Robert browning was a poet writing from 1812 to 1889. In his poem, ‘My Last Duchess’, there is a story of love and loss told to us by a single narrator, the Duke. This dramatic monologue talks of the marriage of ‘Alfonzo Duke of Ferrara’ and the fourteen year old daughter of the ‘Medici’ household, in Italy, 1558. We obtain a direct insight in to the thoughts of our monologist, regarding his relationship with the girl in question, as he tells his story to whom we later come to assume is the envoy acting on behalf of a Count, in who’s daughter the Duke has shown an interest.
The Duke first introduces us to the lady in question in his referral to her as ‘My last Duchess’. Immediately we learn that the Duchess may no longer be his Duchess, for reason unknown at this point in the poem. We can also gather that the Duke views the lady as a possession, indicative in his speaking of, ‘My last Duchess’, followed with, ‘…painted on the wall’. I feel that to paint someone is to capture and keep them as a memory, or to ‘freeze’ them as an object, in the sense that you can transform a person in to a muse at which to look at, in to a thing of pure aesthetic beauty, without the portrayal of possible protest or strife that may be present in true life. I believe the latter thought to be very relevant in the Duke’s way of thinking regarding his wife.
For as we read on it becomes clear that the Duke has quite a collection of artwork; possibly a materialistic nature and a love of collecting both art and beauty. I believe that his view of women is as an aesthetic bonus to adorn his life, and it is interesting that he seems more inclined to have beauty hanging on his walls than ‘on his arm’. Already, at only line 1 we have gathered an image of the Duke as a possessive and materialistic character. To enhance the suggestion of the Duke as a character interested in beauty, we are aware of the girl being only fourteen years old. The Duke was known to be older than her, introducing the idea of corruption of innocence, alongside that of purity and beauty associated with a young girl.
Taking this idea of purity to later on in the poem, finds the Duke describing the Duchess to the second party, ‘Twas not her husbands presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess’s cheek’. This can be interpreted in different ways; as indication that this Duchess was flirtatious in nature and possibly provocative in behaviour, or that in her innocence she became shy in other company and in response to compliment, blushed, and it was not ‘a spot of joy’ as described by the Duke, but more a blush of embarrassment. Although it is clear that the Duke believes her to have been flirtatious with other men. He tries to depict this by saying ‘she had a heart… too soon made glad.’ The phrase ‘Too easily impressed’ introduces also the idea of the young Duchess’s naivety, which supports the idea that she was not flirtatious, simply young and un used to flattery. In adding this new information to the characteristics we have already gathered, the Duke appears to be a jealous man, and I find the way he speaks holds a sarcastic and patronising air. For example, ‘A heart – how shall I say?’ I imagine to be said in such a way where sarcasm is emphasised.
In line 19 we hear the first mention of death up until this point in the poem, ‘Half flush that dies along the throat’. I find this line rather sinister, and unnecessary in this context. Although the Duke is quoting the man that painted his wife, ‘Fra Pandolf’, I took this quote as the Duke’s version of the painter’s words, as opposed to the original dialect. Though we are not aware of his wife’s fate at this point in the poem, I feel that this mention of death can be closely linked to the way in which Porphyria was killed in Browning’s poem, ‘Porphyria’s lover’. The men in the poems are both relatively similar jealous characters, one of which kills his lover Porphyria by strangling her, using her hair. ‘And all her hair In one yellow string I wound Three times her little throat around, And strangled her.’
The reference to death and the throat in this poem, ‘My last Duchess’, seem remarkably indicative of similar murder, and possibly the Duke cannot keep this murder entirely quiet, so is voicing it subtly through the words of another so as not to arouse suspicion. In addition to the already given evidence of the Duke’s materialistic nature, at line 33 we hear him say, ‘As if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.’ He is obviously shocked that the Duchess sees his ‘nine hundred year old name’ to be of little value, equal to that of gifts she received from others, and feels that she undervalued him. This portrays the Duchess to be far less materialistic than the Duke, although this may be due to her young age. Browning also uses the idea of class to create separation between the lovers, in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, as he does here with the mention of the Duke’s high social status. In ‘Porphyria’s lover’, Browning gives the implication that Porphyria is of higher class than her lover, through the idea of dress, i.e. ‘Withdrew the dripping cloak… hair fall’, creating an even more defined difference by creating the idea that Porphyria has been to a social dinner before returning to lover, ‘Nor could tonight’s gay feast restrain.’
