Literature

‘My Last Duchess’: A Poem by Robert Browning

Probably Robert Browning’s most famous (and widely studied) dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’ is spoken by the Duke of Ferrara, chatting away to an acquaintance (for whom we, the reader, are the stand-in) and revealing a sinister back-story lurking behind the portrait of his late wife, the Duchess, that adorns the wall.

My Last Duchess

FERRARA

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!

If you enjoyed ‘My Last Duchess’, you might also enjoy Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. You might also enjoy our short introduction to Browning’s interesting life

10 Comments

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  3. I teach this poem as a mystery students have to solve. What happened to the last duchess? Kind of a “did he do it?” murder mystery.

  4. The Duke of Ferrara whom Browning is probably thinking of did marry a young wife, who died not long after the marriage. Gossip suggested poison, but it was more likely to have been TB – however when the Duke’s grandmother was Lucrezia Borgia I suppose there was bound to be gossip. In spite of the fact that Lucrezia herself never poisoned anyone – and the Borgia weapon of choice tended to be the garrotte or the knife anyway.

    • As I’ve probably mentioned before we ‘did’ Browning at secondary school. For some reason then I thought his dramatic monologues were ‘modern’ or at least had an immediacy that made the poems interesting. I’m now in my 70s and still think he wrote some brilliant stuff among the not-so-good! The Duchess is definitely among the former.

  5. I love, love, love this poem – thank you!

  6. I’m enjoying teaching this poem to students as a good (and darkly fun) example of how poetry often ‘almost’ tells you something but doesn’t quite and you have to tease out answers (or possible answers). It’s a shame you didn’t give us more analysis of this poem – that would have made an excellent resource for the thousands of GCSE students currently scratching their heads over this one!

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