A Pretty Woman By Robert Browning: An Analytical study of the structure & Theme

A Pretty Woman
That fawn-skin-dappled hair of hers,
And the blue eye
Dear and dewy,
And that infantine fresh air of hers! 

To think men cannot take you, Sweet,
And enfold you,
Ay, and hold you,
And so keep you what they make you, Sweet! 

You like us for a glance, you know- -
For a word's sake
Or a sword's sake,
All's the same, whate'er the chance, you know.

And in turn we make you ours, we say- -
You and youth too,
Eyes and mouth too,
All the face composed of flowers, we say.

All's our own, to make the most of, Sweet- -
Sing and say for,
Watch and pray for,
Keep a secret or go boast of, Sweet!

But for loving, why, you would not, Sweet,
Though we prayed you,
Paid you, brayed you
in a mortar- -for you could not, Sweet! 

So, we leave the sweet face fondly there:
Be its beauty
Its sole duty! 
Let all hope of grace beyond, lie there! 

And while the face lies quiet there,
Who shall wonder
That I ponder
A conclusion? I will try it there.

As,- -why must one, for the love foregone,
Scout mere liking? 
Earth,- -the heaven, we looked above for, gone! 

Why, with beauty, needs there money be,
Love with liking? 
Crush the fly-king
In his gauze, because no honey-bee? 

May not liking be so simple-sweet,
If love grew there
'Twould undo there
All that breaks the cheek to dimples sweet?

Is the creature too imperfect,
Would you mend it
And so end it? 
Since not all addition perfects aye! 

Or is it of its kind, perhaps,
Just perfection- -
Whence, rejection
Of a grace not to its mind, perhaps? 

Shall we burn up, tread that face at once
Into tinder,
And so hinder
Sparks from kindling all the place at once? 

Or else kiss away one's soul on her? 
Your love-fancies! 
- -A sick man sees
Truer, when his hot eyes roll on her! 

Thus the craftsman thinks to grace the rose,- -
Plucks a mould-flower
For his gold flower,
Uses fine things that efface the rose:

Rosy rubies make its cup more rose,
Precious metals
Ape the petals,- -
Last, some old king locks it up, morose! 

Then how grace a rose? I know a way! 
Leave it, rather. 
Must you gather? 
Smell, kiss, wear it- -at last, throw away! 

Even though Browning’s humor can be felt throughout the span of his work, some of his poems stand out as being comic stories purely created for the fun and pleasure of the poet himself and the reader. Curtis Dahl says that humor abounds in Browning’s “subjects, style, characterization, action, situations, ambiguity, construction or thought . . . in most of his best poems there is some element of humor, whether playfulness, wit, comedy, caricature, irony, self-satire, ambiguity, amusingly exaggerated melodrama, or the comic grotesque”. Browning’s genius, energy and vitality allow him to create an enormous range of characters, many of them humorous. Arthur Simons magnificently captures the variety of Browning’s characters:

. . . they are kings and beggars, saints and lovers, great captains, poets, painters, musicians, priests and popes, Jews, gypsies and dervishes, street girls, princesses, dancers with the wicked witchery of the daughter of Herodias, wives with the devotion of the wife of Brutus, joyous girls and malevolent graybeards, statesmen, cavaliers, soldiers of humanity, tyrants and bigots, ancient sages and modern spiritualists, heretics, scholars, scoundrels, devotees, rabbis, persons of quality and men of low estate, men and women as multiform as nature or society has made them. 

This humorous poem is, according to DeVane, “inspired by Gerardine Bate, the niece of Mrs. Jameson, a friend of the Brownings. After a visit from these two ladies, Elizabeth and Robert were of the opinion that “Miss Bate is ‘just pretty’ and that there is nothing more to her nature than her prettiness.” In an interesting letter to her sister about this visit, Elizabeth writes: “Robert took the liberty so often of telling her (Gerardine) what he took to be the truth in a very blunt fashion, and also what ‘he should do if he had the misfortune of having a wife like Gerardine.” Mrs. Jameson, naturally taking affront at Robert’s insults says, according to Elizabeth’s letter: “I am aware that under no possible circumstances, she could have been calculated to please you – I only speak of ordinary men . . .”

