“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning: A Detailed Analysis
My Last Duchess
THAT’S my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà 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
Frà 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 favor 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!
Starting with the poem
My Last Duchess appeared first in the book of poems, called Dramatic Lyrics and can indisputably be hailed as Browning’s most famous dramatic monologue that has stood the test of time and is quintessentially relevant to the modern reader.
Peeping into history
Browning used the sinister historical details of the fifth Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II d’ Este, whose young wife Lucrezia, coming from the “ nouveau riche” Medici family died suspiciously in 1561, when she was only 17 years old. The Duke then sought to remarry, nd this time, his proposed fiancée was the sister of the count of Tyrol, Barbara. The poem opens with the narrator who is most likely the Duke, addressing an emissary of the count regarding a portrait of his late wife or the last duchess.
A brief summary
While negotiating with the emissary concerning his second marriage to Barbara, the Duke shows him a portrait of his last duchess painted by a friar named Pandolf. It is interesting to note that the envoy sits on a bench and is a silent listener to the Duke’s assertions, for the painting is hidden behind a curtain, and can be drawn only by the Duke.
The former Duchess, according to the Duke had the habit of smiling at everybody and everything. To her, it seemed as if the mere presentation of a branch of cherries had the same value as the Duke’s bestowing her with the privilege of “a nine-hundred-years-old name.” Refusing to tolerate such unladylike behavior, he commanded and finally her smiles stopped altogether.
Without elaborating, the Duke beckons the envoy to accompany him downstairs and on the way, points at the bronze statue of the God, Neptune taming an innocent sea horse thereby, providing him an obvious hint of his authoritative personality.
Throughout the poem, the Duke gives ample instances of the enormous power he exercises. He boldly asserts his control when he claims that he has uttered the name “Fra Pandolf” by “design,” thereby, sufficiently hinting at the domination of his listener through his prolonged speech. None can “dare” ask him about the lifelike quality of the portrait and thus, he alone owns the power to explain. The phrase, “Who’d stoop to blame” concerning his dislike in making his duchess aware of her frivolity, reflects his social bearing, the constraints of his position due to which he had chosen not to explain himself.
Even art objects serve as tools of demonstrating power; the portrait of the Duchess seem to endow the Duke the uncanny feat of controlling the lifeless duchess. Likewise, his casual reference to Neptune reveals the unfathomable power he relishes over his unfortunate wife.
The phrase, “I gave commands” is a direct portrayal of his merciless authority that explicitly hints at the sudden demise of the duchess.
The Duke demands undivided attention from his duchess and her failure to do so turn him green with absurd jealousy. In fact, most of the lines uttered by him testify the fact. Let’s look at these lines:
“Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek” or
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy.”
The former suggests, how the natural blushing of the Duchess, indicative of her pleasure on receiving small gifts from all and sundry, is looked down upon by the Duke as a rather uncalled for blemish. Moreover, such is the extent of his illogical jealousy that he labels her blushes as being “called upon,” something that is simply not involuntary (second quote).
A well-defined conflict is visible between the aristocratic and reserved behavior of the elite upper class, as represented by the Duke and the carefree and spontaneous demeanor of the upcoming nobility, as delineated by the Duchess.
The meaning of the title
Right from the title, the poet offers a glimpse of the possessiveness of the Duke. The deliberate usage of “My” significantly reflects, the overwhelming sense of superiority he feels for his late wife and perhaps towards all women in general.
Browning selects a private art gallery that belongs to the Duke in Renaissance Italy as the setting of his poem. In fact, his mentioning of Ferrara in the epitaph seems as if he is enlisting the scenes of play. It is important to note that though the characters and setting have a historical context, except the Duke and indirectly the Duchess, the poem hardly throws light on any of the others.
Browning creates a dark and an eerie atmosphere to justify the mystery of the Duchess’s disappearance.
The tone of the poem is one of arrogance that is carefully hidden by a falsely polite gesture.
Structure of the poem
The poem is written in free verse. There is also a copious use of enjambment or a poetic technique in which a line ends in the middle of a thought and does not have any punctuation. Thus, the words, “twas not” at the end of the line run right into the next line, “Her husband’s presence only, called that spot” and help to maintain the conversational flow of the poem as well highlight the agitated nature of the Duke.
The rhyme scheme is AA, BB, CC, DD, EE
Interpreting the characters of this Victorian poem
The Duke: It is Browning’s depiction of the inner complexities of the sole speaker, the Duke that makes the poem an interesting example of psychic realism; an element that had not been used in Victorian England during Browning’s time and that naturally alarmed the general reader habituated to read soft and subjective Romantic poetry. The Duke in My Last Duchess is visibly a tyrant, a neurotic who does not feel any repentance for the demise of his first wife. Yet, he is also a connoisseur of art, and it is this amalgamation of dual characteristics that makes his personality appealing.
The Duchess: It is through the expressions of the Duke that we get a glimpse of how the Duchess was in real life. When the Duke ascribes her as possessing a “heart” that was too easily impressed by small gifts and sights of nature, it depicts her childlike, carefree nature and the fact such spontaneity proved to be a curse in royalty.
The envoy: This unnamed character, Madruz, who is a native of Innsbruck remains silent throughout the poem and appears to be in awe of the Duke.
The other characters mentioned are, Fra Pandolf, and Claus of Innsbruck.
Prominent literary devices
Dramatic Irony: The fact that the Duke comes across as a cruel dictator becomes apparent to the reader with the progression of his lengthy speech while he, being wholeheartedly engrossed in a fierce criticism of his late wife, remains oblivious to it.
Symbolism: The reference to the “white mule” that the Duchess rode symbolizes her innocence while the allusion to the Roman God of the sea, “Neptune” serves as a symbol of the duke’s ruthless domination of his fragile wife.
Figures of speech used
Simile: The first two lines of the poem in which the Duke compares his late wife to a living person is an instance of simile.
“THAT’S my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive”
Euphemism: Line 22, when the Duke accuses the Duchess of having a heart that “was too soon made glad,” it is a roundabout way of expressing that she was easily pleased.
Personification: In line 8, the Duke invests the portrait with living characteristics when he states, “The depth and passion of its earnest glance.”
Paradox: The Duke admits that in lines 35 and 36 that he is not a good speaker,
“Even had you skill
In speech – (which I have not),” and yet it is through his piercing rhetoric that he makes his views clear.
Hyperbole: In line 23, “She looked on, and her looks went everywhere,” the Duke uses hyperbole to give his listener a hint of her unscrupulous nature; the fact that she being free spirited, did not confine her vision only to her obsessive husband.