Robert Browning, 'Playstation' poet

15th September 2006 at 01:00
An English teacher has turned a 19th century masterpiece into a computer game to help his pupils decode its complex lines.

It is a notoriously enigmatic poem which has intrigued critics for more than 150 years - the tale of a spoiled duke, apparently based on Alfonso II of Ferrara, Italy, who was suspected of poisoning his naive young bride.

Now "My Last Duchess", a sinister but witty portrait of a corrupt aristocrat by Robert Browning has been transformed into a computer game by an enterprising English teacher.

The poem, a highly regarded Victorian dramatic monologue, has been translated into the medium of "Grand Theft Auto".

And although it boasts considerably fewer gun battles than your average console game, James Durran, of Parkside community college, Cambridge, is hoping it will prove a hit when he tests it with Year 9s this term.

"Essentially it's a quest," he said. "You are landed in a mansion, you know something strange has happened, and you have to work out what it is.

"Lines from the poem are disguised as clues in the form of diary fragments and there are visual hints like the duchess's painting hanging on the wall.

At the end you have to gather the clues and say what you think has happened.

"It's a way of getting pupils to play with the poem in a more active way."

Mr Durran built the game using Immersive Education's MissionMaker software, a computer program which allows pupils and teachers to create bespoke games.

It is being piloted in 45 schools across the country until next year, when it will go on general release, and is already proving popular with teachers who see it as a canny way of engaging students.

Deniece Graham, deputy head at St James Hatcham Church of England primary in Lewisham, south-east London used the program to explore Kensuke's Kingdom, the island adventure yarn by Michael Morpurgo, with her Year 6 pupils.

"I ask them to create a game version of the island from the author's description," she said. "It's a good way to get them thinking creatively and I have definitely seen an improvement in motivation and willingness to write."

"The boys can't wait to get back to the game, and they are thinking about character and dialogue on a deeper level, rather than just where to put the commas and full stops."

Immersive Education is keen to develop its software to deal specifically with set texts. Donna Burton-Wilcock, its director of education and a former English teacher, said: "It's a great way to get to those hard-to-reach boys.

"As well as exploring fictional worlds, pupils can keep a log, describing their environments and writing about their responses. They say boys hate creative writing. But this is a whole new way of telling stories."

My Last Duchess

By Robert Browning (left), 1812-1889.

A dramatic monologue written in 1842. Set in Italy during the Renaissance, Alfonso, the second duke of Ferrara, unveils a portrait of his last wife, now deceased, as he negotiates a dowry for his next marriage That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive. I call That piece a wonder, now: Fr... Pandolf's hands Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will't please you sit and look at her? I said "Fr... Pandolf" by design, for never read Strangers like you that pictured countenance, The depth and passion of its earnest glance, But to myself they turned (since none puts by The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, How such a glance came there; so, not the first Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not Her husband's presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps Fr... Pandolf chanced to say 'Her mantle laps Over my Lady's wrist too much,' or 'Paint Must never hope to reproduce the faint Half-flush that dies along her throat': such stuff Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough For calling up that spot of joy. She had A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad, Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast, The dropping of the daylight in the West, The bough of cherries some officious fool Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule She rode with round the terrace - all and each Would draw from her alike the approving speech, Or blush, at least. She thanked men, - good! but thanked Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame This sort of trifling? Even had you skill In speech - (which I have not) - to make your will Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, Or there exceed the mark' - and if she let Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, - E'en then would be some stooping, and I choose Never to stoop. 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. Will't please you rise? We'll meet The company below, then. I repeat, The Count your master's known munificence Is ample warrant that no just pretence Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

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