A Comparison of My Last Duchess and Ulysses

A Comparison of My Last Duchess and Ulysses

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Comparing My Last Duchess and Ulysses  

Both of the poems, ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning and ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson, are examples of dramatic monologues, in that they solely consist of the speech of the protagonist. As a result, they have few or, in the case of ‘My Last Duchess’, only one stanza. Many enjambed lines and many irregularities in the basic form of iambic pentameter also hide the rhyming couplets in this poem. ‘My Last Duchess’ is set in Renaissance Italy and is the Duke of Ferrara talking to a servant of his prospective father-in-law, about a painting of his former wife. The narrator of ‘Ulysses’ is the man in the title, an Ancient Greek hero, talking about his loathing of his regal position and his wish to travel again before his impending death. Although they are both powerful men talking about their pasts, there are noticeable differences between the two poems, both in the protagonists themselves and the poetic devices used to present them. One of the clearest differences between Ferrara and Ulysses is the source of their power, and the kind of power that they wield. Ferrara’s power comes from his ‘nine-hundred-years-old-name’, that is, his position as the ruler of one of the many city states that make up the present-day nation of Italy. This was a position he was born into-not one which he earned. He obviously puts great value on his inherited status, as he refers to it as a ‘gift’ and objected when his wife did not consider it more precious than the gifts that other people gave to her. He considers himself to have been very generous by making her his Duchess, and he thinks that his wife should have ranked this generosity than that of others. He gives examples of other gifts which she thought of as equal in worth, such as:

‘The white mule
She rode with round the terrace’
‘The dropping of daylight in the west.'

The Duke does not think that such things, which are trivial to him, should bring her the same amount of joy as the presents he bestows on her. He is also mildly jealous of the way that other things can make his wife happy. He thinks that she should love him and him alone. This is particularly shown when he refers to someone else.

‘The bough of cherries some officious fool

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Broke in the orchard for her,’

By placing ‘officious fool’ at the end of the line, Browning emphasises the Duke’s distaste at referring to the man. This could also be thought of as a representation of his opinions on all his minions. He finds them irritating and will not have much to do with them. In this aspect, Ulysses mirrors him, to some degree. He does not like his subjects-the Ithicans-calling them a ‘savage race’. He also talks about the way they ‘sleep, and feed’ as if this is all their life consists of, and are, therefore, no better than beasts. But this has more to do with Ulysses’ dislike of their behaviour and greed than him objecting to them just because they are of a lower class. He is very companionable with many of the people he met on his travels. He refers to their cities as those of ‘men and manners…councils, governments’. By speaking of their ‘manners’ he shows that they are civilized, honorable and not like the Ithicans. He talks of having been ‘honored by all’ and this is probably because of how he attained his fame. Unlike the Duke of Ferrara, Ulysses has earned his hero status by his exploits in Troy. He has ‘drunk the delights of battle’ and as a result the ordinary people respect him as someone who has fought in the name of Greece. The alliteration of ‘drunk’ and ‘delights’ shows the extent to which he enjoyed these times. It also refers back to an earlier drinking metaphor, about ‘drinking life to the lees’. He will live life to the full, and the time he felt he was doing this to the fullest extent was when he was in battle.

