In the movie This Is Spinal Tap, the band is searching for a stage concept that will live up to the mythopoeic grandiosity of their Jurassic rock sound. They hit upon the idea of an 18-foot-high replica of Stonehenge, but some confusion between the symbols ‘ and “ results in dolmens a foot and a half tall, the tiny dancers they hire to prance about this microlith do not, to say the least, set the proper tone.
This is roughly the transformation that the Duke of Ferrara undergoes between Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Richard Howard’s “Nikolaus Mardruz to His Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565.” Here are the poems:
Even more than a novel or a play, a dramatic monologue revolves around the control of information, usually accomplished through point of view. Lacking the props of context, the reader must use clues of tone and inference to puzzle out a meaning that is often quite different from what the speaker intends. In “My Last Duchess,” we gradually realize that the Duke is not merely pompous and self-regarding, not merely an annoying prick, but almost certainly a murderer; the progression is rendered even more disturbing because we are inserted into the position of an emissary negotiating a marriage, and are thus implicated in the fate of the Duke’s next Duchess. The poem has aged well, I think, because Browning can still rely on (most of) us to share his fear and loathing of domestic tyrants, a species with which he had some personal acquaintance.
Part of the fun of Howard’s re-telling is, of course, figuring out that that’s what it is; I’m afraid I may have lessened that fun by my presentation, but it would be a shame to read the Howard poem without having read the Browning. From the beginning, with the swans and towers reflected upside-down in the lake, we are warned to expect inversions and reversals, and the trompe-l’oeil curtain that flips over to reveal the portrait carries this forward, as well as illustrating the kind of petty power trips the Duke is willing to stoop to.
We are now at an extra remove from the Duke, in the position of the Count to whom Mardruz’s letter is addressed, and whom we can imagine as sharing his general world-view, even if he may perhaps find his underling a bit cheeky and verbose. Instead of the earnest, upright Protestant gentleman who is shocked and horrified by the evil Duke, we have the witty, urbane ambassador who seems to regard His Grace’s appalling morals as principally (or ducally) another example of his unspeakable taste. We are not asked to be any fonder of the Duke than we are in “My Last Duchess,” but we are asked to see him as contemptible and easily manipulated, the way a legate from imperial London or Paris might look down on a small-time dictator.
Howard gives Mardruzhis own style, with a good deal of syntactic suspense and lots of semantic inversions (“by his own lights, or, perhaps more properly / said, by his own tenebrosity”) to go with the elaboraate syllabic meter:
The years are her
ally in such an arbitrament,
and with confidence
My Lord can assure
the new Duchess (assuming her Duke
abides by these stipulations and his own
“semblances”) the long devotion (so long as
he lasts ) of her last Duke… Or more likely,
if I guess aright
your daughter’s intent,
of that young lordling I might make so
bold as to designate her next Duke, as well…
In other words, they can rig the contract so that the “old reprobate” won’t dare harm the new Duchess for fear of losing the dowry, and she need only wait for him to pop off so that she can marry her boyfriend and make him her next Duke.
The ornate and rather fussy style may be specific to Mardruz, but I can’t help seeing in his amused and cosmopolitan self-assurance a good deal of Richard Howard. Here is Edmund White’s description of his first encounter with Howard—at the time, White was an unpublished novelist and Howard had agreed to look at his manuscript (this was to be the big break in White’s career). But rather than arranging lunch or some similar mundane appointment, Howard instructed him to be waiting, MS in hand, on the corner of 13th Street and ith Avenue at exactly 2:00 PM:
At the appointed time I was standing on the corner…with the manuscript in hand. I was wearing sawed-off blue-jean shorts and a maroon T-shirt. My hair was freshly washed and combed, but I wished I’d slept better and didn’t have such dark circles under my eyes. Suddenly I saw him whirling up the street at a fast clip in a cape, his bald head gleaming. He sized me up with a head-to-toe survey and a cocked eyebrow.
Style, energy, cocked eyebrow…I think Nikolaus Mardruz would approve.
So, how might this serve as a model or caution for a writer of poems? I mentioned above the use of gradual revelation to create a drama of discovery where there may not be a drama of action, and this is surely something that any writer can profit from who wishes to keep an audience attentive. There is also a sense of discovery as we thread our way through the twisty corridors of Mardruz’ syntax, though this may start to feel claustrophobic.
The meter too is interesting, an elaborate syllabic pattern that provides an abstract matrix within which the poem develops; given modern sensibilities, the lack of palpable rhythmic pulse may be considered an advantage, since iambic or trochaic meter strikes readers as retro. But by the same token, it lacks visceral, audible power.
I am greatly drawn to Howard’s brilliance and his evident pleasure in creation, but I am not sure that I can claim for him what Lorca calls duende, what the rest of us call soul. My own poems are usually about me, and the ones that have gotten the strongest response are those that have the greatest emotional authenticity and intensity, so that for me, the biggest challenge in writing dramatic monologue is not being clever (much as I love clever) but inhabiting the speaker with as much sure-footedness as I inhabit the poem-character version of myself. And then I just have to wait for that big arsenic lobster to fall on my head.