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Richard Howard
Richard Howard
Richard Howard was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929. He received his...
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Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565

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by Richard Howard

A tribute to Robert Browning and in
celebration of the 65th birthday of Harold
Bloom, who made such tribute only natural.

   My Lord recalls Ferrara?  How walls 
rise out of water yet appear to recede
   identically
   into it, as if
built in both directions: soaring and sinking...
   Such mirroring was my first dismay--
         my next, having crossed
         the moat, was making
   out that, for all its grandeur, the great
pile, observed close to, is close to a ruin!
   (Even My Lord's most
   unstinting dowry
may not restore this wasted precincts to what
   their deteriorating state demands.)
         Queasy it made me,
         glancing first down there
      at swans in the moat apparently
feeding on their own doubled image, then up
   at the citadel,
   so high--or so deep,
and everywhere those carved effigies of 
   men and women, monsters among them
         crowding the ramparts
         and seeming at home
   in the dingy water that somehow
held them up as if for our surveillance--ours?
   anyone's who looked!
   All that pretension
of marble display, the whole improbable
   menagerie with but one purpose:
         having to be seen.
         Such was the matter
   of Ferrara, and such the manner,
when at last we met, of the Duke in greeting
   My Lordship's Envoy:
   life in fallen stone!

Several hours were to elapse, in the keeping 
   of his lackeys, before the Envoy 
         of My Lord the Count 
         of Tyrol might see 
   or even be seen to by His Grace 
the Duke of Ferrara, though from such neglect 
   no deliberate 
   slight need be inferred: 
now that I have had an opportunity 
   --have had, indeed, the obligation-- 
         to fix on His Grace 
         that perlustration 
   or power of scrutiny for which 
(I believe) My Lord holds his Envoy's service 
   in some favor still, 
   I see that the Duke, 
by his own lights or perhaps, more properly 
   said, by his own tenebrosity, 
         could offer some excuse 
         for such cunctation... 
   Appraising a set of cameos 
just brought from Cairo by a Jew in his trust, 
   His Grace had been rapt 
   in connoisseurship, 
that study which alone can distract him 
   from his wonted courtesy; he was 
         affability 
         itself, once his mind 
   could be deflected from mere objects.  

At last I presented (with those documents 
   which in some detail 
   describe and define 
the duties of both signators) the portrait 
   of your daughter the Countess, 
         observing the while 
         his countenance.  No 
   fault was found with our contract, of which 
each article had been so correctly framed 
   (if I may say so) 
   as to ascertain 
a pre-nuptial alliance which must persuade 
   and please the most punctilious (and 
         impecunious) 
         of future husbands. 
   Principally, or (if I may be 
allowed the amendment) perhaps Ducally, 
   His Grace acknowledged 
   himself beguiled by 
Cranach's portrait of our young Countess, praising 
   the design, the hues, the glaze--the frame 
         and appeared averse, 
         for a while, even 
   to letting the panel leave his hands! 
Examining those same hands, I was convinced 
   that no matter what 
   the result of our 
(at this point, promising) negotiations, 
   your daughter's likeness must now remain 
         "for good," as we say, 
         among Ferrara's 
   treasures, already one more trophy 
in His Grace's multifarious holdings, 
   like those marble busts 
   lining the drawbridge, 
like those weed-stained statues grinning up at us 
   from the still moat, and--inside as well 
         as out--those grotesque 
         figures and faces 
   fastened to the walls. So be it!  

