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Poetry Portfolio Example part 2
1. Creative Response
The collage doesn’t show but still has to be done
Fig. 1. This is a collage inspired by “My Last Duchess.” Source: Smith, Jane. “Poem Collage.” 20 Nov. 2021. Author’s personal work.
“My Last Duchess” is rich in imagery, so it is the perfect subject for a collage (Fig. 1). According to Markley, the speaker of the poem is inspired by a real-life person: Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. An article at Poetry Foundation states that Alfonso’s first wife was Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, who died in 1561 at age sixteen, two years after they were married. The cause of death may have been pulmonary tuberculosis, but rumors swirled for years afterwards that he’d had her poisoned. Browning later took the legend as inspiration for the poem (Guthrie).
To begin the collage, I found pictures of the real-life inspirations, Alfonso and Lucrezia. As their relationship is central to the poem, I placed them in the middle. I found pictures of them as they would have looked around the time of Lucrezia’s death. Lucrezia is placed on top, as her image and memory still hold sway over Alfonso—it’s as if she’s always floating above him.
In the poem, the imagery the Duke connects with his wife shows his complicated feelings. Lucrezia is associated with images that are warm and romantic—a sunset, cherry blossoms, a tame white mule. This beautiful imagery suggests that the love he felt was real, if ultimately destructive. It could even be argued that the Duke knew, at some level, his that wife was innocent. The white mule, white blossoms, and golden sunlight suggest purity. In the collage, these images are placed near the picture of Lucrezia to underline their connection to her.
The bottom part of the collage is Alfonso’s territory. He is surrounded by hard, cold, expensive things. First is a bronze statue of a man kneeling before a woman, who reaches out to him. This is the kind of striking art piece the Duke likes to collect, and it might remind him of the happy, early days of his first marriage. But it’s not the truth of the marriage, which was destroyed because he refused to “stoop” and explain his feelings to his wife. It’s also not going to be the truth of his second marriage. The Duke’s only comment on this new match is here:
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. (Browning 48-52)
The Duke says he’s marrying for love, not money, but he mentions the dowry before he mentions his new wife. That’s why a pile of gold is placed above the statue of the kneeling man. The Duke might see himself as a suitor kneeling lovingly before his bride, but he’s marrying for money.
The final image of the poem is a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea horse, which symbolizes the Duke’s determination to tame the women in his life (Markley). He probably won’t murder his second wife, but she’ll be unhappy, married to a man who expects her to show love and devotion while he is still obsessed with his dead first wife. A statue of Neptune like the one described in the poem is placed on the other side of the Duke, showing how much his cold, inflexible feelings surround him. The Duke is miserable and will make any woman he marries miserable as long as refuses to “stoop” in his relationships.
Creating this collage made me understand even more what a monster the Duke is and what a terrible position any wife of his would be in. I didn’t get the soft imagery/hard imagery contrast until I started finding the pictures for the portfolio and saw the difference between the images in the two halves of the poem. This also made me realize that Browning’s title is a clever play on words: Lucrezia was not Alfonso’s last Duchess, as in the one before this, but his last Duchess, as in the final one. His second marriage will be real in a legal sense but not in an emotional one, as all his love—such as it is—belongs to the woman he murdered.
2. —Comparison/Contrast: “My Last Duchess” vs. “The Laboratory”
“The Laboratory” is another one of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. Set in 18th Century France, the speaker is an aristocratic woman visiting a shady laboratory to buy poison to kill her ex-lover’s new mistress. She may also use the poison to kill other female rivals she has at court. After she leaves the lab, she plans to go to a dance at the palace, where she will put her murderous plans into action.
Similarities and Differences: Voice and Syntax
As in my “My Last Duchess,” here Browning uses voice and syntax to create a vivid picture of a terrible person. Like the Duke, the woman reveals more about herself than she realizes: Her words show jealousy, paranoia, and viciousness. Unlike “My Last Duchess,” the second poem does not use much enjambment, and it’s divided into short, jagged stanzas with lines full of dashes, emphasizing her angry, broken thoughts. Although the woman does not have the control of Duke Ferrara, their underlying feelings are the same. Both are driven to murder because of rage, jealousy, and a desperate need for dominance.
Similarities and Differences: Imagery and Symbolism
“The Laboratory” is as rich in imagery as “My Last Duchess,” and many of the images are beautiful:
That in the mortar—you call it a gum?
Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!
