Introduction and Thesis
‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning is a very famous and much-anthologized poem. It is a dramatic monologue written in rhyming iambic pentameters – that is to say the poet adopts the voice of someone else and speaks throughout as that person. It was first published in 1842 and is one of many dramatic monologues that Browning wrote. This poem is based on real historical events. Duke Alfonso II of Modena and Ferrara (1559 – 1597) married Lucrezia de Doctors and she died four years after the wedding in mysterious circumstances. This is the starting point for Browning’s poem. Victorian Britain was rather obsessed with the Italian Renaissance. Many of Browning’s monologues are set in Renaissance Italy. The Renaissance, around the period 1450 – 1650, was a cultural and intellectual movement which happened all across Western Europe and it involved the rediscovery of many of the skills that had been forgotten or ignored since the fall of the Roman Empire, especially in painting, art and sculpture. We can understand why the Renaissance began in Italy and the Italians felt themselves to be the heirs of the ancient Romans. In Italy the ruins and ancient buildings were a constant visual reminder of the arts of Rome. The artistic achievement of the Renaissance was helped by a system of patronage: wealthy dukes, merchants and princes commissioned great artists to create paintings and sculptures, just as in the poem the Duke of Ferrara has commissioned Fra Pandolf to paint the portrait of his first wife and Claus of Innsbruck has sculpted Neptune taming a sea-horse.
But the Renaissance, especially in Italy, had a sinister side to it. Many of the wealthy and powerful patrons of art were just as capable of paying to have an enemy assassinated or poisoned because the power and wealth they had allowed them to do so. What seems to have fascinated the Victorians was the co-existence in the Italian renaissance of art works of stunning beauty alongside moral and political corruption. As Victorian Britons they hoped to emulate the cultural achievements, but looked down upon (even as they were fascinated by) the moral corruption.
My thesis is that Browning deliberately manipulates the narrative form and the genre of the dramatic monologue to address the position of women in relation to powerful as well as exploring the relationship between morality and aesthetics.
The speaker in the poem is the Duke of Ferrara, an Italian nobleman from the 16th century. – we are told this from the note at the beginning. This immediately tells us the location of the poem (Italy) and the social background of the speaker – he is a powerful and wealthy aristocrat.
As the poem develops we come to understand that the Duke is talking to a representative of the family of his fiancée, his future wife, and that they are talking in the Duke of Ferrara’s house. We can be even more precise and say that for most of the poem they are standing in front of a portrait of the Duke’s former wife (now dead). The Duke talks about his dead wife and, in doing so, reveals a great deal about his character, the sort of man he is. We also learn the terrible fate of his first wife.
The opening sentence refers the reader to a painting hanging on the wall. The painting is so good that his previous wife is
“Looking as if she were alive.” ( Clluston, 2010. Chapter 11 and p19 )
Browning establishes that the painter was skilled and produced a “wonder” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper 11 and p19) – a masterpiece. The painter fussed over the portrait and over the duchess – “his hands worked busily a day” (Clugston, 2010. Chapter 11and age 19). In line 5 we realize for the first time that the duke is speaking not to the readers as such, but someone else; he invites him to sit and look at the portrait of his dead wife. He says he mentioned Fra Pandolf ‘by design’ (Clugston, 2010. Chapter 11 and p19)– perhaps to imply that he was an exceptionally well-known and highly sought-after painter (but remember that he has been made up by Browning).
The long sentence that begins on line 5 may be a little hard to follow. I noted that in lines 9-10 the duke reveals that the painting is normally concealed by a curtain which only he is allowed to open; this suggests perhaps a man who is used to being obeyed, even in petty things like a curtain covering a painting. When people like the person he is talking to – “strangers like you” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19 ) – see the painting, the duke says, they are always moved to ask him (he’s always there because he controls the curtain!) what caused the “depth” and “passion” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19) in the look on the duchess’s face. You might note the phrase “its pictured countenance” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19 ) – but it may strikes me as unusual that he doesn’t use the word ‘her’ when talking about his dead wife. I also note that the visitor hasn’t asked about the ‘earnest glance’ in the duchess’s face – perhaps only the duke sees it. He seems to like the painting of her very much indeed.
The duke continues by saying that his visitor is not the first person to ask him why she looked so passionate in the portrait. The duke states
“Sir, ‘twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19 )
‘Her husband’s presence’ – are we to assume that he was there in the room all the time while she had her portrait completed? I think we are – it fits with what we are starting to find out about his character. The duke seems to have been jealous when other men paid any attention to his wife – something she appears to have enjoyed since it brings “a spot of joy” to her face. He seems to have seen Fra Pandolf as some sort of rival and repeats things that the painter said to his wife in lines 16 – 19. You may feel that the duke really suspected that Fra Pandolf was his wife’s secret lover or you may feel that the duke thought she was a little too easily impressed by male attention.
