Analysis of Poem My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Robert Browning and My Last Duchess
My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue set in Renaissance Italy (early 16th century) and conveys the opinions of a wealthy noble man as he shows a marriage broker, an emissary, a painting of his late wife, 'my last duchess'.
It is a powerful piece of psychological poetry, formed in rhyming couplets (heroic couplets) in a single long stanza, and is one of the best examples of Browning's talent for developing character in a persona.
Over the years, since its first publication in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics, many have questioned the character of the fictional speaker, loosely based on a historical figure, the duke of Ferrara. He is variously described as:
- a devious, arrogant, materialistic aristocrat;
- an innocent, loving but profoundly vain soul;
- a malevolent, twisted murderer;
- a psychopathic, narcissistic, name-dropping killer.
Browning is known to have researched into certain aspects of Renaissance Italy, studying well known figures of the time to help with his poetic endeavours. He was very much at home in Italian culture, living there from 1846-1861, but, for this poem he wasn't seeking to use fact as the basis for the work.
- My Last Duchess is a fictional account of one man's attempt to explain away a picture behind curtains and by so doing convince himself (and the emissary) of the truth. But the truth could well be one extended lie - the duke being a pathological liar - an excuse for the continuation of control over his unfortunate first wife.
- Browning's genius lies in his ability to keep the reader on the tightrope of uncertainty. Throughout the ambiguous monologue there is no moral judgement made; the audacious nature of the duke isn't questioned, we don't know if he's creating more untruths by pretending to reveal the truth. The debate goes on and will likely never end.
All the reader knows for certain is that the lady in the painting is no longer alive. Or is she?
When Browning himself was asked about the meaning of two lines in the poem...I gave commands/Then all smiles stopped together....he replied - 'yes, it means put to death...or she was shut up in a convent.' Which is true is up to the reader.
One thing is certain, this dramatic monologue is a masterpiece of the genre. The language perfectly fits the dark, pretentious, egotistic man who may or may not have killed his wife because she was too kind and welcoming, who is trying too hard to persuade the marriage broker that he is the right man for his next intended bride.
My Last Duchess was written in the Victorian age, when women were seen more as property in a marriage than real humans capable of love. Generally speaking men were in charge in a relationship; serious notions of equality had not yet been raised.
Browning no doubt had this in mind when he wrote the poem, an attempt to explore the dominant role of the male in society, the idea of ownership and the position of women in marriage.
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; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra 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
Fra 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 pretense
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!
Line by Line Analysis of My Last Duchess
My Last Duchess, a dramatic monologue, is a single stanza poem made up of heroic couplets (heroic is a term used for iambic lines), all fully rhyming.
Lines 1 - 4
The speaker is a man of means, a duke no less, of Ferrara most likely, a town in Italy. He is very much in charge of things, the reader introduced to him as he is about to show off an unusual painting to an anonymous guest.
Who he addresses is unknown at first but later it becomes clear that the listener is an envoy (marriage broker, emissary) representing another aristocrat.
Perhaps he is pointing a refined finger as the first line starts. Obviously this is the interior of his home, his house, his palace? If that first line is innocent enough, the second line immediately darkens proceedings.
- The woman in question is no longer alive but looks alive in the painting. What an odd thing to say. Of course a painting shows a person alive and not the opposite, dead.
So the reader's antennae are beginning to twitch already. What sort of a man have we here? The speaker thinks the picture a wonder, now perhaps because he's had a little time to digest it and ponder on the fact that his wife is no more.
- Does this imply that, when the painting was first hung, he couldn't stand to look at it because it reminded him of her beauty, her character? Or maybe the portrait was done too well, was too lifelike and so he felt compelled to put it behind a curtain? Out of guilt?
The artist's name is Fra Pandolf, the Fra meaning a brother which links the artist to innocent monkhood and distances the duchess from any thought of a sexual liaison with him.
Lines 5 - 21
The duke asks the as yet unknown second person if he'd care to sit and study the portrait.
Fra Pandolf's name was mentioned purposefully (by design) because the duke is the one asked by strangers who, having looked at the duchess's expressive face (countenance) want to ask - how did the artist get so much depth and passion in a simple glance?
