My Last Duchess by Browning

Introduction

“My Last Duchess,” which was first published in the collection Dramatic Lyrics in 1842, is an excellent example of Browning’s use of dramatic monologue. Browning’s psychological portrayal of a great Renaissance aristocrat is given to the reader as if he or she were “eavesdropping” on a casual conversation. As the poem progresses, the reader discovers that the speaker, Duke Ferrara, is speaking to a representative of his fiancee’s family. Standing in front of a portrait of the Duke’s last wife, who is now deceased, the Duke discusses the woman’s flaws and shortcomings. The poem’s irony emerges as the reader realises that the young woman’s “faults” were characteristics such as compassion, modesty, humility, delight in simple pleasures, and respect to those who served her.

Browning brings the reader to the conclusion that the Duke was dissatisfied with his prior wife because she did not reserve her attentions for him, his rank, and his power. More crucially, the Duke’s long list of concerns is a thinly veiled threat regarding the behaviour he will and will not tolerate in his new wife. The phrases “I gave commands; / smiles stopped together” imply that the Duke was somehow, directly or indirectly, responsible for the death of the last Duchess. Browning has not only represented the inner workings of his speaker in this dramatic monologue, but he has also allowed the speaker to reveal his own shortcomings and imperfections to the reader.

To some extent, Robert Browning is tough, necessitating a degree of intellectual effort on the side of the reader. His poetry is also distinguished by a purposeful roughness reminiscent of the metaphysical writers. His poetry are deeply concerned with human character and exhibit an interest to the weird, unusual, and quirky. His poems are extremely dramatic and deal with Renaissance themes. Browning’s works are characterised by his powerful optimism and spiritual daring. The narrator revealed his lover the truth, and now he knows his fate, nothing his love can do, and his life is destined to fail. This was written in his stars, and all that is required is that his entire heart rises to worship her name in pride and thankfulness. He requested her to return the hope she had given him because he said he only had a recollection of it, and if she did not mind, he would leave for one more farewell journey with her. When sympathy would be easing through, his mistress fixed him with a breathing-while or two with life or death in the balance.

Summary


This poem is loosely based on historical events that occurred in the 16th century regarding Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. The poem’s speaker is the Duke, who informs us that he is receiving an emissary who has come to negotiate the Duke’s marriage (he has recently been widowed) to the daughter of another important family. As he walks the guest through his palace, he comes to a halt in front of a photo of the late Duchess, who appears to have been a young and gorgeous girl. The Duke starts talking about the photo sessions, then the Duchess herself. His meditations are followed by a tirade against her terrible behaviour: he alleges she flirted with everyone and did not appreciate his “gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name.” As his monologue progresses, the reader becomes increasingly convinced that the Duke was responsible for the Duchess’s early demise: when her behaviour deteriorated, “[he] gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.” After making this confession, the Duke returns to his original task: arranging for another marriage, this time with another young lady. The Duke points out other famous artworks in his collection as he and the emissary walk away from the picture.

Form

“My Last Duchess” is written in rhyming pentameter. The lines do not use end-stops; rather, they use enjambment, which means that sentences and other grammatical units do not always terminate at the end of lines. As a result, when the rhymes appear, they do not provide a sense of closure, but rather serve as a subtle driving force behind the Duke’s compulsive discoveries. The Duke is quite the performer: he imitates other people’s voices, invents imaginary situations, and exploits the power of his personality to make horrific material appear merely colourful.

Commentary

But Browning had more in mind than just creating a colourful character and setting him in a lovely historical setting. Rather, the poem’s unique historical location is significant: the Italian Renaissance had a particular attraction for Browning and his contemporaries, as it symbolised the flourishing of the aesthetic and the human alongside, or in some cases in place of, the religious and the moral. Thus, the chronological setting allows Browning to revisit sex, violence, and aesthetics as all interwoven, complicated, and confusing each other: the lushness of the language conceals the fact that the Duchess was punished for her natural libido. The Duke’s rants imply that the majority of the alleged crimes occurred solely in his mind. The Duke, like several of Browning’s contemporaries, finds iniquity lurking around every turn. The motive the speaker cites for murdering the Duchess appears to differ from the reason stated by the speaker in “Porphyria’s Lover” for murdering Porphyria; however, both women are victims of a male urge to inscribe and fix female sexuality. The intense impulse to do so echoes Victorian society’s efforts to shape individuals’ sexual and nonsexual conduct. This impulse comes naturally to people confronted with an increasingly complex and anonymous modern world: to control appears to be to conserve and stabilise. The Renaissance was a time when morally bankrupt men like the Duke wielded absolute power, and as such it is a fascinating study for Victorians: works like this imply that, surely, a time that produced magnificent art like the Duchess’s portrait could not have been entirely evil in its allocation of societal control—even if it put men like the Duke in power.