The duke then expands on his wife’s faults. She was “too soon made glad” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19); she was too “easily impressed” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19); she could not discriminate:
“she liked whate’er
She looked on and and her looks went everywhere.” Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19)
She looked on everything wth the same undiscriminating affecition.
“My favour at her breast” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19) – some precious brooch pinned on her breast and given her by the duke was given the same importance as the sunset or some cherries brought to her by a servant or riding a white mule along the terrace of the palace. Line 33 reveals the duke’s arrogance about his title and position. He talks about his nine-hundred-years-old name and clearly feels that his position and his title as Duke of Ferrara (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19) should have been given more respect by his wife. Note that he calls his name “My gift” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19) – as though she should have been grateful that he married her.
In line 34 he starts to suggest that his attitude to all this was casual and relaxed. He calls her behaviour “trifling” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19) and says he would not “stoop” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19) to blame her. “Stoop” is an important word because it reminds me of his high social status and makes it clear that he regarded his wife as beneath him and inferior to him: it is a word that he repeats in the next few lines. And so it was that even though his wife’s behaviour disgusted him, he never said a word.
Browning allows the duke to say he is not good at speaking and so may not have been able to explain his misgivings to his wife – but this is sheer nonsense: every line of this poem shows that the duke (as Browning has created him) is a clever manipulator of words. He says that she might have argued with him: “plainly set her wits” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p20) against his; and that even if he could have explained, it would have been degrading for him to have done so:
“E’en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop.” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p 20)
Once again I am reminded of his arrogance and superciliousness. It is interesting that he could not speak to his wife, but he takes 56 lines of the poem to talk to his visitor. She remained friendly to him – she smiled when she passed him, but she smiled at everyone and his sense of his own importance cannot allow that. And then we come to the heart, perhaps, of the poem:
“I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p20)
The duke gave some orders and had his wife murdered. This is quite clear. Browning said of the poem in an interview:
“I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death….Or he might have had her shut up in a convent.”
Now look back at line 19. It refers to the painter saying that he can never hope to reproduce in paint the flush “that dies along her throat” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p19) – that fades along her throat, but now we have read more of the poem and we know what the duke did to his wife, it is clear that Browning is preparing us verbally for the truth. Did she have her throat slashed? Or was she strangled? Either could be true.
In line 47 he invites his visitor to stand and go downstairs with him to meet the company – the group of people who are waiting for them down below. Line 49 reveals that he has been talking to a servant of an unnamed Count, “your master”, (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p20) whose “known munificence” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p20) means that he (the duke) expects a very large dowry. Having mentioned the dowry, the duke asserts that he doesn’t really care about money – he is only interested in the count’s daughter.
As they go down the stairs the duke points out a bronze statue, another of his pieces of art, sculpted by Claus of Innsbruck for him. The statue’s subject matter is important: it shows the god of the sea, Neptune, taming a sea-horse. This demonstrates the relationship that the duke had with his first wife (he tamed her), with his servants and with his future wife – the daughter of the Count. Like Neptune ruling the sea, the duke likes to have power over people and beautiful objects like the painting of his wife and this statue. It is significant that the final word of this poem is “me” (Clugston, 2010. Chaper11 and p20) – because the duke’s self-centredness has slowly been revealed the more we have read.
Browning writes in rhyming couplets of ten syllables, but his use of enjambment means that, because the lines are very rarely end-stopped, the poem drives onwards, just as the duke almost compulsively reveals what has happened to his wife. The enjambment also prevents the rhyming couplets from becoming too monotonous and makes them sound more like real speech. The duke’s hesitations and frequent interjections make him appear reasonable, although he is talking about the murder of his first wife. He has a very casual attitude to it all: he acquired a wife; she did not behave as he liked; he disposed of her. The naturalness of the sound of his speech, its casual, relaxed tone suggests that he does not see anything wrong in what he has done and expects his listener to find it normal too.
Although he claims he is not skilled in speaking, Browning ensures that the Duke gradually reveals the truth about what happened to his wife and the truth about his own character: he is possessive, jealous and likes the idea of controlling people. He is proud and arrogant about his aristocratic title and his family’s history. He seems to prefer the painting of his dead wife to her living reality: he can control the painting, but he could not control his first wife. The poem ends on a note of dread – dread on behalf of his second wife who does not know what lies in store for her. He also seems to treat his wives like objects: objects are much easier to control than living human beings.
He seems more interested in being seen as a man of great taste than as a good husband. He draws the servant’s attention to the painting and to the sculpture at the end. These objects are meant to demonstrate his taste and his wealth – he is connected to the great artists of his day. But his taste is limited to things he can control and totally possess – for example, he does not seem to be aware of the irony in the sculpture of Neptune and the fact that it might symbolize his relationships with other people, especially women.
What impressed me about this poem was, firstly, the very gradual way that Browning reveals the truth about what happened to the last duchess (despite the casual and friendly tone that he creates for the speaker) and, secondly, the implied criticism Browning makes of the powerful, male aristocracy. The duke thinks he is cultured, but he is a murdering control freak.