- But hold on a minute, strangers only appear to want to ask the duke but they dare not (if they durst). The duke senses their trepidation perhaps. He's the only one allowed to move the curtain, implying control and possession over the duchess, even in death.
It seems the broker (emissary) also wanted to ask this same question but the duke got in there first with his slick answer. He addresses the emissary as Sir and goes on to suggest that the special spot of joy, a red blush perhaps, on the sitter's cheek could have been caused by the artist, Fra Pandolf. How?
Well, the duke seems to think that it should have been only him who could have made the duchess blush but what if the artist had wanted her to show a little more flesh ( Her mantle, - or cloak - covers too much of her wrist) or hinted that such a blush could never be adequately reproduced in paint.
- In other words, the duke is fabricating a story, attempting to brainwash the emissary or circumvent the truth by implying that the artist's flattery and compliments caused the duchess to blush.
According to the duke, his wife would have bought the artist's politeness, which is rather judgemental of him and surely points to an increasing jealousy. Perhaps in real life he never was able to inspire such blushes or glances from his wife?
Lines 22 - 34
The duke goes on, seemingly unable to stop himself, telling of his wife's happy disposition and positive outlook on life. Again there is judgement, it's as if the duke despised her for being 'Too easily impressed' suggesting she was frivolous, superficial, unable to discern between the important and the trivial (Sir, 'twas all one!)
The duchess treated everything with the same light touch, which must have displeased the duke, despite him being her closest bosom friend (or sexual partner?), at first romantically inclined (watching the sunset together) but then coming to realise that she treated everyone (even some idiot offering her cherries) and everything the same.
She was too light-hearted it appears - happy to ride a white mule, happy to accept fruit from a fool. Perhaps the duke took a dislike to her constant innocent optimism and equal treatment for all approach to life.
- He'd have preferred a dour and subservient woman for a wife, not a blushing flirtatious type who had little truck with the traditions and trappings of wealth, which the duke clearly revelled in. Nine hundred years of his family name was worth just as much as anyone's name to her.
The duke's complaints are building up momentum. It's quite obvious that she got his goat and it seems that he had to do something drastic to stop it.
Line by Line Analysis of My Last Duchess
Lines 35 - 46
Who'd stoop to blame....the duke asks a rhetorical question which he himself will answer (of course)...because he has all the control all of the time.
He asks the emissary who would bother debating or denouncing such behaviour - he uses the word stoop which means to lower, so he's basically saying that, even if he had the verbal skills to have a go at the duchess he wouldn't because it's just a small thing in life (a trifling) and he would never stoop so low.
- It's a slick piece of denial. The duke does have verbal skills. He's none stop going on about the picture, so when he denies having the skills it's a blatant pretence. Plus, he's really bringing the duchess down in this section of the dramatic lyric and giving the game away somewhat. He admits that one or two of her traits disgusted him, and that he couldn't teach her differently.
- He says he never stooped that low (down to her level?) but in real life he probably did. Remember he's talking to the man who will report to his own boss about the suitability of the duke for hand in marriage of a second aristocratic female. So the duke is constantly addressing this man as Sir...and subtly plying him with fake news about his first wife.
The duchess smiled at him yes, but it was the same smile she gave everyone. He wasn't that special to her. Or at least, that was his perception. She smiled too often it seems. The duke's jealousy grew. And grew.
- In lines 45 and 46 the poem shudders and shocks. The duke had the smiles stopped - does this mean he had someone murder his wife? Or did he send her off to a convent never to be seen again?
Lines 47 - 56
The duke repeats what he said in lines 2 and 4...There she stands/As if alive. Note the pregnant pause between the lines. It's a chilling statement to end what has been an avalanche of pitiful, snobbish complaint from the duke.
He asks the listener to get up. They've more people to meet so down the stairs they'll have to go. But the duke first mentions that this listener's boss, The Count, is known for his wealth so he expects to get a decent dowry...and that of course, it's the count's daughter who is uppermost in his thoughts (is my object).
As they descend, the duke points out another work of art, this time a sculpture of Neptune taming a sea-horse. Again the theme is dominance, the Roman god of the sea managing to control the tiny sea-horse, just as the duke controls the picture by being the only one allowed to move the curtain.
