May 7

The Last Literature Professor on Earth


“I gave commands; Then all smiles
stopped together…”
–from Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”


When’s the first time you laughed, after a family member fell ill? When’s the first time you told a joke after a tragic accident occured in your community?

Oh, I see your point, Traci. It depends on a lot of different factors. How serious the illness is. How close you are to the the family member. Even the age of the person, and how rich or full their life has been before the illness.

And in the case of an accident, we should consider (if I follow your logic) how many people were hurt or died in the car crash, the bus crash, for example. How large the building burned, how wide the blast radius of the explosion.

Still…at some point, you will smile again, correct? You will laugh or tell a joke.
Is that what we’re agreeing to?

Yes, Jeffrey. You’re right to say that laughter is an important part of life. Our smiles make us human.

But if you’ll pardon me for introducing a bit of math into our literary discussion…Some multiplication.

Let’s say it’s not just one family member or friend who’s fallen ill. Let’s say it’s all of them. And your closest friends, too.

And let’s say it’s not just an handful of strangers in our hypothetical car crash. Let’s make it an explosion that destroys an entire town. Multiple cities, even.
When do the smiles come back, now?

I see you nodding, Brook, but Bobby had his hand up earlier.

You’re agreeing with Jeffrey, aren’t you, Bobby? We’d still stay sad, for a longer duration, certainly, but we’d never forget how to smile. Is that right?

Now, let’s see what happens when we turn back to our poem, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. Browning, by the way, was born in England on this day in 1812 — an interesting fact, but not the kind of question I’d put on your final exam.

As we’d said, the narrator of Browning’s poem, the Duke of Ferrara, describes his previous wife, and her good-natured habit of smiling at everyone and everything. He’s a jealous, self-important man, and he’s agitated that his wife, who became a duchess when she married into his family, doesn’t reserve an extra smile for her husband. His irritation grows, until (as Browning has him say), “I gave commands; Then all smiles / Stopped together.”

What were the commands about? What must have happened to his wife, to stop her from smiling?

Oh, a lot of hands this time. I think the light bulb has gone on.

Correct, Sherry. The narrator has given orders to have his wife executed. Now, don’t object Jeffrey — or you either, Bobby. You argued earlier that smiles and laughter were a necessary part of life. There’s only one way to stop a person from smiling.

That, or make an illness so powerful it touches everyone; make a tragedy so vast that it devastates every city in the world.

You see where I’m going with this? I’m thinking maybe we all smiled too much. That some angry God, feeling ignored or unappreciated like the Duke in Browning’s poem, decided to teach us a lesson.

That’s my theory about how to interpret recent events. It’s a way to explain why so many people have died, so many buildings have crumbled.

Why I’m standing in a hollowed out classroom, stern faced, lecturing to a collection of empty desks with sad memories of the vibrant students who used to sit in them.

No, Lonnie. Since that’s just a personal theory, I won’t put it on the exam.