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My Last Duchess -- a Poetry Friday post

Poetry first, discussion after.

My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning


That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà 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. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà 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.
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. 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
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,
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 Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
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!


This poem is set up as a dramatic monologue, spoken by Duke Ferrara. It starts out sounding like a guy bragging about a piece of artwork — here, a fresco — but quickly skews toward the dark side, as he moves on to describe his wife, and thence to discussing his suspicions (reasonable or not) that she was indiscriminate with her attentions. He "gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together." And now, he's talking to the envoy of the Count, whose young daughter he hopes to marry.

So, your thoughts on the story here? I ask because although this poem was written in 1842, it is quite psychological. And although Browning conceived it as a dramatic monologue, which he intended to be "objective," it remains a lyrical, subjective piece, with a sort of Gothic (and therefore "Romantic") sensibility about it. As the reader/listener, you must piece together more of the story than you are actually given. I don't know about you, but I find this poem to contain elements of both mystery and horror writing, and it certainly succeeds in engaging me on a psychological level. Am I correct in suspecting the Duke caused his wife's death? If so, how can he seem somewhat rational, and how can he so easily contemplate the business arrangements in taking a second wife, or discuss a sculpture of Neptune? If I'm mistaken, what does it say about my mind that I would suspect him of such a heinous act? And yet, I can't be mistaken — his jealousy and rage are clearly expressed through his words; he also describes his pride in his social position, and even in his actions, which he considers proper.

"My Last Duchess" was written early in the Victorian era. English Society had become fairly repressive, particularly where issues of female sexuality were concerned. A question one might ask is where Browning's thoughts lay on the matter of sexual repression in general, and fear of feminine sexuality in particular. I don't know the answer, but it's pretty clear that this intensely psychological poem depicts the Duke's efforts to control and his wife and what can be viewed as her sexual conduct (or, if the Duke is to be believed — and it seems as if he is not — her sexual misconduct), even if only smiles and blushes are mentioned.

Indeed, to me the poem suggests that the Duke despised his wife and considered her a lesser being, as when he says that to school her on the many ways in which her behaviour fell short would have required him to stoop to (her?) lower level: "'Just this/Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,/Or there exceed the mark' . . . I choose/Never to stoop." Did Browning intend to delve into the politics of marriage? If so, what did he want the take-home message to be?

He is obviously pleased with his current control over his Last Duchess. He has had her life-like image affixed to the wall, where she may never misbehave. He can keep her behind the curtain, and see her smile only for him. As an object of art, he can own and control her in a way that he could not do with the living person. The reference to the sculpture being one of Neptune using a trident to tame a sea horse is there to fill the dual purpose of showing the Duke's return to less weighty matters, while again emphasizing the need for dominance and control.

I find this poem endlessly fascinating to contemplate, but will stop positing now. There are, however, a few more things to consider.

First, does it change your reading if you learn that "My Last Duchess" is based on the true story of Alfonso II d'Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara, who lived in Italy in the 16th century? He married a very young De Medici girl(for 14 is very young, no?), who lived only three years, and died under suspicious circumstances — poison was suspected. That's her portrait at the top of the post. And while the De Medici family is now considered an old and venerable Italian family, Alfonso II was from an older and more highly ranked lineage. Alfonso was descended from royalty, as was his second wife.

Second. About the form of the poem. You may not have noticed, but it is written entirely in rhymed couplets, using iambic pentameter. If you didn't notice, or at least not immediately, it's because Browning didn't write using end-stopped couplets (where the natural break falls at the end of every line). Rather, he used enjambment, a word taken from the French (meaning "stepping over"). It is the opposite of an end-stop, and is sometimes called a "run on" line, because to get the sense or meaning of the particular line, you must move on to the next bit of punctuation.

Finally, if you want to see an even more twisted dramatic monologue by Browning, do check out "Porphyria's Lover", in which the speaker ultimately proves to be insane. "Porphyria's Lover" is dated six years earlier than "My Last Duchess," and is therefore just before the start of Queen Victoria's reign, at a time when societal standards were shifting towards repressiveness, but not in the heydey of Victorian principles, which didn't occur until much later in the century. Porphyria is the disease which is believed to have caused the madness of King George III and of Vincent Van Gogh — symptoms include hallucination, paranoia, depression and more — and yet, Browning would have known none of that when he crafted his poem about a man in love with with a woman named Porphyria, which manages to equate love and madness.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 21st, 2007 08:25 pm (UTC)
I read it exactly as you did, Kelly...with dawning horror. He's turned her into a bit of collectible art, which is all she was to begin with, it seems.

What I want now is for the portrait to speak! Come on, Kelly, tell us HER side of the story!

Sara Lewis Holmes
Sep. 21st, 2007 11:36 pm (UTC)
Interesting notion, and one I may take you up on, Sara.
Sep. 21st, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
You are correct, Kelly Fineman Poe
Your reading is absolutely correct....It is the Duke who is to blame for the death of the duchess, poor thing. ["He] gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped." However, what is doubly vexing about this poem is that the Duke seems to be making arrangements for his NEXT marriage with an agent of a seemingly wealthy man who will not "disallow" a request for an ample "dowry." That this could happen again is, to say the least, very frightening.

However, I think that Browning is actually fighting the male-dominated and male fearfulness of female sexuality in this poem that the victorian age is so rife with. I like that the Duke is so proud of the unchanging artwork of his musty gallery...the picture of the Duchess "as if alive," the cast bronze...cold, unmoving and unmoved. How different from the duchess and her sweet and innocent regard for nature...a cherry blossom, the sunset...simple pleasures, preferring these to the Duke's 900 year old name. And, I think, we are intended by Browning to understand that there is some kind of complicity on the part of the narrator and the agent...a little wink wink nudge nudge about the matter, that sometimes steps must be taken to put women in their place. Browning fights this.

Oh, you are correct Kelly Poe. The heart of the Duke is cold!

Sep. 21st, 2007 11:35 pm (UTC)
Re: You are correct, Kelly Fineman Poe
I was going to talk a bit about how he presaged Poe with all the pschodrama in his poems, but didn't -- the post was running long as it is. But I think he was trying to shock the complacent, buttoned-up Victorians around him with this one (and Porphyria, which is still more troubling, and may yet be a separate post).
Sep. 22nd, 2007 11:48 am (UTC)
Poetry Friday
I remember first getting the creeps from this poem in high school ... yes, he had her killed. What it says about you (that you would suspect him of such a heinous act) is that you accurately interpret a deft poet. :-)
Sep. 22nd, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Poetry Friday
I suppose. But don't you think that it says something about human nature that Browning knew folks would pretty much universally infer what had happened to the poor Duchess?
Sep. 22nd, 2007 11:57 am (UTC)
being anon
I think I forgot to sign my anonymous comment ... that last one was me ....
Karen Edmisten :-)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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