Ulysses has an ethos of equality which is brought over in the way that he talks to the listener. He refers to him in the phrase ‘you and I are old’, showing that they have things in common and the fact that he puts the listener -‘you- first after the caesura makes us feel that he considers him more important. He does not talk down to the person he is talking to-who is likely not to be as high in status as a king-and appears to be telling him the truth. He also talks as his comrades in battle as his ‘peers’ implying that they were all the same, and that he was not better than any other soldier. This is in stark contrast to Ferrara, who definitely feels he is superior to his listener. He is talking to the servant of a count, who is the father of his prospective bride. He tells him what to do, instructing him to ‘meet the company below then’, often employing mock courtesy-such as asking him ‘Will’t please you sit and look at her?’-to disguise the control which he exerts over the other man. This sort of irony is a prominent feature of the poem and, in fact, of much of Robert Browning’s work. Ulysses also gives orders. When he is in the boat with his mariners he tells them to ‘push off’. But he is also very anxious to emphasise the comradeship he feels for the sailors. When they ‘smite/ The sounding furrows,’ they are all rowing together with every man, including Ulysses, pulling his weight. He calls them ‘souls’ implying that he is proud of, and full of admiration for, the men’s characters. When you also take into account ancient Greek religion and beliefs in the afterlife, the use of souls also implies that they will carry on being comrades even after the grave. This is a strong desire for Ulysses and he talks about how he hopes to see ‘ Achilles, whom we knew’. The past tense of the verb ‘knew’ betrays the fact that Ulysses’ relationship with heroes such as Achilles is now far behind him. He also has respect for the mariners because he knows that they have been through his experiences at his side, have ‘toiled and wrought and thought’ with him. The use of the rule of three emphasises the feeling of companionship. All three are active verbs, reflecting Ulysses’ active nature, and ‘toiled’ and ‘wrought’ give an idea of the hardships that they have endured. The inclusion of ‘thought’ shows that he sees them as more than laborers, but as men who have shared his deep psychological experiences, and benefited from them as much as he has. He uses one of many maritime metaphors in the poem to convey their experiences. He likens the good times and bad times to the thunderous or sunny weather that can befall a sailing ship. He knows that the men have been through these times with him -taken them with a ‘frolic welcome’, thought of them as mere trifles and endured them-and for this he is thankful and even indebted to them.

Interestingly one of the major similarities between the two protagonists is that they have both killed. However, they have exterminated people in very different ways. Ulysses homicide would, in the eyes of Ancient Greece, have been seen as heroic. He has battled on the ‘ringing plains of windy Troy’. ‘Ringing’ is an onomatopoeia and combined with ‘windy’ gives a real sense of the frantic conflict on a desolate battlefield, with the sounds of swords crashing together. It was out of his ability as a warrior that his fame and heroism was born, and he enjoyed this sort of admiration. Conversely, the Duke of Ferrara’s killing was not heroic. It was not even personal, as he himself did not even wield the axe. He just ‘gave commands;’ and the job was done for him. The way in which he expresses it tells us a lot. Firstly, all he had to do was give commands, he knew that there was no question of them not being obeyed. Also, he is obeying etiquette by referring to the execution in this way. In the highly formal world of Renaissance Italy, it would have been incredibly bad mannered to talk about killing someone. It was much better to dress it up in euphemisms. The semi colon that shortly follows the reference to the execution not only finishes off an end-stop line emphasising the word ‘commands’, but it also shows that there is a caesura. The Duke pauses slightly as if to dwell on the unpleasant episode in his past. When he continues it is on a new tack, showing he does not to think too much about his late wife’s death. He did not enjoy his killing; Ulysses did.

In addition to the power that they already hold, both characters are seeking something else. The Duke of Ferrara, for instance, is constantly in search of new objects to add to his collection. He believes these are the best way to impress people as to his elevated status. We can see this by the way he tries to impress the servant whom he is addressing, both with the painting and the bronze of Neptune which he points out right at the end. He tells the man that it is thought to be a rarity, and says that it was cast especially ‘for me [that is, the Duke]’. The fact that ‘me’ completes a rhyming couplet further emphasises the importance in which he holds himself. Indeed, throughout the poem, the pronoun ‘my’ appears several times, stressing the Duke’s possessive nature. Seeking more beautiful objects is not restricted to fine works of art either. Rather, he regards people, particularly his wife of the moment, as possessions. He seeks a new wife and he even says that his future fiancée ‘is [his] object’. He then uses a very complicated sentence construction:

‘The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed.’

The Duke is, in effect, merely asking for a large dowry. But he dresses it up in such a clever way, that he does not appear greedy, presumptuous or impudent. This puts quite an ironic spin on his earlier comments about not having skill in words.

‘how shall I say?’

‘I know not how’

‘had you skill
In speech-which I have not’.

