My Last Duchess Analysis by Robert Browning

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This is a full analysis of My Last Duchess by Robert Browning.

My Last Duchess is a famous poem. It’s a classic of the 19th century. Students today typically find it totally mystifying until it’s explained to them. Then they look at it again and usually find it pretty interesting.

Since there’s a fair amount to this poem I’m going to make two sections in this. The first one I want to walk you through the poem and explain a little background and some of the surface detail. In the second section, I want to address what this poem is really about.

Before we start let’s define a term Dramatic Monologue.

It’s an old poetic form that was especially popular in the 19th century. The poet Robert Browning was particularly good with this form.

A Dramatic Monologue is a poem in which a speaker addresses a silent listener. The setting, the circumstances and the subject of the poem gradually become clear as the poem progresses.

The central purpose of a dramatic monologue is to reveal slowly the psychology of the speaker. Okay with that in mind let’s look at My Last Duchess.

Students often find the poem confusing because we aren’t familiar with 19th century Italian nobility. The word Ferrara beneath the title refers to a place. It’s a city in northern Italy with a lot of palaces where lots of nobility lived.

Here are a couple of pictures of palaces or castles that populate the city of Ferrara.

So you can see that we’re talking about extraordinary old wealth.

Robert Browning’s readers would have known that. The word Ferrara would have had associations for them just like Beverly Hills has associations for us.

My Last Duchess Analysis:

Now one thing we learned from the first line is that the speaker is a Duke because only a Duke would be married to a duchess. What Robert Browning’s readers would have known that we don’t know is that a Duke is at the very top of the ladder of Italian aristocracy. It’s an inherited title and it comes with an old family name and enormous wealth.

Now while we’re on the subject a count is right beneath a Duke in the aristocratic pecking order and that becomes an important detail later on.

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.

By the way, the word Fra is sort of equivalent to mister. So the Duke is speaking to somebody we don’t know who yet and is showing this person a painting of his Last Duchess.

Fra Pandolf was the painter of this wonderful piece and he worked many days on it.

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra 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.

Well, what do we have going on here? First, there are some big words countenance means face.

So that picture countenance refers to the face of the painting. There are depth and passion in her eye her earnest glance and people who look at the painting wonder about that. They ask how did such an expression come to be on that face.

Also, note the parenthetical expression since none puts by the court and I have drawn for you but I.

Paintings in these big castles or palaces were often worth a fortune. To keep them from fading often they were covered by heavy curtains. The curtains were drawn back when there was a social gathering or when someone wanted to look at the painting.

The speaker the Duke makes it clear that he is the only one who draws this curtain back and lets others see it. But what about this expression this earnest glance. In the following lines, the Duke explains how it came to be there and we begin to learn that he’s not too pleased with his Duchess.

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
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.

Well, the Duke is not too happy with her because she is too familiar with the lower classes. In this world, if you’re at the top of the aristocratic ladder. You conduct yourself accordingly at least so believes this speaker the Duke.

She was just too easily impressed too soon made glad. if Fra Pandolf complimented her she thought it was a big deal even though he was just a painter. If someone around the palace gave her bough cherries some officious fool. She thought it was a big deal and got all blushy about it.

The words officious by the way means someone who thinks he’s more important than he is.

This Duchess would even get all fluttery about watching a sunset. The thing that really irks the Duke about this is that he gives his wife the most important and valuable gift anyone can bestow.

The gift of a 900 years old name prestige, social position, wealth and yet she acts like it’s no big deal. She’s just as impressed with all this little stuff. Yet even though he is bugged by her behavior. He doesn’t tell her because that would be beneath his social standing.

Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?

The word blame here might be translated into our language as a complaint about. Who’d stoop to complain about this sort of trifling?

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.

So he says even if I were really good at words which I’m not. Even if I could find just the right way to tell her that this and that behavior is disgusting to me.

And supposing that she didn’t even argue with me. Set her wits against me and even if she changed her behavior let herself be lessened so even so that would be socially stooping. And he’s not going to do that 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.

let’s come back to that in just a minute let’s finish reading the poem first.

There she stands as if alive now.

He’s pointing to the painting. it’s so lifelike that it’s almost like she’s standing there.

Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence

Munificence means generosity.

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!

So we learned something important about who the listener is in these last lines.

The listener is a messenger or emissary who works for an account. Now account is an Italian aristocrat but a notch below a Duke. We also learn what these two are talking about.

