Browning's "My Last Duchess": Paragon and Parergon
Dupras, Joseph A., Papers on Language & Literature
There is here a problem of framing, of bordering and delimitation, whose analysis must be very finely detailed if it wishes to ascertain the effects of fiction.
- Jacques Derrida, "Le facteur de la verite"
If we are to approach a text, it must have an edge.
- Jacques Derrida, "Living On: Border Lines"
The interaction of creativity with interpretation concerned Robert Browning throughout a career in which he made the dramatic monologue converge sound, silence and audition, as well as image and vision. Reading such a poem is like being drawn into it, having to side with its personae, while feeling extraneous or beside the point; more than sympathy or judgment, these alternatives lead readers to self-reflection, to seeing themselves shifting between the center and the border of some artistic design. Nevertheless, as many readings of "My Last Duchess" show, "this most dramatically paragonal of all ekphrastic poems" (Heffernan 144) undermines such a simple scheme of moving or fixing readers. This dramatic monologue, arguably Browning's premier work, adds a pictorial, fourth dimension to the usual pattern of speaker and silent auditor in a momentous, reader-monitored situation. Eyeing the poem's nested utterances, we do not actually see fictitious Fra Pandolf's imaginary portrait of the "last Duchess" (line 1), whose peerless "looks" (24) from inside an iconic "wonder" (3) will supposedly imprint the envoy. Yet the painted work, surrounded by discourse and history, is invaluable as a touchstone - a paragon - for appraising readers, who "turn" (9, 13), or change, to Browning or his personae. Our cognition of "My Last Duchess" is parergonal (i.e., framed and framing), like the Duke of Ferrara's intention to finish his wife as a person and as an objet d'art. But also like him, we find art turns on - pivoting, resisting, and starting - interpretive possession, which is what we own that enthralls or inhabits us. The printed poem is a stable verbal icon, but it becomes metamorphic if we gain the duke's grace, the envoy's hearing, the duchess's fixed glance, and Fra Pandolf's gifted words to draw it out.
Browning learned from his earlier Pauline, Paracelsus, and Sordello to make his poetry less introverted, more collaborative. Although "My Last Duchess" is complete before us, our work supplements Browning's. By removing himself as the center of attention, the poet allows us to replace him when reading is keen and trim. That is, strong readers possess a character that puts our work at the cutting edge of language, which nevertheless resists all displays of finishing. Reading, although susceptible to elimination, marks off those openings and surfaces where a poem passes for us or is about us. We achieve this complicity with the poet by seeing through the eyes of characters who shape the dramatic circumstances, while we also register, experience, and cross their limits. One result of dissolving lines between paragon and parergon, or cynosure and scope, is that we glimpse "truth / Beyond mere imagery on the wall" (The Ring and the Book 12:858-59). The drama within "My Last Duchess" turns out(ward) to shatter the poem as a mere typographical replica of the "last Duchess" "That's . . . painted on the wall" (1, emphasis added). The duke minds Fra Pandolf's work, however good it may be, less for its potent image than for its (un)canny pretext; Browning's outstanding poem, too, is iconographic, another speaking picture which we heed, while it sizes us up as critical guests. At the start of their respective careers, a Renaissance aristocrat (whose best art may be showing his art) and a Victorian poet are discovering "That Art remains the one way possible / Of speaking truth, to mouths like [theirs], at least" (The Ring and the Book 12:839-40). Art "speaking truth" evokes critical dialogue, our wandering looks and unstoppable smiles. Our exposing "My Last Duchess" to interpretive light and its characters to the dust of history transfigures the duke's action when he "puts by / The curtain" (9-10) covering a work of art. …