The Duke actually has great skill in speech, but he says that he doesn’t to hide the fact that he is painting a very black picture of the Duchess’ behaviour. The prospect of a substantial dowry also seems to hold more relish to him than marrying the women he loves. All this reinforces the idea that the Duke believes himself to be the only person in the world of any importance, and all others are there to do what he wishes. This is very different from Ulysses. Firstly, as has already been noted, he holds people, especially his fellow mariners, in very high regard. In addition, his quest is not one for more possessions, indeed, as king he must have access to enormous wealth, yet he despises kingship. He refers to himself as ‘idle’ in the role and also comments that his son Telemachus will do a far better job when he inherits the throne. Instead of material wealth, Ulysses’ quest is for a more spiritual goal. He wants to ‘follow knowledge like a sinking star’, and relive the experiences which were the hallmark of his earlier life. The fact that he uses a simile to refer to knowledge as a ‘sinking star’ reflects his awareness of his old age. He also talks about how the ‘long day wanes’. The day is a metaphor for his life and it is coming to an end. The assonance and monosyllabic words also imply that everything is slowing down, as he is in his old age. His acquired knowledge and speed of thought are beginning to leave him, which leads on to one of his other greatest desires-to live right up to his death. He knows that ‘Death closes all’ and that no one can escape it. He even personifies and claims that he will not ‘yield’ to this horrific specter-he is going to go out fighting. But he believes that even in old age, ‘Some work of noble note’ can still be achieved. He may be close to death, but he is not dead yet, and he is going to go on experiencing life right until the end. He likens life to a cup of ale and says he will drink it ‘to the lees’. By showing the remains of life as lees or dregs, he is showing that he knows that they may be unpleasant, but thinks that it is better to experience bad things than to not experience at all.

The differences in the characters and their situations are also reflected in the way that each poem is written. The Duke of Ferrara has a clear purpose to his speech-to impress the servant and warn him that his future wife had better behave-and as a result the poem consists of one long stanza. There are also many cases of enjambment:

`She had
A heart ... too soon made glad’

‘but thanked
Somehow ... as if she ranked'

In these two examples the rhyming couplets are hidden, reflecting that this is speech. ‘Ulysses’ is different. It consists of three stanzas, each with distinctly different subject matter. The first looks back at his past, the second deals with the present, and the final verse looks to the future. The way in which the subject of the speech changes imitates the kind of conversational wanderings that often inflict people of old age. It also shows that he has no clear purpose behind his speech. The style of the poems also reflects the characters. There is great irony when the Duke talks about not having ,‘skill in speech’. In fact he has great skill at presenting a bad picture of a Duchess whose only fault was liking the common people. The tone of Ulysses’ speech is quite lamenting. His deep thinking abilities are also reflected by his use of metaphors. For example, he talks about experience being an ‘arch wherethrough/ Gleams the untravelled world’. The use of gleams shows how attractive it is to him and the enjambed line implies the movement of travel as the reader’s eyes are moved on to the next line. The use of the image of an arch also implies that once one has gone through experience, one emerges as something different at the other side. This metaphor is mirrored by another, which harks back to Ulysses’ days in battle. He says that to stay still and not to use your life is like a sword left ‘To rust unburnished’, whereas to travel and strive for knowledge is making the sword ‘shine in use’. The contrast between the light of ‘shine’ and the dullness of ‘rust’ shows how much travelling is, in Ulysses’ opinion, better than a sedentary existence. Tennyson also uses assonance to show the unknown aspect of the ocean that so draws Ulysses. When looking towards the ocean, Ulysses tells the reader ‘There gloom the dark, broad seas’. The assonance emphasises the vast unexplored expanse of the ocean. The language is also quite dark recognising how the sea can be a dangerous evil as well as a friend in the quest for knowledge.

I think that ‘Ulysses’ is the more successful, because I find the imagery far more emotive and vivid. ‘My Last Duchess’ was too lacking in emotion and I thought that it could have worked equally well, if not better, as a simple speech and not as a poem at all. Whereas I enjoyed the interesting perspective that Tennyson took, looking back on the travels of Ulysses, rather than describing them as has so often been done before. It was also a very powerful image - that of a man who has realised that he has little time left, but who is going to make sure that he does not waste his last days.

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