A poem like “My Last Duchess” deliberately touches its readers on a psychological level. We must piece the storey together ourselves because we only hear the Duke’s comments. Browning forces his reader to become interested in the poem in order to understand it, which adds to the enjoyment of reading his work. It also encourages the reader to consider his or her personal reaction to the issue being depicted as well as the way by which it is being depicted. We are obliged to analyse which component of the poem dominates: the tragedy of the Duchess’ destiny or the beauty of the language and the great dramatic development? Thus, by presenting this question, the poem first probes the Victorian reader’s reaction to the modern world—git asks, “Has everyday life made you numb yet?” Gand then asks a question that must be posed of all art: Does art contain a moral component, or is it only an aesthetic exercise?

In these latter considerations, Browning foreshadows writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde.

Detailed Analysis

Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is characterised by murder , mystery and intrigue. The speaker’s indirect allusions to his wife’s death may easily lead the reader to believe that the speaker committed a spiteful crime out of jealously. His lyrical discourse, however, confuses and conceals any conceivable intentions, and the case remains unresolved. Based on the poem’s style, structure, and historical references, it seems clear that, even if the speaker did not murder his wife personally, he had something to hide.

The language and structure of this poem have a considerable impact on its effect. “My Last Duchess,” like many of Browning’s poems, is written as a dramatic monologue in which one speaker tells the entire poem to another person there with him. This structure works particularly well for this poem because the speaker, assumed to be the Duke of Ferrara, comes across as quite domineering, especially in conversation. For example, he appears envious that he was unable to monopolise his former duchess’ smiles. He frequently appears to command the behaviour of the person he is addressing with words like “Will not you please rise?” (Line 47) as well as “Nay, we will go / Together down, sir” (lines 53-54).

Browning employs a variety of strategies to convey distinct features and qualities of the speaker and the event, including a basic rhyme scheme, enjambment, and caesura. Browning used the AA BB rhyme system, which is frequent in ballads and songs. It also heightens the irony of the speaker’s later remark that he lacks “skill / In speech” (lines 35-36). The enjambed lines reflect the speaker’s dominance over the discourse and provide the impression that the speaker is hurrying through parts of the poem.

When it comes to the content of the poem, there are many things we know for definite and many more that are debatable. We know that the Duchess died in a strange manner and that the Duke is hunting for a new wife. He is talking to a messenger about an artwork of his late wife. Of course, the Duke is presenting himself in a good light and presenting his best side. He wants to make it appear as if his wife was unfaithful to him and was cheating on him. He is quite controlling, yet he could not keep her and her smiles under control. This smile is what the Duke enjoys best about the Duchess’s painting—he believes the painter correctly portrayed the Duchess’s smile and vivacity. Now that the Duke owns the picture and has hidden it behind a curtain, he can finally decide who gets to see her smile.

When the Duchess was alive, the Duke could not stop her from smiling and loving life, and he thought her disloyal. Because of these suspicions, he is considered to have poisoned her. Other parts of the Duke remain unknown, such as his genuine character.

As previously stated, he is showing his best side, yet the reader can perceive via his words that he is exceedingly jealous and domineering, leading one to conclude that he may have many dishonourable tendencies. Another uncertain aspect of the Duke is his historical persona. The poem undoubtedly refers to the real Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara (a city in northeast Italy), whose first wife died suspiciously after only two years of marriage. We know that Browning’s Duke had a 900-year-old name that he is quite proud of, and that he was a patron of the arts based on his collection of paintings and sculptures. Both facts are consistent with what is known about the historical Duke. However, some crucial material is left out of the poem. Browning does not identify the Duchess as a member of the royal de Medici family in the painting. According to historical accounts, Alfonso’s first wife was Lucretia de Medici, the daughter of two important and powerful Italian rulers. The poem is inspired by the fact that she died just two years after the Duke ascended to the throne. Although some claim she died strangely, it was never proven that the Duke was involved in her death.


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