Sunday Pages: "My Last Duchess (Ferrara)"
A poem by Robert Browning
Absolute power corrupts, and paying $44 billion for absolute control of a social media platform corrupts absolutely. The source of the original quote about the corrupting properties of absolute power went by “Lord Acton,” without a hint of irony. The butt of my joke, meanwhile, is now being referred to on Twitter as “Emperor Musk.”
The situation this week, which saw the thin-skinned boy-king exile from his dominions those soothsayers who dared reveal the whereabouts of his ostentatious royal sedan, was, like most things with this tedious, self-loathing man-child, achingly stupid. I am hemorrhaging IQ points trying to follow the story. It’s just so dumb. Fear not, Dear Reader: I’m not going to spoil the last Sunday before Christmas by rehashing it all now. Let us say, in summary, that the Emperor rules his virtual empire by whim, his bird app power is absolute, and the freedom of speech protections guaranteed us in the First Amendment are widely misunderstood.
With “Emperor Musk” came memes of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. And, yeah, Commodus, sure: an insecure Augustus with terrifying power, the child of the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius—and one of the more egregious fail-sons in the annals of Rome, inheriting a shit-ton of wealth and territory he could not maintain. Caligula also comes to mind: chaotic, cluster B, capricious, crazy. Per legend and the Robert Graves novel I, Claudius, the mad emperor named his beloved horse, Incitātus, to the Roman Senate. There are head-scratchingly strange equine stories about the Emperor Musk as well.
A closer analog, seems to me, is the evil-boy-with-superpowers episode of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life,” that was later spoofed on The Simpsons. Elon is the sadistic six-year-old Anthony Fremont, who torments the townspeople living under his reign of terror. When one of the oppressed citizens confronts the psychopathic child, Fremont turns him into a jack-in-the-box. (There is no reality in which “let that sink in” Musk, given those same powers, would not do something similar and crack up about it with Cat Turd.) In the last scene, the head of the jack-in-the-box bobs in a cornfield as snow falls. Fremont’s indulgent parents assure him, “But it’s good you’re making it snow. A real good thing. And tomorrow...tomorrow’s gonna be a...real good day!” Musk has an army of fans, not all of them bots, giving him similar sycophantic assurances.
But as the Emperor Musk’s actions toward the journalists covering him got pettier this week—and as it became more clear that his motives were personal, revealing a deeply damaged psyche—I thought of another vindictive royal, this one from the pages of a poetry anthology: Ferrara, the narrator of the Robert Browning poem “My Last Duchess.” (I shared this once before, but it was two-and-a-half years ago, so I’m giving it another go.)
Published in 1842, “My Last Duchess” is a monologue delivered by a Musk-like duke called Ferrara—who speaks in perfect rhyming iambic pentameter couplets, as one does—to a visitor. Ferrara is boastful of his wealth and worldly possessions. He wants his visitor to be impressed by his bronze sculpture of Neptune on a seahorse—and also by the portrait of the eponymous “last duchess,” painted by the presumably renowned artist Fra Pandolf. The monologue begins:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
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.
To this new visitor, the duke is pointing out a painting on the wall of his dead wife. He’s more concerned with name-dropping the portrait artist and remarking on how life-like the rendering looks than processing her death. Right away, big red flag.
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.
Here we glean that the still-anonymous visitor has said something along the lines of, “Wow, she’s so beautiful. What a seductive glance the artist managed to capture! How’d that come about?” This apparently happens all the time.
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.
Ferrara speculates on how the artist got her to look the way she does, with a blush forming in her youthful cheeks: his late wife, he thought, was prone to flattery.
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.
Ah, the delicious double meaning of that last clause! If it isn’t already clear that Ferrara is the jealous type, all doubt is removed as he continues his monologue:
Sir, ’twas all one! My favor 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.
His last duchess, it seems, was a good-natured soul, who smiled easily at the most whimsical things—and it drove him fucking nuts.
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?
The duke cannot fathom that other things made her more visibly joyful than the fact that she married into his lugubrious family. How can she look at any other men at all with the same amount of reverence that she gives to him? Doesn’t she know he’s the richest man in the world, the guy who runs the electric car company?
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.
The couples counselling didn’t work out. He’s shit at talking about his feelings. He has too much pride. He thinks therapy is dumb.
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.
And here, buried in the flawless iambic pentameter, is the horrible truth. Because this lovely woman, full of life, full of joy and happiness, did not reserve all of that joy and happiness for her husband, he had her killed. Then all smiles stopped together. Shivers. Also: last duchess implies that there were others before her, who met with a similar fate.
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 pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object.
At last, the big reveal. We now learn whom the duke is addressing: the ambassador of a count, who is considering wedding his beautiful daughter to this psychopathic, jealous, bloodthirsty monster. Like marrying Musk, this is not a good idea.
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!
Ferrara is emotionally incapable of contemplating the horror of what he’s done. He wanted his duchess to be a perfect wife—but the only way for this petty, thin-skinned tyrant to achieve that was to snuff out her life and hang her portrait on the wall of his office. Unlike duchesses at court and tech journalists in Twitter Spaces, paintings don’t talk back.
There will be no PREVAIL column or podcast on Friday, December 23.
We had no guest on this week’s The Five 8. We’re off this Friday, back December 30th for the last show of 2022. Here is the show:
And here’s this week’s parody:
Photo credit: Mingche Lee.