Structure Analysis:

So, in a splendid reflection of Browning’s contempt of this beautifully packaged but shallow woman, he created this poem of 18 light, metrical stanzas, with exceptionally simple words, multiple repetitions and horrific, but playful, bad rhymes. Throughout the poem, only six words are longer than two syllables and none are longer than three. The simplicity of the words reflects on the simplicity of the poet’s model. The word “sweet” is repeated nine times (sarcastically) in the poem and the words “flower” or “rose” are repeated seven times. The opening line is actually quite beautiful; it is the first thing the reader sees, similar to the first sight of the pretty woman. “That fawn-skin-dappled hair of her,” begins the poem but a major flaw appears (as with Browning’s model) in the second line: “And the blue eye.” One could argue for poetics’ sake the singularity of the word “eye,” but it seems more likely that our poet does it intentionally, comically describing only half of the pair – just as Gerardine’s outside appearance negates acknowledgement of any inner worth of character. What happens in the third line erases any doubt that this poem is anything but playful. The third line reads: “Dear and dewy.” The first word “Dear” (deer) could be a pun on the word “fawn” in the first line, and the rhyme of “blue eye” and “dewy” is unforgivable by even the worst of poets – unless, of course, it is intentionally done for humor and to force the reader to scrunch up his nose in repugnance – just as Browning was repulsed by the attractive but empty shell of the pretty woman. Returning to the off rhymes of “blue eye” and “dewy,” one interested in trying to repair the sound of the rhyme might pair “bluey” and “dewy,” or “blue eye” and “do I,” or “due, ay.” None of these work so we are left with the uncomfortable and humorously intentional bad rhyme.

Before going further, perhaps a note should be made of the rhyme scheme of this poem. All 18 stanzas are a b b a and Browning takes pains (the reader suffering the most) to rhyme double and even triple syllables in the second and third lines. Additionally, Browning often creates, for lack of a better term, “sight rhymes” which may or may not rhyme in voice, but would appear to rhyme in print. Just as Gerardine appears to be perfect, there is something amiss in her perfection. The first occurrence of this in the poem is in the rhymes of the first and fourth lines of the first stanza. The first line ends with “hair of hers” and the fourth line ends with “fresh air of hers.” Borrowing the letter “h” from “fresh,” we are left with the sight rhyme “h air of hers.” The second time a sight rhyme occurs is in the third stanza with the atrocious rhyming of “word’s sake” and “sword’s sake.” Since there is no word “swerd,” we must live with the sight rhyme by removing the letter “s” from “sword” giving us the sight rhyme “word’s sake” and “s word’s sake.” The reason Browning employs so many sight rhymes in this poem is simply because of the discordance of the pretty woman’s imbalance of sight (her looks) and sound (her shallowness). An interesting aside is that Elizabeth, in her letter to her sister about the visit of Mrs. Jameson and Gerardine is that she does not record a single word of Gerardine’s; not even in her own defense against the rude comments of her husband, Robert.

The fourth stanza has yet another humorous sight rhyme: “youth too” and “mouth too.” The reader unconsciously tries to correct the rhyme but has to abandon the effort since “mooth too” is unacceptable. The seventh stanza has another terrible rhyme, this one is not even a sight rhyme: “fondly there” is paired with “beyond, lie there.” There is nothing for the reader to do but squirm. The eighth stanza has another sour (sight) rhyme: “wonder” and “ponder.” The substitution of the word “punder” would solve the problem – if it were a word. Perhaps the worst rhyme is in the seventeenth stanza where Browning pairs “more rose” with “morose.”

Even though the instrument Browning uses to accompany this poem is severely out of tune, and the disharmony clearly intentional for humorous effect, the essence of the poem, aside from the sound, is also highly comic. The second through the fifth stanzas describes the beauty of the woman while attacking the shallowness. All the while, she is given the nickname “Sweet;” she thinks her looks alone are sufficient “the face composed of flowers,” her “youth” and “mouth,” “That infantine air of hers.” She enjoys the effect she has on men as they “glance” at her and fight for her by “word” or “sword.” But, in the sixth stanza, we are told of her major character flaw – she is incapable of loving or, perhaps, being loved: “But for loving . . . you could not, Sweet!”

