Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"

Updated on December 12, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Browning

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "My Last Duchess

Recorded history tells of Duke Alfonso II marrying Lucretia de Medici when the young girl but only fifteen years old. Mysteriously at the age of seventeen, the young duchess disappeared. Historically, it was never confirmed that the duke had the duchess murdered, but the likelihood of such a murder obtained in reality as it does in Browning's poem.

"My Last Duchess" is unique as it plays out without a cache of poetic devices. Save for riming couplets, the piece relies mostly on a fairly literal narrative as spoken by the Duke. The duke/speaker of the narrative has no gift for poetry, yet he does engage the ability to yield meaning rhetorically and through innuendo.

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, ‘t was 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, ‘t was 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!

Reading of Browning's "My Last Duchess"

Commentary

First Movement: She Only Looks as if She Were Alive

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.

The poem begins with the duke explaining to his visitor, "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall / Looking as if she were alive." With that remark, the reader infers that the woman is no longer alive, because she simply appears to be alive in the finely crafted painting. However, the duke's remark can in no way be taken as proof of the duchess' death.

The duke's visitor along with readers of the monologue then find out that the painting was completed by an artist named Frà Pandolf; this artist managed to complete this painting in only one day.

The duke's exuberance over the work leads him to call it "a wonder." It seems likely that, the duke regularly introduces this portrait to his visitors, who regularly take note of the "joy" appearing on the countenance of the young duchess.

Second Movement: A Spoiled, Jealous Brat of a Man

Sir, ‘t was 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, ‘t was 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;

The duke seems to become unsettled remembering that so many things made the young woman smile with joy. He makes his disgusting jealousy abundantly plain. The duke deemed that only he should be the object of the duchess' joy. She should have kept her attention and smiles only for him, or so this egomaniac believed.

The repugnant duke's statement brings to the listener/reader's attention that the duke's character is suspiciously negative. He is grumbling that this woman was able to enjoy simple pleasures in her life; including the duke's presence, she could also appreciate a beautiful sunset, a bunch of cherries, and a white mule.

But to this spoiled, jealous, immature brat of man, only annoyance ensued from the duchess' obviously pleasant nature. He is so egotistical that he cannot abide the duchess' warm attitudes to life. After all, he is the bearer of a name that is nine-hundred-years old.

Third Movement: Smile for Me, But Not for Thee

I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet

The duke does allow that she smiled at him; however, he would become irate that she had smiles for everyone. Apparently, he tried without success to make her comprehend the fact that only he deserved her smiles. Thus, he "gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together."

The command the duke gave is left somewhat uncertain. He does not say that he commanded that she be killed. He then pivots to the portrait: "There she stands / As if alive," leaving the listener/reader to infer that she is dead at his command.

Fourth Movement: It's Like Taming a Sea Horse, You See

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!

The duke then, however, orders his visitor to get up out of his seat and go with him to greet "the company below." Here the readers/listeners find out that the duke's visitor is part of a retinue of a count, who is in the process of making plans for the duke to marry the count's daughter.

The duke surmises that the "fair daughter" will fetch him a nice sized dowry; however, he makes the lame attempt to reassure the listener that, of course, he has more concern for the daughter than for her fine dowry.

As the duke and member of the count's retinue descend the stairway, the duke points out to the envoy his statue of Neptune "Taming a sea-horse." The duke then boasts that the statue is considered a rare piece and that it was cast in bronze for him by "Claus of Innsbruck."

That final remark further demonstrates the perverse character of the duke. He is attracted to art that includes the act of "taming" or subjugating. And he boosts his own superiority by portraying pieces that were made especially for him by famous artists.

A Classic Without Poetic Devices

Browning's dramatic monologue remains an instructive example of the fact that a poem can be successful and can become a classic even without a cache of poetic devices.

The poem plays out in 28 rimed couplets. It remains distinctly literal, not relying on metaphor, image, or any other figurative language that so many poems employ for effect.

Still, the duke does wax somewhat poetic on one occasion as he offers what is likely a quotation by Frà Pandolf, who might have said, "Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat." Or perhaps it is that the duke misremembers and substitutes the word "dies" for "fades."

The dramatic monologue's primary poetic device is the riming couplet. The sparse imagery consists of the painting itself, that "spot of joy," referring to the duchess' face as she blushed. The final image embodies the sculpture of Neptune taming the sea horse.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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