Anthony Hecht was obviously fond of the dramatic monologue; there are examples of it in books throughout his career: “Consider the Lilies”, “Green: an Epistle”, “The Venetian Vespers”, “See Naples and Die”, and “Death the Whore” all come to mind, and all have attracted critical attention. In his last book, The Darkness and the Light, there is an example, “A Brief Account of Our City”, which I have always liked, though it does not seem to have attracted much comment (none that I know of) and was omitted by J. D. McClatchy in the Selected Poems which he edited (Knopf, 2011).
The poem seems to be set in Germany or Austria, perhaps some minor principality, and the period, though unspecified, is neither contemporary nor in the remote past. The unidentified narrator is writing a letter to a friend or acquaintance, who is soon to make a visit to the city where the narrator lives. The first half of the poem offers the visitor a survey of the town, focusing on the Old Fort with its “dungeons, barbicans and towers”, and the “incomparable view” that can be had from it. The survey culminates in a startling, indeed shocking, revelation, the presence in the city of a public executioner, maintained with his family at the city’s expense, but kept in permanent quarantine from the other citizens. Strangely, the narrator seems unaware that this revelation is shocking. This is immediately followed by a brief coda urging the visitor to sample the excellent food (the dumplings are highly recommended) and beer when he comes. And that’s it.
It was not until I had read “A Brief Account” a number of times, over the course of a few years, that I sensed the presence of another poem, a famous one, lurking behind it, parts of it, at least —not in any obvious or direct way, or in lock-step detail, but as a kind of ghostly stencil or watermark just faintly visible here and there. The poem I have in mind is Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, and the similarities I notice are not in content so much as in the shaping and pacing, the rhetorical and narrative strategies. On the face of it, the two poems have almost nothing in common, but on closer inspection some interesting parallels can be seen.
Both poems are in the second person, speaking to “you”: the Duke addresses the agent of a Count, the letter-writer addresses his correspondent. (A minor point: both poems are almost exactly the same length—fifty-six lines for Browning, fifty-eight for Hecht—so they have the same space in which to get their business done.) Both begin abruptly without any introductory scene setting, as though we are overhearing a conversation that has been proceeding for a while: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”; “If you approach our city from the south.” The bulk of each poem engages in a detailed account of the ostensible subject, the portrait of the Duchess, or rather her character, the physical details of the city, culminating in a shocking revelation: the removal (in fact the execution) of the Duchess; the city’s executioner and the arrangement with him. Both speakers reveal something repugnant in their character (the real subject): in their different ways they are both self-satisfied and insensitive—the Duke, in his menacing arrogance, is without qualm or feeling for his former wife, and betrays no sense of his own ruthlessness in getting rid of her; the citizen is blithely untroubled either by the fact of his city’s employing an executioner or its hypocritical sequestration of him from civic life. At the same time both are completely unaware that they have been self-revealing: the Duke’s comprehensive demolition of the Duchess’s character and blindness to his own are breathtaking; the citizen’s dismissal of the local barons of an earlier era as “murderous vulgar men” while he and his fellows still employ an executioner is equally blind. Both in fact seem very pleased with themselves and seem to imagine that they have shown themselves in a favourable and enhancing light. Finally, the culmination of the narrative passes without comment, as the speaker abruptly turns aside to another subject and a swift businesslike conclusion: in Browning, marriage negotiations, leading to a glance at the sculpture of Neptune; in Hecht, a recommendation of the local cuisine and beer to the prospective visitor. In each poem the coda contains a sort of conversational injunction to the addressee: “Notice Neptune, though” and “be certain that you dine”.
I wouldn’t want to push the comparison too far. Obviously, the poems are for the most part quite dissimilar, but there do seem to me to be intriguing points of resemblance, which I would like to believe are deliberate.
Click below to read "A Brief Account of Our City"