also a pun on the word “appall” if you take it as “a pall”. A pall is the cover that they put on a coffin, making a link between what happens to the chimney sweeps and the church: the chimney sweeps die and the church is responsible. This theme is expanded upon in his other two poems about the church’s role in child labour (and therefore the high number of deaths as a result of this for innocent children).

On the surface, those two lines should mean that the church are horrified by child labour. The way Blake plays with words makes it clear that the church are responsible for the deaths of many children.

The church is not the only body that Blake sees as responsible for suffering around him: he also places the blame on the palace.

Don’t forget that England had been involved in a number of extensive military campaigns over the last twenty years, all at the command of the king and his parliament. King George III takes the blame very much here for the wars and bloodshed. If you subscribe to the theory that Ozymandias is about King George III (and I don’t, not particularly, as I think it’s about power in itself and it cheapens it to be about one king in specific other than Ozymandias himself) then you’ve got a cultural cross-reference point. What you definitely have in both poems, however, is a very nice critique of power. Both of those critiques use metaphor as the way to get their message home. I think they both do this because the images that they create are powerful in themselves and it leaves us with a little working out to do, rather than an out-and-out condemnation. Blake in particular uses images and metaphor often in his writing, not so much in my opinion to conceal or soften the truth (because the image of a soldier’s blood running down the walls of the palace is not a soft image, is it?) but for a number of other possible reasons.

So why use metaphors instead of direct language? The first is that metaphor is a very good way to communicate. If you’ve got an abstract concept like ‘child labour’, putting a face on it is a very successful technique to help make it real for people. Think how charity adverts work to take an abstract idea, like lack of water or the need for vaccinations, and put a face on it so we connect more. Child labour in itself is a hard thing to visualise, to understand. A chimney sweep child crying certainly isn’t. The political failings of an empire are hard to understand, so vast and complex are they. Stick a soldier and his blood on the palace walls and you’ve got a simple, clear idea that makes it all apparent in one very simple idea. It’s not soft, it’s not avoiding laying the blame, it’s not indirect criticism, it is a very neat, clear image that puts the blame for bloodshed and war squarely on the palace. If I want to take a complex or abstract idea and make it powerful and hard-hitting, metaphor can do that. Those images become very powerful when you use them as a motif or recurrent image in your writing, as Blake does with the chimney sweeps. For anyone who’s read anything of Blake, once you see the chimney sweep mentioned, you link in your mind to his two other sweep poems, the Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence and the Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Experience. 

As we move into stanza four, we continue Blake’s journey. He uses another metaphor in saying “the midnight streets” which is interesting. It could be midnight. He could be walking around at midnight. But it seems to be something he’s using metaphorically. Everything he sees is as metaphorically black as midnight, if he’s using black as a symbol of misery and pain. He’s building up to a crescendo. Yes, the restrictions we put on ourselves are bad, yes the church’s involvement in child labour is bad, yes the King and Government are causing needless deaths, but that’s not the worst of it.

The worst of it is the “youthful Harlots” – a harlot is a prostitute or a whore – not afraid of pointing out everything he sees wrong in society, is he? The prostitutes or the promiscuous women are causing all kinds of social damage according to Blake. They’re a “curse”. He could be suggesting that they are almost like witches, casting curses on new babies and marriages, turning things that should be joyful and hopeful into things that are cursed. Of course, he can just mean that these women have foul mouths and are always swearing, since a swear word is also a curse word. But it works on both levels, like much of the poem. The first ‘victim’ of their curse is new-born children. Ironic, since the new-born children of prostitutes or women who had no way to care for them would often end up in the care of the church, destined to become child labourers themselves. Other people have said that the babies are born with deformities as a result of sexually transmitted diseases. Either way, perhaps as a result of the women’s anger or desire for revenge, the babies are born into a world that they too weep for, a world that has no love for them.

The final line of the poem shows us the second consequence: these women also “plague” marriages. Well, that works on one level about disease. You pick up syphilis from a prostitute and you pass it on to your new wife, so your marriage is quite literally one plagued or diseased. But it also works on a metaphorical level: the marriages are spoilt by promiscuity. The sanctity of marriage is meaningless. He finishes with an odd coupling of words: “marriage hearse” since a hearse is the vehicle to take you to church when you are dead. This makes us reflect on the fact that the marriages themselves are doomed.

In all, Blake finds much wrong with society, with many helpless victims who are ‘marked’ by their suffering. He points the finger at us, how we hinder ourselves, how we ‘manacle’ ourselves and cause our own restrictions, but also he points it at the church, at the King and Government, at the prostitutes and promiscuous women. The poem itself is bound by the syllabic metre, by the rhyme scheme, by the stanza.

Here’s a really nice commentary on London which will give you some further ideas. I really like the idea of the poem being about freedom, and about the lack of it, as well as the poem being a warning

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 and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.