Writer’s comment: At first I was a bit intimidated by an assignment which allowed me such free rein. My aim was to imitate Browning and extend the reach of his poem by creatively interpreting the essential humanity of one of his own characters. But once I started, an amazing thing happened: the paper, including the poetic monologue, wrote itself. This experience has been a lesson in the power of characterization, and has contributed to my interest in creative writing. Lucrezia began to establish her own voice as I wrote, which is not too surprising. But she also began to operate on the basis of her own motivations, interests, insecurities, passions, and so forth. It’s marvelous to let a character grip your pen like that. As Grace Paley writes, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
I hope readers will enjoy the two halves of the monologue as a kind of drama, an all-too-familiar instance of frustrated domestic dialogue. Ambiguity is what makes this discourse so appealing, and I hope the result is that readers will ultimately doubt both narrators’ opinions—no matter how passionately delivered.
Instructor’s comment: This assignment for English literature allows students to engage with a piece of literature by writing a new scene, a different ending, or an alternative point of view that modifies and comments on the original author’s intention. This “creative” section must be at least three pages long; but in order not to inhibit beginners, I do not grade students on how “professionally” they write or how well they mimic the author. Rather, I ask them to write a three-page analysis of their own efforts, both process and results, that becomes the basis for a grade. In this analysis the students explain why they have chosen a particular work/scene/character, how they made artistic and editorial decisions, and what they have learned from doing so. They are asked to demonstrate how their contribution changes the original work, and what this assignment has taught them about the writing process, as well as about the author, style, and period.
My intention is to involve students as participants in the literary tradition rather than merely as observers of it. Through their creative effort, students engage with the work’s poetics, structure, and underlying assumptions just as the original author has done. As a result of this process, students not only develop a thorough understanding of the work’s formal dynamics but also generate an emotional investment that motivates and gives point to their analysis.
The dramatic monologue is especially appropriate for a creative response, because the second character in the poem is implied but not defined. Leigh’s depiction of Lucrezia’s character is bold and substantive, while it still retains Browning’s historical conventions and the elegant blank verse his character speaks. Leigh’s Lucrezia skillfully repudiates Andrea del Sarto’s self-justification that if only his wife had better inspired him, he could have been great. Her characterization also repudiates, by implication, Browning’s Romantic typology of the beautiful woman as Muse. Lucrezia conveys her disappointment with a husband who reaches for fame but grasps only fantasy, while at the same time she prompts him to realize his talent and turns him gently but firmly to his task. In rhetorical skill, Lucrezia equals her husband; in psychological perception and force of character, she dominates.
Leigh’s paper brings to mind recent literary criticism which asks readers to listen carefully for voices that are systematically silenced. Leigh Morgan breaks such an enforced silence by bodying forth a Lucrezia who actively engages with the dominant culture represented by Browning’s poem.
—Peggy Boegeman, English Department
Lucrezia del Sarto (To My Dear Husband)
Or, pray you, hand it to the dogs; the sun
Has but an hour to make its mid-way trek,
And here sit you etching pewter with crust,
And smearing cheese and jam with lazy thumbs.
Ah, yes! Kiss me so. Then kiss me better
To smother my lips. Your artlessness is
What makes me smile so, dear, and not your kiss.
No, I will speak. And should you be so kind
As to listen, you’ll find me plainly spoken.
Long last night, in my bed, I turned and turned;
As much as I’d suffered your words while they
Tumbled from your lips, I suffered them once
More, and more fresh, fettered fast inside my head!
Love, the night wore on, black, blank, and at last
Thinned. But how you wear me! Tell me you shall
Keep your promise to each one of the three:
To myself, to my cousin, and to thee!
I will tell you how I mean: Do life’s work,
Honor your wife, your word, and yourself
If it pleases you. But be first a man;
No—a husband—above all else. Tell me,
’Tis possibly better to honor yourself?
My dear husband, I have much in reply
To offer your last eve’s soliloquy;
So perhaps it shall suit you to gaze less
Dumbly at my brow and more at my mouth
Whilst I so plainly speak. Your talents do
Not waste themselves on me. Do not doubt it.
I am more certain of your skill than you
May think. And so I am less humored by
The fickle errantry of a mind which once
Was sharp and sweet. My pride in you has waned.
Pick, pick, pick, but never paint! Well enough,
You say we are all only but in God’s
Hands; ’Tis not God who binds you down, nor I!
Your works have touched heaven, but you are low;
God, you think, assigns us so? Your failings
Are fewer in the art of paint than
In the art of life. Potential cannot
Woo me, dear husband, though it once be praised.
Am I to be afforded happiness
By dreaming of who you might yet be,
Were you ever to dream less and more achieve?
And to place the blame on me! It is sad
To see a husband grieve himself as though
He were but a brooding youth. What would you
Have me be? Your window on beauty, the flame
Of your tender soul, and more, the very
Conscious will of you? Say it if I speak
True. Half clinging to his wife, and half
Asleep with arrogance, this husband is mine.
Can you not see why I might drop the hand
Of the drowning man? And so I reach for
Sweeter things, instead. (Though nothing can be
As sweet as that which you might once have been.)
Busy with your own disgrace, and mourning
The gold which built this house, you’ve forgotten
The shame a woman wears when she’s without.
But even now you entwine me! My love,
Loose me; let me stand by the window, here.
’Tis finished for now. Speak no more of it.
Gaze at me all the day and please yourself.
