By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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.
It’s easy enough to summarise ‘My Last Duchess’ in a one-sentence synopsis like this, but how Browning unnerves us with the Duke’s account of the portrait, and his relationship with his wife, lies in what he hints or reveals as much as in what he simply states. So a few words of analysis would perhaps help elucidate how Browning uses the dramatic monologue form to such great effect here.
Let’s go through the poem, stopping to summarise and analyse what’s going on, stage by stage.
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.
We’re given the location first of all: Ferrara, a city in northern Italy. Given the words ‘my last Duchess’, the first line immediately reveals to us that this is the Duke of Ferrara speaking to us.
Because of the performative gesture implicit within that opening line (‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’ being almost accompanied by an imagined flourish, as the Duke’s finger points at the portrait hanging on the wall), we can say we’re in dramatic monologue territory: the speaker of the poem is addressing us as his audience (a man, whom the Duke addresses as ‘Sir’ at several points), in a specific setting.
Thereafter, we learn that the Duke’s wife is dead: again, this is implied by the use of the subjunctive mood in the second line (‘Looking as if she were alive’: i.e., she isn’t any more). Fra Pandolf, we deduce, is the artist who painted the Duchess’s portrait. He worked hard at the painting for a day and this portrait, which the Duke considers ‘a wonder’, is the result.
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.
More performance and posturing that show we’re in the realm of the dramatic monologue: the Duke encourages his audience, this other man, to sit there and admire the portrait of his ‘last Duchess’. (We’ve glossed over the sinister implication in the phrase ‘last Duchess’: i.e., his dead wife was not his first wife, and he seems to be in the habit of losing them. What happens to all of them? How come they die so soon after marrying him?)
The Duke admits, in a sort of humblebrag, that he name-dropped the artist, Fra Pandolf, on purpose, because it took a brilliant painter to capture the distinctive expression or ‘glance’ in the Duchess’s face. How did she come to have such an expression?
Many other guests of the Duke’s, before his present guest, have asked him, and he usually keeps the painting concealed behind a curtain; but when people enquire about his wife, he will pull aside the curtain and show her to them.
Note also the continual conflation of the Duchess herself (now dead) with her portrait: she has become art, and an object, embodied by Fra Pandolf’s painting of her on canvas. But was the real duchess similarly viewed as an object by her husband?
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.
The Duke uses the look on his dead wife’s face as a way into discussing her character, and telling his guests about her personality.
It wasn’t simply the Duke’s presence in the room as she sat for the portrait that caused her to look so pleased; indeed, even the most neutral and professional requests and pleasantries from the painter would have made her blush with delight, because she was easily flattered when people praised her beauty.
What’s more, she had a roving eye (‘her looks went everywhere’), so even though she was married to the Duke, she sought out praise and flattery from other people (especially men).
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.
All of the trivial gifts and tokens people brought the Duchess were greeted with the same blush of joy, whether it was a ‘favour’ (e.g. a flower) the Duke himself brought to her for her to wear on her dress, or even the beautiful sunset (and the coming of night – when people’s thoughts might turn in an amorous direction), some cherries from the orchard someone who worked for the Duke had brought for her to eat, or a mule (‘white’ suggesting purity, but the sterility of the mule – which cannot breed – perhaps hinting that the Duke himself, when the Duchess ‘rode’ him, was too old to get her pregnant).
In short, the Duchess was easily pleased – too easily pleased for the Duke’s liking.
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.
Now we get to the thrust of the Duke’s grievance with his dead wife. He reveals perhaps more than he intends to with this remark, showing that he was proud, haughty, perhaps even slightly insecure and jealous (that potential sexual impotence or sterility again), and didn’t like the fact that his wife, who had married a Duke with a noble lineage stretching back almost a millennium, treated his gifts the same as those from ‘anybody’.
And by these ‘anybodies’ the Duke really means, nobodies, for that is what he considers them to be next to him. He is a Duke; who are they? Yet their gifts inspire the same response from the Duchess as the Duke’s lavish gifts.
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.
The Duke (rhetorically) addresses his guest. He asks him: which nobleman should lower himself by seeking to instruct his wife about how she should behave? As a duke, you shouldn’t have to deal with such petty trivialities (‘trifling’).
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.
The Duchess smiled whenever she saw her husband, but she smiled at everyone else, too. It got worse, so he ‘gave commands’. This is a stroke of real skill from Browning: at first, we might deduce that he ‘gave commands’ to her to stop smiling at everyone who looked at her.
But hang about, wouldn’t that go against his previous statement that he refused to ‘stoop’, to debase himself by addressing such matters with her? No: we realise that there is something more sinister going on: the commands the Duke gave were orders to others, perhaps hired henchmen or assassins, who killed the Duchess and thus ‘stopped’ ‘all smiles’ (both those from her admirers, and from her in return).
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;
And then, presumably as calm and collected as can be as though he hasn’t just confessed to organising his wife’s murder, the Duke calls for his guest to stand up so they can both go downstairs to meet the rest of their companions.
We then realise that the Duke is already arranging for his next marriage: indeed, the Duke’s guest is a representative of another nobleman, a Count, whose daughter the Duke is planning to make his next duchess (with the Count paying a handsome dowry to the Duke for marrying her: this is a marriage for money, of course, and given how many duchesses the Duke has married and disposed of, we deduce that he is quite advanced in years). Poor girl doesn’t know what she’s letting herself in for …
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object.
This declaration now rings with a menacing overtone: his ‘object’ for what? He’s saying he wants to marry the Count’s daughter for her, not for her big dowry that will bring him lots of land or cash. But ‘object’ suggests a trinket to be shown off and then, perhaps, discarded when the Duke starts to feel another pang of jealousy about how many young men are admiring his young, pretty wife.
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’s final words to his listener are about a bronze sculpture which another artist made for him. The symbolism of this sculpture is obvious: the depiction of Neptune the Roman sea god using his divine force to tame or subdue a wild seahorse obviously mirrors the Duke’s own attitudes and temperament. He uses his power and might to crush those who oppose or displease him. The beautiful seahorse is being destroyed by the much more powerful god, much as the Duke’s young, beautiful wife was crushed by him.
‘My Last Duchess’ is a masterpiece because it does what Browning’s dramatic monologues do best: invites us into the confidence of a speaker whose conversation reveals more about their personality and actions than they realise. The poem is not a narrative poem because it has a speaker rather than a narrator, but it nevertheless tells a story of a doomed marriage, a man capable only of irrational jealousy and possessive force, and male pride (indeed, arrogance and privilege too) that barely conceals the fragile masculinity just lurking beneath.
We should feel thoroughly uncomfortable when we finish reading the poem for the first time, because we have just heard a man confessing to the murder of his wife – and, perhaps, other wives – without actually confessing. Compare, here, the calm, even proud tone of the speaker of another of Browning’s great dramatic monologues, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning, as a sort of footnote to this analysis, the form Browning employs. He uses iambic pentameter, which is handy for conveying the rhythms of ordinary English speech, but he doesn’t deploy blank verse.
Instead, he offers us the more stately and grand rhyming couplets or ‘heroic couplets’ associated with grander themes. These heroic couplets convey the Duke’s need for order in his life, his possessive control over everything around him (especially his wife), but also his self-importance.