Browning's poems are often referred to as cerebral because they are difficult to understand. Understanding them opens up a whole new world either of mysteries, dark secrets or of deep philosophies of life. Here are some of the most misunderstood or ambiguous as also the most poignant poems ever by two different poets. I strongly recommend that you read the poems before you read the notes below.I have given links to both of the poems before the notes.
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Read the poem here: http://www.bartleby.com/119/1.html
The road not taken is one of the trickiest poems. The poem is commonly read as celebrating the triumph of individualism and non-conformism. This is reflected in the tendency of generations of readers who mistakenly think the title to be “The read less taken.” The poem is about a moment, the moment of decision, which comes in everyone’s life. A moment in which the poet, standing on the crossroads of life is forced to make a decision. Careless reading often renders the poem as the one meaning to exemplify the life of the poet who took the road less travelled by, a decision which brought about all the difference. But a more accurate reading makes the reader realize that the both the roads were actually equally worn, “And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” The poem is a poignant satire. It points out that there is no real choice, we have to choose a path, not because it is a path less travelled by, but because we don’t want to be left at the crossroads all our lives. We want to move therefore we have to choose one road, without really understanding what the difference between the road taken and the road not taken is.
The poet takes one road, and he never knows what he would have encountered had he taken the other road. The poem laments this loss. The poet knows that at a time in future he will retell with a sigh the story of what happened at the crucial moment. He’ll try and justify the reason for taking the road he took. He’ll assert that his decision to take the road less travelled by made all the difference in his life.
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Read the poem here: http://www.poetry-online.org/browning_robert_my_last_duchess.htm
The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara, a city state in Renaissance Italy. His speech, though he is talking about the duchess all the time, gives the reader insight into his own character. By referring to the duchess as his last duchess, the duke brings to the fore the fact that she is one of a number of wives he has had. In fact towards the end of the poem the reader comes to know that he is indeed in the process of negotiating the dowry for his forthcoming marriage and this monologue is addressed to the servant of his future father in law. The duke is a control freak, trying to control everything including who gets to see the duchess’ portrait on the wall (since none puts by/ The curtain I have drown for you but I) and to what and whom can his wife smile. The duke is a collector of art objects and is so obsessed with this that he views his wives as nothing more than art objects he owns:
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, my object.
Instead of saying that Fra Pandolf painted the portrait, he rather mentions his hand, dehumanizing the artist in the process. The figure of Neptune taming the sea horses serves the dual purpose of showing the duke’s pride in his collection of rare art objects and emphasizing the tendency of the duke to tame people around him, especially his wives. He is proud of his nine hundred years old nobility and is filled with self importance.
The picture of the duchess that emerges from the duke’s account is that of a delightful and innocent young woman. The duke points out two defects in her character, first she is “too easily impressed”, flirtatious even, and second she does not differentiate between the courtesy shown to her by others and by the duke himself. This is not what the duchess actually is but rather what he perceives her to be. Anyone who shows a favor to the duchess is greeted with “approving speech or blush, at least”. The duke calls this blush a spot, rendering the meaning rather blameworthy. The noble ancestry of the duke calls for special treatment but the duchess does not understand this and greets him with the same smile that she uses while greeting others. Now any ordinary person would let their spouse know if they have some problem with his/her behavior. But the duke is of noble ancestry and considers it a lowly task to make others see their faults. So instead of indulging in such lowly tasks, something he calls “stooping”, he gives commands to murder his wife.
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I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and Non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could.- M. K. Gandhi
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