They’re talking about the count’s daughter who if the negotiations workout will marry the Duke.

Apparently, they’re upstairs in this palace having a private conversation. Perhaps there’s a party or social gathering going on downstairs in any case.

The Duke refers to going down together going down the stairs.

The last two and a half lines confuse people remember this is a Palace full of art. The Duke points out a piece of bronze art that the artist Claus of Innsbruck made for him. This bronze piece of art is of Neptune. The god of the sea taming a seahorse.

Okay, now that’s a quick run through of the poem. Now that we kind of knows the details in the context so far.

Okay, now we’ve gone through My Last Duchess and talked about the Dramatic Monologue and several details of the poem.

But what’s the purpose of the poem? what’s the poem really about?

First, the purpose of a dramatic monologue is to explore and reveal the psychology of a character the speaker of the poem.

Robert Browning was particularly interested in personalities that seemed one way on the surface but are something else beneath the surface. This Duke is a troubled guy but we don’t pick up on that right away because he is so well-spoken and calm and polite to the person he’s speaking to.

He shows his guest a painting talks about how it came to be painted what people like about it etc. but Robert Browning’s readers would have been more tuned in to the nuance of this nuance of this 19th-century language than we are.

They would have started picking up fairly early that there’s something not quite right about this guy.

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.

Well, maybe she was a flirt maybe she was unfaithful to him. But as we read I don’t think we believe that. All he accuses her of is being nice. She’s polite to people she thanks them when they give her gifts.

She enjoys the small things in life like riding around the palace on a mule or looking at a sunset. His main beef seems to be that she is not impressed enough with him.

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.

Well, I don’t know about you but at this point, I’m thinking this guy’s got an ego that’s run away with him. But lots of people have big egos it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re deranged.

But as we go further I begin to wonder he won’t even talk to her about his concerns because even to talk about them would be a form of social stooping. Coming down to somebody else’s level and he’s not going to do that I choose never to stoop.

Well now that is strange you’re so high and mighty that you can’t even talk to your wife about a concern. And then we come to these curious lines.

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.

Hmm well, what were these commands? what exactly happened to this Duchess.

I think back to this concept of Murray house that we discussed. The power of silences in a poem the implications that lie between and behind the lines.

This poem never tells us explicitly what happened to the Duchess but the strong suggestion is that he killed her.

We can assume she’s not alive because at the end of the poem. We learned that he’s negotiating to marry someone else and this was not a world or a social structure in which people divorced.

So what starts out in this poem to be a reasoned intelligent socially pleasant speaker turns out to be a murderous egomaniac.

A couple of details at the end reinforced that. let’s look at these lines

I repeat,
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.

Now that’s a little confusing to most students. A dowry is an old-fashioned concept. It’s a sum of money given to the husband by the wife’s family upon marriage.

Obviously, this is a custom that existed in societies where marriages were arranged.

I know your master the acount the father of the potential bride is a generous guy. He is known for his munificence that means generosity. So I know that he will agree to any dowry that I ask for.

Sounds to me like he may be interested in a tidy profit here. But then he says though his fair daughter self as I avowed it starting is my object.

In other words, I know your master will provide any dowry I ask for but please understand. I’m really only interested in the daughter. Well after what he’s told us about how he treated the previous Duchess I don’t think we believe that.

Now let’s look at the last two and a half lines for a second.

As they start down the stairs the Duke points out a piece of art.

Notice Neptune, though, 
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

It’s a bronze piece of art showing Neptune taming a seahorse.

Here’s an image which is sort of like what the Duke would be referring to although you can’t see as well as I would like.

My Last Duchess

Neptune the god of the sea is usually depicted as a hugely powerful figure. A seahorse if you’ve ever seen one you know that it’s a little tiny thing. So we’ve got this big bully Neptune lording it over this little tiny sea horse.

We can see why the Duke would like that piece of art. He would associate himself with Neptune and everyone else. Especially his Duchess’s with the seahorse.

There’s much more that we could say about this poem but remember all poetry in one way or another is about seeing. About seeing beneath the surface of things to the reality of things. And what My Last Duchess poem tries to do is take us beneath the surface of a disturbed personality. A personality that looks calm reasoned and civil on the surface but is none of those things beneath the surface.

Thanks for reading My Last Duchess Analysis. Hope you guys like it. Foxen

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