Poetry Corner: Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master

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,  first down there
at swans in the moat apparently
feeding on their own doubled image, then up
at the citadel, 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: 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)  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, 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, 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, only then His Grace, visibly 
relishing his trick, 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, 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... 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, 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; , 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, 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, 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, remain his Envoy 
to Ferrara as to the world.  
Nikolaus Mardruz.

- Richard Howard