By mentioning the name of Claus of Innsbruck the duke is showing that he's really in it for the money and prestige. His ego and vanity cannot be suppressed - the poem ends with the words for me - how apt.
The reader has to decide whether or not this man has done away with the duchess, still behind the curtain with that passionate glance, perhaps showing her true nature? Or did she die in sorrow, informing the artist to paint that spot of joy in defiance of her pretentious jealous husband?
What is the metre (meter) of My Last Duchess?
My Last Duchess is written in iambic pentameter, that is, the lines have five iambic feet within usually ten syllables. The majority of the lines are pure iambic pentameter, bringing a steady rhythm and beat, but punctuation plays a major role in altering this from time to time.
- It must be noted also that many lines are not pure iambic pentameter. Trochaic, spondaic and pyrrhic feet play their part, changing the beats and stresses, bringing particular emphasis, or not, to certain words and phrases.
- Spondees, a foot of two stressed syllables, bring energy and punch. Trochees are inverted iambs, so the stress is on the first syllable, falling away on the second. Pyrrhic feet, two unstressed syllables, tend to quietly fill in between iambs and other feet.
Here is a full metrical analysis line by line:
That’s my / last Duch / ess pain / ted on / the wall, (trochee + pyrrhic)
Looking / as if / she were / alive. / I call (trochee)
That piece / a won / der, now; / Fra Pan / dolf’s hands
Worked bus / ily / a day, and there / she stands. (pyrrhic)
Will’t please / you sit / and look / at her? / I said
“Fra Pan / dolf” by / design, / for nev / er read (pyrrhic)
Strangers / like you / that pic / tured count / enance, (trochee)
The depth / and pas / sion of / its earn / est glance, (pyrrhic)
But to/ myself / they turned / (since none / puts by
The cur / tain 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 hus / band’s pres / ence on / ly, called / that spot
Of joy / into / the Duch / ess’ cheek; / perhaps (pyrrhic)
Fra Pan / dolf chanced / to say, / “Her man / tle laps
Over / my la / dy’s wrist / too much,” / or “Paint (trochee)
Must nev / er hope / to re / produce / the faint
Half-flush / that dies / along / her throat.” / Such stuff
Was cour / tesy, / she thought, / and cause / enough
For call / ing up / that spot / of joy. / She had
A heart— / how shall / I say?— / too soon / made glad,
Too eas / ily / impressed; / she liked / whate’er
She looked / on, and / her looks / went ev / erywhere. (pyrrhic)
Sir, ’twas / all one! / My fav / our at / her breast, (spondee x2)
The drop / ping of / the day / light in / the West,
The bough / of cher / ries some / offi / cious fool
Broke in / the orch / ard for / her, the / white mule (trochee+pyrrhic x2+spondee)
She rode / with round / the terr / ace—all / and each
Would draw / from her / alike / the app / roving 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-hun / dred-years- / old name (pyrrhic+spondee)
With an / ybo / dy’s gift. / Who’d stoop / to blame
This sort / of tri / fling? Ev / en 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 les / soned so, / nor plain / ly set
Her wits / to yours, / forsooth, / and made / excuse—
- E’en then / would be / some stoop / ing; and / I choose (spondee)
Never / to stoop. / Oh, sir, / she smiled, / no doubt, (trochee)
Whene’er / I passed / her; but / who passed / without
Much the / same smile? / This grew; / I gave / commands; (trochee)
Then all / smiles stopped / togeth / er. There / she stands (spondee)
As if / alive. / Will’t please / you rise? / We’ll meet
The com / pany / below, / then. I / repeat,
The Count / your mas / ter’s known / muni / ficence
Is am / ple war / ant that / no just / pretense
Of mine / for dow / ry will / be dis / allowed;
Though his / fair daugh / ter’s self, / as I / avowed
At star / ting, is / my ob / ject. Nay, / we’ll go (pyrrhic)
Togeth / er down,/ sir. No / tice Nep / tune, though,
Taming / a sea- /horse, thought / a ra / rity, (trochee)
Which Claus / of Inns / bruck cast / in bronze / for me!
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2018 Andrew Spacey