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My Last Duchess Analysis

Summary and Analysis of My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

  Renowned Victorian poet Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is one of the most commonly stated examples of the form of dramatic monologue, a form that Browning is known for the creation and canonization of. The poem is composed of fifty-six lines arranged in twenty-eight rhyming couplets in the iambic pentameter i.e., a verse meter with five metrical feet, each consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The poem features a single word for an epigraph, “Ferrara”, indicating that the poem is written from the point of view of Alfonso II d’Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, the principal object of the poem being a portrait of his late wife, Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici.

My Last Duchess | Summary and Analysis

 

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 1-6

“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”

Composed in rhyming couplets with the rhyme scheme of aabbccdd, the poem is an example of narrative poetry and uses the first-person narrative technique, as is the norm with dramatic monologues which essentially presents a single speaker speaking to an audience. The first two lines foreground the identity of the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, and its subject, his late wife, in a tone of nostalgia and an apparent sense of loss of a beloved wife, a feeling that will be contradicted later on in the poem. The speaker and the listener are looking at an extremely life-like painting of the former Duchess, whose fictional painter is introduced as Fra Pandolf. The fifth line asks the listener/audience to sit and look at the duchess, casting her as an object of the male gaze under the supervision of her husband. 

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 7-12

“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”

The duke explains his reason behind mentioning the painter’s name and hard work since most who are fortunate enough to see that painting are moved by the duchess’ ‘earnest glance’, and question the duke about the reasons for hiding such a beautiful painting behind curtains. The duke’s narcissism and thirst for control and dominance are first glimpsed in lines 9 and 10, where he insists that none but he is permitted to remove the curtains and view the painting. The dominant figure of speech in these lines is the enjambment, i.e., breaking a phrase of poetry in the middle of one line, and continuing it from the beginning of the next. Alliteration and personification are also present in lines 8 and 7 respectively.

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 13-20

“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” 

The duke jealously explains that the Duchess’ flushing cheeks were not the result of her husband’s presence alone, they were graced by other men as well. He muses that perhaps the painter had complimented her in some way, saying that no painting can ever truly capture the beauty of her faint blush. Such compliments, which were courteous and customary from the painter’s side, is reason enough for the duchess to blush, angering her husband. The duke portrays toxic masculine behaviour in considering that his Duchess’ favours should be reserved for him alone. Alliteration and enjambment feature again in these lines, as does the metaphor in lines 14 and 15.

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 21-24

“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.”

Beginning with an enjambment again, the duke complains of his late wife’s heart that was too easily won over by simple, meagre acts of anyone and everyone, her easily-pleased countenance liking everything she sets her eyes on, emphasising the fact that her eyes ‘went everywhere’. The figure of the possessive, jealous and dominating husband is solidified in the duke, who not only fails to appreciate his wife’s kind and innocent nature but proceeds to criticize them as her shortcomings. The twenty-fourth line presents an example of anaphora.

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 25-30

“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,”

Again, the duke complains about how his favour, the setting sun, a branch of cherries, and the duchess’ white mule, were all the same in her, eliciting the same reaction of happiness and approval. The dominant tone here is the duke’s narcissistic frustration at not being able to keep his wife’s happiness limited to himself. Contrary to the duke’s intentions, however, these lines also reflect the sensitive, romantic side of the duchess that is able to appreciate the small beauties of nature, something far beyond the duke’s comprehension. Alliteration is present in line 26.

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 31-34 

“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”

The duke is exasperated at the thought of the duchess treating his ‘nine-hundred-years-old’ family name and fame with that of any low-ranking person, reflecting Browning’s critique of the inherent narcissism and self-absorption of class-based feudal society. The duchess, however, is not restricted by such elitist snobbery, and treats all human beings as equals, being well ahead of her time.

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 35-43

“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,”

Here the duke complains about the duchess’ refusal to entertain what the duke considers a necessary and constructive criticism of her nature and manner. He bitterly admits his failure in making the duchess pay heed to his jealous and immature antics, much like a jealous child who complains about the alleged misdeeds of one to a judge since he is incapable of making the duchess take his jealousy seriously. These lines also indicate that the duchess was, in all probability, self-aware and assertive, not bowing down to unreasonable demands from her husband as wives were commonly expected to. She also appears to be intelligent enough to match her wits in an argument with her husband, who is much older and more experienced (according to historical records of the age difference between the couple). Arguing with one’s wife is considered a failure of masculinity in a patriarchal worldview since it reflects the absence of unquestioned obedience from the wife. The duke tries to excuse this alleged failure as a refusal ‘to stoop’. Alliteration is present in the last two of the above lines.

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 44-48

“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 duke asserts that, although the duchess would smile at him every time he passed by her, such smiles are nothing out of ordinary and only to be expected from a wife. Lines 45-47 contain a menacing enjambment that indicates the duke’s hand in murdering his disobedient wife, his ‘commands’ leading to the stoppage of all her smiles. His comment – “There she stands //As if alive.” Jolts the speaker back to the reality of the scene – the viewing of a portrait – from the story of the duchess’ life and death. In her tragic heroism and subversion of patriarchal norms, the young duchess strongly resembles the titular protagonist of John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, also allegedly based on historical events like Browning’s poem, although there the duchess’ brothers, and not her husband pose a threat to her autonomy and life. Alliterations abound in these lines, present in lines 45, 46, and 47. There is also the use of metonymy in line 46.

My Last Duchess | Analysis, Lines 49-56

“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!”

In the final lines of the poem, the scene is contextualized further as a meeting for discussing a second marriage proposal for the duke, who says that the Count whose daughter is the prospective bride, has enough dowry to offer for there to be no objections on the duke’s part, although, he untruthfully adds that it is the ‘fair daughter’ of the count that truly interests him. The audience, however, is left with no confusion regarding his true intentions, Browning’s portrayal of him having successfully betrayed the true face of the patriarchal society. The last three lines shift the duke’s interest to another painting next to the duchess’, indicating that his late wife’s memory is no more to him than an object of art that deserves only temporary and critical attention. Lines 49 and 54 present the use of alliterations again, while the device of enjambment is used virtually everywhere in the poem.

 

 

 

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