Robert Browning’s Blank Space

I know. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” paralleled with Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess?” Believe me, no one understands how absurd this sounds more than I do, but it works, does it not?

The whole theme of these two works is how behind closed doors, lives can be completely different than how people and the media imagine them to be. Swift’s caricature of herself, this “nightmare dressed like a daydream” (Swift) lures beautiful men into her life, and through a series of events, either runs them off, or, well, the viewer is left to reach their own conclusions. Browning’s character, the Duke, does the same: marries young girls and, if they are not to his liking, disposes of them as he pleases. Swift’s character, though probably not completely intended to resemble the Duke, does, in fact, resemble him in more ways than one: in their similar lifestyle, in the way Swift and the Duke go about their relationships, all through the use of satire.

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While reading the poem, you imagine the Duke’s mansion, with rolling fields and manicured shrubs surrounding a huge estate with white mansion walls. On the inside, however, is a completely different picture. Dark, mahogany halls with barely lit sconces and drapes covering what shouldn’t be seen is what you are intended to imagine. In those halls, stands the Duke with an emissary from a family of whom he wishes to marry into. They discuss his last duchess in the darkness of those enigmatic halls, and move on just as quickly, covering her up (I mean her painting) with the flick of a wrist.Swift’s affairs, are as quick as the batting of an eyelash and almost as alluring. She wines and dines them, making herself out to be someone she is not (i.e. not crazy) and when they unmask the truth, they run away as fast as they can (if they’re lucky). Swift’s lovers have somewhat of a better ending than the Last Duchess, but it’s not a competition.

“Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
But I’ve got a blank space, baby
And I’ll write your name” (Swift).

During the honeymoon phase of the relationship everything was perfect for Swift and her new lover. They rode tandem bikes, carved their initials into trees, basic cutesy stuff. Unlike the Duke and the Last (late) Duchess, Swift and her boytoy had a mutual infatuation with the other. It was only until Swift’s true colors began to show that the relationship went sour. After witnessing her lover sneaking texts behind her back, she “got drunk on jealousy” (Swift) and the love affair went south from there. Phones were thrown into lakes, paintings were stabbed, and hundred-thousand-dollar cars were smashed with golf clubs. She assaults him in the climax of the video and that is the final straw, resulting in the lover escaping the way he came. Now, in “My Last Duchess,” nothing is said explicitly about the Duke killing his Duchess. Yes, it is subtly inferred, but not said outright. The reader is left to imagine how he might have done it.

“Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without/
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;/
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/
As if alive” (Browning 43-47).

The only reason readers believe the Last Duchess is dead and not banished to some monastery in the middle of nowhere is because of the lines “There she stands/ As if alive” (Browning). No one would say “As if alive” if the person were actually alive. Which brings me to my next point.

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The end of the video, is perhaps my favorite part. As the old lover, scared by Swift’s maniacal behavior, leaves the estate the way he came, a new lover drives in, right into Swift’s open arms. It’s an endless cycle, a never-ending honeymoon-turned-crazy. Just like with “Blank Space,” Browning makes the reader cringe with the anticipation of a new Duchess; and if she doesn’t do exactly as he wants, then she will end up just like his last Duchess. And who’s to say she’ll be the last? It’s a scary sort of irony, how he wants these perfect women, but doesn’t give them long to live up to his expectations.

The parallel between these two works was just so scrumptious and (to me) deliberate that it was hard not to stop seeing the similarities once I noticed them. Swift’s character is a mystery to the public behind closed doors. But she is viewed as this man-eater, this destroyer of the male ego on a whim. She becomes interested in a man, flies him around the world, takes him into her own home and once she’s through with him, disposes of him. Swift wrote Blank Space in retaliation to the way the media had begun to portray her. She was a boy-crazy teenage girl with “nothing in her brain” (Swift) and her only successes came from break-up ballads. Knowing the truth, she wrote “Blank Space” as a satire, to acknowledge the way the world viewed her and to say “yeah, that’s totally crazy.” The Duke is a satirical character who is caught between the ever-needing and ever-growing want to have control over everything in his life, and with that power, comes a loss of respectability.

Through satire, both Swift and Browning explain toxic relationships: one who uses them until she has no more need for them, and the latter who does the same thing but adds murder to the list.  The parallel between the two maniacs, while not deliberate, is still there, between the lines.

The Duke has got a blank space, baby, and he’ll write your name.

Browning, Robert. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fourth ed. Vol. 2B. Pearson, 2010. 1325-1326. Print. 5 Dec. 2015.

Miller, Michael G. “Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’.” Explicator 47.4 (1989): 32-34. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

“Taylor Swift – Blank Space.” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

 

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