               Real 
bother (after all, one painting, for Cranach
   --and My Lord--need be  
   no great forfeiture) 
commenced only when the Duke himself led me 
   out of the audience-chamber and 
         laboriously 
         (he is no longer 
   a young man) to a secret penthouse 
high on the battlements where he can indulge 
   those despotic tastes 
   he denominates, 
      half smiling over the heartless words, 
"the relative consolations of semblance."  
         "Sir, suppose you draw 
         that curtain," smiling 
   in earnest now, and so I sought--
but what appeared a piece of drapery proved 
   a painted deceit!  
   My embarrassment 
afforded a cue for audible laughter, 
   and only then His Grace, visibly 
         relishing his trick, 
         turned the thing around, 
   whereupon appeared, on the reverse, 
the late Duchess of Ferrara to the life! 
   Instanter the Duke 
   praised the portrait 
so readily provided by one Pandolf--
   a monk by some profane article 
         attached to the court, 
         hence answerable 
   for taking likenesses as required 
in but a day's diligence, so it was claimed... 
   Myself I find it 
   but a mountebank's  
proficiency--another chicane, like that 
   illusive curtain, a waxwork sort 
         of nature called forth: 
         cold legerdemain! 
   Though extranea such as the hares 
(copulating!), the doves, and a full-blown rose 
   were showily limned, 
   I could not discern 
aught to be loved in that countenance itself, 
   likely to rival, much less to excel 
         the life illumined 
         in Cranach's image 
   of our Countess, which His Grace had set 
beside the dead woman's presentment... And took, 
   so evident was 
   the supremacy, 
no further pains to assert Fra Pandolf's skill. 
   One last hard look, whereupon the Duke 
         resumed his discourse 
         in an altered tone, 
   now some unintelligible rant 
of stooping--His Grace chooses "never to stoop" 
   when he makes reproof... 
   My Lord will take this 
as but a figure:  not only is the Duke 
      no longer young, his body is so 
         queerly misshapen 
         that even to speak 
   of "not stooping" seems absurdity: 
the creature is stooped, whether by cruel 
   or impartial cause--say 
   Time or the Tempter-- 
I shall not venture to hypothecate. Cause 
   or no cause, it would appear he marked 
         some motive for his 
         "reproof," a mortal 
   chastisement in fact inflicted on 
his poor Duchess, put away (I take it so) 
   for smiling--at whom?  
   Brother Pandolf? or 
some visitor to court during the sitting? 
   --too generally, if I construe 
         the Duke's clue rightly, 
         to survive the terms 
   of his... severe protocol.  My Lord, 
at the time it was delivered to me thus, 
   the admonition 
   if indeed it was 
any such thing, seemed no more of a menace 
   than the rest of his rodomontade; 
         item, he pointed, 
         as we toiled downstairs, 
   to that bronze Neptune by our old Claus 
(there must be at least six of them cluttering 
   the Summer Palace 
   at Innsbruck), claiming 
it was "cast in bronze for me."  Nonsense, of course.  

   But upon reflection, I suppose 
            we had better take 
            the old reprobate 
   at his unspeakable word... Why, even 
assuming his boasts should be as plausible 
   as his avarice, 
   no "cause" for dismay: 
once ensconced here as the Duchess, your daughter 
   need no more apprehend the Duke's 
            murderous temper 
            than his matchless taste.  
   For I have devised a means whereby 
the dowry so flagrantly pursued by our 
   insolvent Duke ("no 
   just pretense of mine 
be disallowed" indeed!), instead of being 
   paid as he pleads in one globose sum, 
            should drip into his 
            coffers by degrees--
   say, one fifth each year--then after five 
such years, the dowry itself to be doubled, 
   always assuming 
   that Her Grace enjoys 
her usual smiling health.  The years are her 
   ally in such an arbitrament, 
            and with confidence 
            My Lord can assure 
   the new Duchess (assuming her Duke 
abides by these stipulations and his own 
   propensity for 
   accumulating 
"semblances") the long devotion (so long as 
   he lasts ) of her last Duke... Or more likely, 
            if I guess aright 
            your daughter's intent, 
   of that young lordling I might make so 
bold as to designate her next Duke, as well... 

               Ever determined in 
   My Lordship's service, 
   I remain his Envoy 
to Ferrara as to the world.  
                              Nikolaus Mardruz.





Audio Clip
October 3, 1994
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City
from the Academy Audio Archive
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