And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,
Sure to taste sweetly,—is that poison too? (Browning 16-20)
The speaker refers to the poisons in the lab like she’s describing sweets or jewelry. She’s amused at something deadly being made into something beautiful: “To carry pure death in an earring, a casket/A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!” (Browning 23-24). The trinkets she mentions are things women of the court would display to to show their status, but the speaker wants to make them weapons. As critic David Sonstroem argues, the speaker repeatedly associates the beautiful and the deadly. She rejects the first poison because it doesn’t look pretty or appealing. She wants to give her rivals candy or a cocktail that’s laced with death (10).
The imagery in “My Last Duchess” is sharply divided: soft, beautiful, romantic things are associated with the kindly Duchess, while cold, hard, expensive things are associated with the deadly Duke. In “The Laboratory,” death and beauty are always linked (Sonstroem 10). While “My Last Duchess” implies that the values of the Duke’s world are skewed, as a powerful man can murder his wife without consequences, the poem focuses on his individual evil. In “The Laboratory,” Browning implies the entire world the speaker inhabits is toxic. Sonstroem says, “[The Court], like the speaker, is beautiful but destructive . . . . aesthetics have supplanted ethics. The only value that matters is beauty” (11). You can commit murder at court and get away with it if you look fabulous (and your poison is fabulous, too). While the Duke is portrayed as a lone psychopath, the woman in “The Laboratory” inhabits a sick society that’s poisoning itself.
I’m intrigued by the passionate, deadly speaker of “The Laboratory” and the dangerous world she inhabits. However, after reading both poems again, I like “My Last Duchess” more and think it’s a stronger poem. It’s more subtle, as it takes multiple readings to understand the Duke’s story. The speaker of “The Laboratory” lays it all out the first time through. Also, the contrasting soft/hard and light/dark imagery of “My Last Duchess” is more complex than the death/beauty imagery of “The Laboratory.” However, “The Laboratory” is well worth reading and probably deserves a portfolio of its own.
“My Last Duchess” is the most famous poem written by Robert Browning, and it deserves its reputation. In under 500 words, Browning gives you a novel’s worth of love, jealousy, obsession, and murder. Critics have been exploring the mysteries of “My Last Duchess since it was published in 1842. Though we all agree Duke Ferrara is a monster, he’s a fascinating one. His powerful voice and deadly passions are as seductive now as they were 180 years ago.
By creating this portfolio, I understand even more how lucky I am to be living in the modern era. While once again I was forced to ask myself why it took me several years to leave my controlling boyfriend (a question I may never answer), I’m grateful that I could leave. The Duchess in the poem is a fictionalized version of Lucrezia Ferrara, but many real-life people have suffered just as much in bad relationships, and not all of them survived. Writing this made me reflect on the choices, good and bad, that have made me who I am today.
I have always liked poetry, but creating this portfolio helped me appreciate its ability to influence our thoughts and emotions. I realized how working with a single poem in-depth can help you see things you would otherwise have missed. The research was helpful, as critics like Markley and Sonstroem gave me insights I would not have found on my own. However, using my own experiences, I found meanings in the poem—like the Duke’s continued obsession with his first wife—that were not in the critical articles. I also found insights through the creative response: Who knew collecting pictures could be so useful? Overall, this was a great project that helped me feel the power of poetry in a new way. Poetry often isn’t easy, but if you are willing to invest the time and effort, it can change your life.
Bonior, Andrea. “20 Signs Your Partner Is Controlling.” Psychology Today, 1 June 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201506/20-signs-your-partner-is-controlling. Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.
Browning, Robert. “The Laboratory.” Poetry Foundation, 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation. org/poems/43760/the-laboratory. Accessed 20 Nov. 2021.
—. “My Last Duchess.” The Poetry Foundation, 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/ 43768/my-last-duchess. Accessed 20 Nov. 2021.
Guthrie, Camille. “Poem Guide: Robert Browning, ‘My Last Duchess.’ Poetry Foundation, 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/144033/robert-browning-my-last-duchess. Accessed 20 Nov. 2021.
Markley, Arnold. “An Overview of ‘My Last Duchess.’” Poetry for Students, Gale. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420002418/ GLS?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-GLS&xid=bebcb9d2. Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.
“Robert Browning: Biography.” LitFinder Contemporary Collection, Gale, 2007. Gale Literature: LitFinder, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/LTF0000009150BI/ LITF?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-LITF&xid=8954f2b0. Accessed 22 Nov. 2021.
Sonstroem, David. “The Poison Within: Robert Browning’s ‘The Laboratory.’” Victorian Newsletter, vol. 111, spring 2007, pp. 10+. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A162920312/GLS?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-GLS&xid=92417a32. Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.