The Duke is honest at one particular point in the poem, (lines 35-39), when he says to the envoy, ‘Even had you skill in speech… the mark.’ Here he is saying that he did not have the lingual skills to voice his ‘disgust’ to her or to say that he found her behaviour difficult, but even if he had been able to do so, he had decided not to ‘stoop’, or to relent, thus making it unlikely that there would have been change in the final outcome of their relationship. The Duke makes regular referral to his wife’s behaviour with other men, ‘Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile’, implying that yes, his wife did smile at him, but she smiled at everyone in the same manner. This clearly annoyed the Duke and caused him to feel resentful towards the Duchess.
It is here, at line 45 in the poem that we learn a little bit more as to where his wife is now. ‘This grew; I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together. There she stands As if alive.’ We now know for definite that the Duchess is dead, and we are also given hints that it may have been so on the Duke’s commands, although this particular line is an ellipsis so we are never given the guarantee that the Duchess was killed by her lover, as we are in Porphyria’s lover, ‘I wound three times her little throat around, And strangled her.’ The Duke goes on to say how she stands as if she were alive, obviously referring to the painting that is still in front of them. His speech does not sound grieved, and he is talking to a character that may help him in his search for a new wife, although we have no indication as to how long it has been since the death of his ‘last Duchess’. Having made the Duchess’s apparent flaws obvious to those listening, in talking about her ‘flirtatious nature’ and implied infidelity, the Duke sounds almost proud to have her in a painting, i.e. ‘Will’t thou please sit and look at her?’ More proud, in fact, than he portrays himself to have been when she was alive. It seems that in her death he feels relieved to finally have the control he wanted over her, but could never get whilst she was alive. Through having the Duchess painted, the Duke has been able to keep her aesthetic beauty which pleased him and rid himself of her personality which he obviously found trying.
In the closing lines of the poem, (lines 47-56), the Duke talks to the envoy of the Count in a controlling and dominant way, ‘Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet the company below.’ Finalising our image of the Duke as a character; possessive, materialistic, jealous and controlling. He goes on to talk of the Count’s daughter, confirming his interest in her, and showing that there is definite method in his madness – a potential prosperous marriage. Talking of this girl he says, ‘Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed At starting, is my object.’ The monologist’s desperation for control is demonstrative in the very last lines, when he says ‘Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!’ Neptune is the well known God of the seas, an idol of great power, and possessor of nature, represented through the sea-horse in this context. The Duke wants to dominate everything small and beautiful- both characteristics that he finds in women, he craves masculine domination over the females in his life. I also found the quote about ‘cast in bronze’ interesting, as this is good supporting evidence for my theory regarding the Duke’s desire to capture and keep things of aesthetic beauty, or to ‘freeze’ them as an object.
This poem is written in a way that portrays the monologist’s state of mind. The use of caesura in the poem demonstrates the Duke’s nervous and unsure thought pattern, particularly right at the beginning of the poem where perhaps he is not entirely confident in his speech, for example, ‘And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst’. This broken speech seems particularly prominent when he is talking directly of the Duchess, from lines 31 to 46 when he is talking of her quite intimately, and of her death, indicative of foul play as he becomes more nervous. I do not feel it can be due to grief he feels in talking of her. Immediately when he ceases to talk about her and begins to talk of the Count’s daughter, the use of enjambment is more common, as in lines 49 to 51, ‘The Count your Master’s known munificence is ample warrant that no just pretence Of mine for dowry will be disallowed.’ This fluent speech in indicative of the calmer state of mind the Duke is in when not talking of ‘his last Duchess’. Browning uses Iambic pentameter throughout his poem, along with rhyming couplets, for example, ‘The Count your master’s known munificence Is ample warrant that no just pretence’.
The mixture of written technique used throughout this dramatic monologue adds irony to the poem, in that the Duke seems to be controlling and craves masculinity, but the caesura used is representative of the anxiety he feels whilst talking about the deceased Duchess, though we presume he was mentally fit to kill her. The poem presents the monologist as a possessive and jealous man who craves control, although I feel that because the Duke is talking to an individual whom he hopes will help him in his pursuit of this next wife, the information he is giving may be a ‘clean’ version of the true sequence of events that have been manipulated to ensure he does not come off badly. This idea is supported by his constant referral to her ‘flirtatious’ behaviour, though I find it hard to believe a girl between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, (her age of death), would flirt in such a provocative way in which she was described. As a Duke he would not want to risk his reputation or his chance of attaining what he has been aspiring for – a new wife, as whom he has chosen the daughter of the Count of Tyrell. A marriage that would prove prosperous in both his reputation and affluence.