Look, the sky is lemon bright and mild, yet;
And still you have a wife, and still her smile.
Ah, love, some peace, indeed, is nicely bought
When one exhausts one’s state of mind into
A tireless, tender ear! Now dear love,
I shall hear my cousin’s horn soon enough;
Bring your plate to me—and quickly—your lips.
You are stronger than this room, my dear love,
And stronger still than words. So let it lie.
Loosen your nimble fingers to this task,
And let lie for now the bare walls in the
New Jerusalem. Surely, they will wait for you.
I have chosen to create a reply to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “Andrea del Sarto” from the viewpoint of his wife, Lucrezia. In doing so, I hope to address some of Andrea’s conflicts with himself, his art, and his marriage in general, as they are revealed in Browning’s poem. By giving Lucrezia voice, I confront these issues both directly and implicitly, all the while establishing del Sarto’s wife as a complete and complex character, imbued with substance and conviction of her own.
Specifically, I employ certain mechanical techniques in order to flesh out Lucrezia’s character. I did my best with the difficult blank verse style so as to pair Lucrezia’s dialogue with her husband’s; and my poem parallels Browning’s in its use of the dramatic monologue. However, I abandon Andrea’s lazy, world-weary voice by replacing his long vowels and syllables with more brisk monosyllabic words and shorter sentence structures. His wife is presented as an impatient and irritated, although mature, woman, and her practical nature surfaces in the rhythm, as much as in the meaning, of her speech. Unlike her husband, Lucrezia has no interest in devoting her time to ponder or examine the vaguer mysteries of life. And the humor which underlies and mixes with her brevity serves to strip her husband’s woe of any enigmatic, romantic virtue—laying bare the truth of self-indulgence and pretentious conceit.
As a reader, I, of course have more sympathy than this for Andrea’s position. But it was more interesting (and realistic, I suspect) to produce a spouse for him who does not. However, this is not to say that his wife is one-dimensional, or even predictable. Near the end of the poem, Lucrezia softens. After the crescendo of her passion resides, I leave her momentarily fuming in its wake with three abrupt sentences: “’Tis finished for now. Speak no more of it,” etc. And as her voice softens and her humor returns, her speech, in turn, lengthens, growing more melodious. She also praises her husband here, by defining him with what she would probably consider the most complimentary of all qualities: strength.
The bulk of Lucrezia’s monologue, however, contains little praise. It is, indeed, a direct attack. I hoped to imply that she is not in the habit of spitting out these sermons often, and certainly not recklessly. She is deliberate and incisive when she strikes, and, one can imagine, successfully persuasive. Perhaps it was one of these outburts which prompted Andrea to leave France and another which motivated his ill use of the King’s money. Perhaps it also better explains more trivial incidents such as when Lucrezia “smeared carelessly” his painting while “passing with . . . robes afloat” (74-75). Such small gestures are less likely to be as accidental and thoughtless as they seem, but more indicative of the huge storehouse of resentment buried and building underneath the skin of day-to-day life.
My Lucrezia is a talented polemicist. She pulls specifics from her husband’s monologue and plays with these to build her own argument. For example, Andrea tells her “we are in God’s hand/. . ./. . . fettered fast we are!/ I feel he laid the fetter: let it lie!” (49-52). Lucrezia directly refutes this excuse by saying, “’Tis not God who binds you down, nor I!” Later in the poem, she addresses his words more subtly, repeating the line “let it lie” to mean: let your bickering and analyzing lie, let your daydreams lie, and get on with your work. (God hasn’t exactly snatched your brushes away from you, has he? You still have two arms and two eyeballs!) She also plays on the word “fettered” by telling her husband, in essence, that although he may feel fettered to failure in life, she is unhappily fettered to his grumblings.
Lucrezia responds to the lines “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/ or what’s a heaven for?” (97-98) by echoing the word “reach” in the line “And so I reach for sweeter things . . . .” She skews his meaning to suit her own purpose, to justify reaching for material and earthly pleasures which may seem beyond her grasp (the King’s gold, for example).
Finally, she mocks the self-satisfied contentment which Andrea has achieved by the end of his dialogue, after he has bemoaned his failures—and blamed a good deal of them on his wife. He says, “I am grown as peaceful as old age tonight . . .” (244). Lucrezia bitterly reminds him that peace is “bought” at a price, and his peace is paid for with her happiness.
I enjoyed writing Lucrezia’s vibrant, pithy response to her husband, Andrea. Immediately, I felt the flesh of her character take shape, and Lucrezia herself seemed to direct my pen before the poem was half composed. Perhaps this is how Browning felt about his characters when he designed them, when he rounded them to fit the bare bones of stories and pasts left by them. I can also discern the sense of fun this poet exhibits in his work and how he might have wanted to hide his smile behind a play of words or a psychological puzzle, tempting his reader to dig for it there, later.
I have come to appreciate the rich expressiveness inherent in the dramatic mono-logue format. Without actually stating or describing very much, the poet is able to depict a scene and its props, animate characters, and imply action, emotion, and rhthym for the audience. I discovered that each time I implied action on the part of either Lucrezia or Andrea, (“put away your plate . . . But even now you entwine me . . .”), I was, at the same time, implying action—and its accompanying emotion—on the part of the second character, as well. The poem becomes a dance—a dense, complex web of subtleties and surprises. This poetic form is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to mimic. It carries an intimacy which embraces the poet, the characters, and the reader all at once.