Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
The first nine sections of this poem were printed in Hood’s Magazine for April, 1845.
The poem took its rise from a line — “Following the Queen of the Gypsies, O!” the burden of a song which the poet, when a boy, heard a woman singing on a Guy Fawkes’ Day. As Browning was writing it, he was interrupted by the arrival of a friend on some important business, which drove all thoughts of the Duchess, and the scheme of her story, out of the poet’s head. But some months after the publication of the first part, when he was staying at Bettisfield Park, in Shropshire, a guest, speaking of early winter, said, “The deer had already to break the ice in the pond.” On this a fancy struck the poet, and, returning home, he worked it up into the conclusion of the poem as it now stands.
You’re my friend:
I was the man the Duke spoke to;
I helped the Duchess to cast off his yoke, too;
So, here’s the tale from beginning to end,
Ours is a great wild country:
If you climb to our castle’s top,
I don’t see where your eye can stop;
For when you’ve passed the cornfield country,
Where vineyards leave off, flocks are packed,
And sheep-range leads to cattle-tract,
And cattle-tract to open-chase,
And open-chase to the very base
Of the mountain where, at a funeral pace,
Round about, solemn and slow,
One by one, row after row,
Up and up the pine-trees go,
So, like black priests up, and so
Down the other side again
To another greater, wilder country,
That’s one vast red drear burnt-up plain,
Branched through and through with many a vein
Whence iron’s dug, and copper’s dealt;
Look right, look left, look straight before, —
Beneath they mine, above they smelt,
Copper-ore and iron-ore,
And forge and furnace mould and melt,
And so on, more and ever more,
Till at the last, for a bounding belt,
Comes the salt sand hoar of the great sea-shore,
— And the whole is our Duke’s country.
I was born the day this present Duke was —
(And O, says the song, ere I was old!)
In the castle where the other Duke was —
(When I was happy and young, not old!)
I in the kennel, he in the bower:
We are of like age to an hour.
My father was huntsman in that day;
Who has not heard my father say
That, when a boar was brought to bay,
Three times, four times out of five,
With his huntspear he’d contrive
To get the killing-place transfixed,
And pin him true, both eyes betwixt?
And that’s why the old Duke would rather
He lost a salt-pit than my father,
And loved to have him ever in call;
That’s why my father stood in the hall
When the old Duke brought his infant out
To show the people, and while they passed
The wondrous bantling round about,
Was first to start at the outside blast
As the Kaiser’s courier blew his horn,
Just a month after the babe was born.
“And,’’ quoth the Kaiser’s courier, “since
The Duke has got an heir, our Prince
Needs the Duke’s self at his side:’’
The Duke looked down and seemed to wince,
But he thought of wars o’er the world wide,
Castles a-fire, men on their march,
The toppling tower, the crashing arch;
And up he looked, and awhile he eyed
The row of crests and shields and banners
Of all achievements after all manners,
And “ay,’’ said the Duke with a surly pride.
The more was his comfort when he died
At next year’s end, in a velvet suit,
With a gilt glove on his hand, his foot
In a silken shoe for a leather boot,
Petticoated like a herald,
In a chamber next to an ante-room,
Where he breathed the breath of page and groom,
What he called stink, and they, perfume:
— They should have set him on red Berold
Mad with pride, like fire to manage!
They should have got his cheek fresh tannage
Such a day as to-day in the merry sunshine!
Had they stuck on his fist a rough-foot merlin!
(Hark, the wind’s on the heath at its game!
Oh for a noble falcon-lanner
To flap each broad wing like a banner,
And turn in the wind, and dance like flame!)
Had they broached a white-beer cask from Berlin
— Or if you incline to prescribe mere wine
Put to his lips, when they saw him pine,
A cup of our own Moldavia fine,
Cotnar for instance, green as May sorrel
And ropy with sweet, — we shall not quarrel.
So, at home, the sick tall yellow Duchess
Was left with the infant in her clutches,
She being the daughter of God knows who:
And now was the time to revisit her tribe.
Abroad and afar they went, the two,
And let our people rail and gibe
At the empty hall and extinguished fire,
As loud as we liked, but ever in vain,
Till after long years we had our desire,
And back came the Duke and his mother again.
And he came back the pertest little ape
That ever affronted human shape;
Full of his travel, struck at himself.
You’d say, he despised our bluff old ways?
— Not he! For in Paris they told the elf
Our rough North land was the Land of Lays,
The one good thing left in evil days;
Since the Mid-Age was the Heroic Time,
And only in wild nooks like ours
Could you taste of it yet as in its prime,
And see true castles, with proper towers,
Young-hearted women, old-minded men,
And manners now as manners were then.
So, all that the old Dukes had been, without knowing it,
This Duke would fain know he was, without being it;
‘Twas not for the joy’s self, but the joy of his showing it,
Nor for the pride’s self, but the pride of our seeing it,
He revived all usages thoroughly-worn-out,
The souls of them fumed-forth, the hearts of them torn-out:
And chief in the chase his neck he perilled,
On a lathy horse, all legs and length,
With blood for bone, all speed, no strength;
— They should have set him on red Berold
With the red eye slow consuming in fire,
And the thin stiff ear like an abbey spire!
Well, such as he was, he must marry, we heard:
And out of a convent, at the word,
Came the lady, in time of spring.
— Oh, old thoughts they cling, they cling!
That day, I know, with a dozen oaths
I clad myself in thick hunting-clothes
Fit for the chase of urochs or buffle
In winter-time when you need to muffle.
But the Duke had a mind we should cut a figure,
And so we saw the lady arrive:
My friend, I have seen a white crane bigger!
She was the smallest lady alive,
Made in a piece of nature’s madness,
Too small, almost, for the life and gladness
That over-filled her, as some hive
Out of the bears’ reach on the high trees
Is crowded with its safe merry bees:
In truth, she was not hard to please!
Up she looked, down she looked, round at the mead,
Straight at the castle, that’s best indeed
To look at from outside the walls:
As for us, styled the “serfs and thralls,’’
She as much thanked me as if she had said it,
(With her eyes, do you understand?)
Because I patted her horse while I led it;
And Max, who rode on her other hand,
Said, no bird flew past but she inquired
What its true name was, nor ever seemed tired —
If that was an eagle she saw hover,
And the green and gray bird on the field was the plover.
When suddenly appeared the Duke:
And as down she sprung, the small foot pointed
On to my hand, — as with a rebuke,
And as if his backbone were not jointed,
The Duke stepped rather aside than forward,
And welcomed her with his grandest smile;
And, mind you, his mother all the while
Chilled in the rear, like a wind to Nor’ward;
And up, like a weary yawn, with its pulleys
Went, in a shriek, the rusty portcullis;
And, like a glad sky the north-wind sullies,
The lady’s face stopped its play,
As if her first hair had grown gray;
For such things must begin some one day.