I thought I'd bug Dan O'Shea for a guest post to go along with my review of his short story collection Old School tomorrow, and assuming he'd be too busy to bother with a post for a blog that's been called... "girly" ... I just expected my favorite twitter flirt to say, no. So, I told him that if he passed on the post he was expected to supply me with an audio of a poem of his choosing, and a song. I'm soooo demanding! And... thankfully so. Dan was kind enough to write this engaging piece regarding My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. He was also nice enough to throw in an audio of his seductive voice reading this beautiful piece of poetry. Watch out ladies... Dan's got some pretty special pipes, and your ears will never be the same again! And, Dan, my darling... from the bottom of my heart, I praise thy kindness.
Some cheery thoughts on the real nature
of evil to mark this august anniversary of Sabrina’s birth
Being asked to do a guest blog post is one thing – and thing enough for me, exhibitionist narcissist that I am. Just another chance to pimp my wares (Old School is now available) and foist my opinions on any public, willing or otherwise.
But a birthday guest blog post, well, that’s another thing entirely. Because then it becomes, in form, a present and must be crafted in mind of the recipient’s tastes. Fortunately, the Divine Ms. Ogden, goddess of the interwebs and, as those who have followed my long adoring on Twitter are well aware, nymph in my, if not thy, orisons, was most forthcoming concerning her desires – a post, a poem and a song. Knowing well the effect my voice has on the pink grace of her shell-like ears, the poem first, then, as it shall inform what follows.
For the occasion, I have chosen My Last Duchess by Robert Browning.
My Last Duchess
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fra 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”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. 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? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
Why this poem? So far as writing goes, my work tends toward crime or otherwise to those darker recesses of the human heart, and My Last Duchess gives voice to the twin impulses of pride and avarice that kindle the black fires that drive the light from those crevices. In this poem there is no overt crime, though one does wonder how the Duchess, never named but only identified as the narrator’s possession, came to be his last, how it was that “all smiles stopped together,” how it is that he can now be in the market for a new bride (and a market it is, for it is his dowry that will secure the “fair daughter” and not the allegiance of any heart).
A miasma of sinister oppression informs every line. We are left with a wrenching portrait of a woman whose primary impulses are toward joy and gratitude married to a man who transmutes those virtues to vices because he cannot own those impulses entire. A man so prideful, even though he himself has done nothing to earn that pride, but instead has inherited it as baggage of his “nine hundred years old name,” that he can, in service to that undeserved pride, twist any offering of gratitude to anyone but him, any joy derived from a source outside himself, into an insult, into cause for disgust.
It is solipsism writ large, writ to the point of sociopathy. It is the furnace in which we see formed the worst kind of greed – a covetousness that will not be satisfied with only his neighbor’s ass or handmaiden or wife, but an avarice so consuming that it demands that every thought, every emotion, every reaction be to him and him alone. A worldview of hunger so consuming that any rare or animate beauty must be seized, must be owned whole, must be cast in bronze for him and reduced from the ethereal grace of happy human congress to an object that he can hang on a wall or set on a shelf.
In crime fiction, we can readily find examples of banal desperation, and we see attempt after attempt to raise the petty actions of shallow thugs to high drama by decorating their crimes in a baroque of violence, as if plastering these smaller evils with a garish enough varnish of gore can make them worthy of serious consideration. We focus on the filigree of blood with which their actions paint the walls without plumbing the depths of the twisted and unholy hungers that drive those maddened hands.
But in My Last Duchess, we see the serpent in the tree plain and naked, not a drop of blood spilt, but we are left shivering at the face of true evil instead of just gasping at the patina of its handiwork.
There is a lesson there.
I chose that poem for one other reason, too. Sabrina reminds me of that anonymous duchess – she has a heart too soon made glad and lightens any number of lives daily with her ready delight. So happy birthday, Sabrina. Oh, you wanted a song, too. Well, you can’t always get what you want. That’s a song. I’ll send further inappropriate thoughts on birthday suits and spankings in private.
Or, more likely, on Twitter.
Dan O’Shea is a Chicago-area crime writer represented by Stacia Decker at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. His novel Unto Caesar is currently being circulated to all the usual suspects. His short fiction has appeared in Crimefactory, the Discount Noir anthology, and Needle. You can find out more about Dan at his blog, Going Ballistic.