The narrator then contemplates what should be done with this pretty but shallow woman. He considers destroying her beauty: “Shall we burn up, tread that face at once / Into tinder” (53–54), to prevent the effects of her mindless beauty to wreck havoc and destruction throughout “the place.” Or, should we “kiss away one’s soul on her,” which only a “sick man” (mentally deficient but full of lust) would do “when his hot eyes roll on her.” The third choice would be to try and preserve her beauty by creating a statue (also mindless), or in the narrator’s metaphor, a “mould-flower” of the rose where “Precious metals / Ape the petals . . .” (66–67). Even if the beauty could be preserved some how, “some old king” would lock it away, some place where it would no longer be a public thing of beauty. Considering the three alternatives, destroying it, succumbing to it or preserving it (but kept out of view), the narrator exclaims in the last stanza: “Then how grace a rose? I know a way!” (69). He decides to forego the afore mentioned choices and suggests a remarkably simple and humorous alternative. His suggestion is to “Leave it,” but before he leaves the pretty woman / rose, he insists that one should at least perform three acts. First, he should “Smell it;” inhale the essence of her beauty, then he must “kiss” it, not romantically, of course, but sensuously and in a most unexpected third act, he must “wear it.”The implication and interpretation of wearing the pretty woman is left up to the reader’s imagination, but once she’s been smelled, kissed and worn, the narrator must “at last, throw it away!”

A comical finale to this poem comes from DeVane’s comments on this poem; he writes: “Browning’s conclusion is that we should neither destroy her, nor break our hearts for her, but merely admire her for her beauty.” If only DeVane had added the following condition after his word “beauty:” “after we have taken from her all that we could possibly want and then give her the boot.”

As much as Gerardine annoyed the poet with her pretty but shallow ways, the level of the speaker’s irritation in the next poem comes from a completely different source of exasperation; the culprit is not only thrown away as was the Pretty Woman, but also taught a lesson in this wonderfully humorous poem.

Theme Analysis:

This poem was narrated by a young woman to an apothecary, who was preparing her a poison with which to kill her rivals at a nearby royal court. She pushes him to complete the potion while she laments how her beloved is not only being unfaithful, but that he is fully aware that she knows of it. While her betrayers think she must be somewhere in grief, she is proud to be instead plotting their murder.

She notes the ingredients he uses, paying particular attention to their texture and color. She hopes the poison will "taste sweetly" so she can poison the two ladies she has in her sights. Though she is a "minion" unlike her competitors, she will have the last laugh by having them killed in a painful way that will also torment her beloved.

When the poison is complete, she promises the apothecary both her fortune (her "jewels" and "gold") but also lets him kiss her. Finally, she is ready to go dancing at the king's and end her torment.

This wicked little poem, first published in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics in 1845, is most notable for the exhilaration of the writing. The rhyme scheme is regular, with an ABAC structure that makes each short stanza playful until the dramatic break of its last line. The voice is wonderfully captured, and we see that this woman is enlivened by more than just revenge; she is invigorated by the power that murder allows her to have. When she first mentions her untrue beloved, she only mentions one woman, but a few stanzas later, she mentions both "Pauline" and "Elise" as targets. She is already being taken away with the potential to kill. While the rhyme scheme is regular, the enjambments stress that she is willing to lose a bit of control, letting this impulse take her.

Further, if winning her husband or lover back were the only goal, she would not take so much glee in the prospect of causing painful death to the ladies and moral torment to him. Her intense focus on the ingredients further confirms the ecstasy she feels at suddenly giving herself over to this wickedness. That this scheme will cost her her "whole fortune" only validates the choice – we get the sense that she will be forever defined by this act. In closing with "next moment I dance at the King's," the poem implies her intent to carry herself as a woman who has accomplished a great deed.

Psychologically, her resentment could be motivated by class expectations. She considers herself a "minion," which probably means a lady-in-waiting or some low-level servant, whereas her competitors are not so lowly. That her beloved is involved with them and that both expect that the speaker is grieving away in an "empty church" is the worst offense. She is considered less worthy than them, which only strengthens her resolve to demonstrate her superiority through the murder.

One could argue that the speaker has never actually been involved with her beloved, since she gives no direct proof of a relationship. Further, as her lover and competitors all know that she is aware of the dalliance, it is possible that they do not even know they are offending her in any way. She could be like the monk of "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," whose hatred and resentment is known only to him. There is also, in the "empty church" line, the slightest indication that perhaps she is a nun, and so her grief would be due to their sexuality out of marriage. Much can be conjectured from Browning's masterful subtly.

Finally, sexuality is presented in this poem as something capable of great grotesqueness. In the same way that the bright, pretty poison will ultimately cause painful death, so does the allure of sexuality have a dark side. Sexuality is certainly behind whatever actions have led this woman to the apothecary, but note her willingness to use it on the apothecary in the final stanza, when she tells him, "You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!" Certainly, Browning is no prude and we should not read a moral message in this, but rather read it as one of his many uses of objects or values which also contain their opposite. What drives men and women to celebrate life can also cause that life to end.