My Last Duchess

A Duke is rather displeased by the happy, vibrant nature of his late wife. Why do you think this is so? How do you think the Duke’s late wife met her end? Explore the mystery of the Dukes late wife in Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842) and consider the real sixteenth-century intrigue on which this poem is loosely based.

My Last Duchess My Last Duchess

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Contents
Table of contents

    My Last Duchess: at a glance

    'My Last Duchess' Summary and Analysis

    Date published

    1842

    Author

    Robert Browning

    Form/ structure

    Dramatic monologue in continuous form.

    Meter

    Iambic pentameter

    Rhyme scheme

    AABB (rhyming couplets)

    Poetic Devices

    Allusion, enjambment, rhyming couplets, and rhetorical questions

    Frequently noted imagery

    Smiles, blushing

    Tone

    Ominous, threatening, arrogant, jealous, and possessive

    Themes

    Relationships, gendered expectations, jealousy, and possessiveness

    SummaryThe poem is set in Renaissance Italy and is narrated by the Duke of Ferrara, who is showing a painting of his late wife, the Duchess, to a visitor. Through the Duke's speech, the reader learns about the Duchess's personality and behaviour, as well as the Duke's own character flaws.
    Analysis

    The poem is an exploration of jealousy and possessiveness within a marriage, gendered expectations of women, and the treatment of women as chattel. The poem is a commentary on power, control, and gender roles.

    The context of My Last Duchess

    Here, we consider the biographical, historical, and literary contexts of Browning's poem.

    Biographical context

    After Browning’s early poem Pauline: A fragment of confession (1833) was criticised by John Stuart Mill as over-exposing the poet, Browning resolved to always use narrators to perform speech as a distancing device.

    In ‘My Last Duchess’, Browning uses the Duke of Ferrara as a vehicle for expressing the human emotions of jealousy and making a statement about societal expectations for married women.

    My Last Duchess, Robert Browning, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Robert Browning is a Victorian Poet who was married to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

    Historical context

    It is widely accepted that Browning may have loosely based the characters of the Duke and Duchess in ‘My Last Duchess’ upon the real historical figures of Alfonso II d’Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara, and his young wife Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici. Within just three years of their marriage, Lucrezia had died, and it was speculated that the Duke had had her poisoned. The poem heavily alludes to the Duke having had his wife killed and explores his motivations.

    Consider the Duke’s view of his last Duchess as a possession that he could do away with as he wished in light of the context in which it was written. At the time of this poem’s publication, the wealth and property of married women in England automatically came under the control of their husbands.2 Therefore, women were often viewed as chattel, a possession to be acquired alongside other wealth and desirable family connections.

    If we take the poem to be set in the sixteenth century, the time period of Alfonso and Lucrezia, the concept of women as chattel is even more firmly embedded. Consider how the Duke mentions his potential new bride’s dowry and how the marriage is being arranged coldly between men like a business transaction.

    Browning was a self-professed liberal. His own wife, whom he married for love, was disowned by her wealthy father. How do you think Browning felt about women being viewed as chattel?

    Literary context

    Robert Browning was both a playwright and a poet, and dramatic monologue feature heavily in many plays. ‘My Last Duchess’ is a dramatic monologue.

    My Last Duchess’: poem analysis

    Let's analyse the poem 'My Last Duchess' in its entirety. Remember to count the rhyme scheme and the meter as you go.

    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.

    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. 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. 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 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!

    My Last Duchess’: summary

    So what is 'My Last Duchess' about? In the poem, the Duke of Ferrara is giving a tour to the envoy of an unnamed Count. The Duke is a widower looking for a new bride and is interested in a wealthy Count’s daughter. He shows the envoy a painting of his late wife, which is kept behind a curtain. Whilst revealing this artwork, he discusses her. Although his aim is to criticise her personality and conduct, he reveals unsavoury aspects of his personality, such as his jealousy and possessiveness.

    A key feature of the dramatic monologue is that the speaker often reveals something important about themselves whilst recounting events or discussing a particular topic. In the case of the Duke, the reader learns not just about his personality flaws but that he may have ordered the murder of the late Duchess.

    'My Last Duchess': poetic devices

    Important poetic devices include the title, form, structure, rhyme scheme, other language devices, and the imagery of the poem.

    Title

    The title ‘My Last Duchess’ draws the reader’s attention to the subject of the poem. We learn what the Duke thought of his last Duchess, that she is dead and was possibly murdered, and that the Duke is looking for his next Duchess.

    Form

    A dramatic monologue is a form of poetry where a fictitious character gives a speech, usually telling a story or describing an event. This narrative reveals, either purposefully or accidentally, aspects of their thoughts, feelings, and ultimately their inner character.2

    ‘My Last Duchess’ is a dramatic monologue narrated by the Duke of Ferrara. The Duke is addressing the envoy of an unnamed Count as part of negotiations between the two men for the Count’s daughter’s hand in marriage.

    Structure

    'My Last Duchess' is a dramatic monologue which is structured as one lengthy stanza (continuous form). This one stanza is 56 lines long.

    The poem consists of the Duke’s dramatic monologue addressed to an unnamed envoy. It opens with the Duke showing this envoy a painting of his late wife. Enjambment and rhetoric are used to mimic a sense of a (one-sided) conversation between the Duke and the envoy, showing his tight control over his perspective and account to the envoy.

    The Duke’s rhetorical questions, such as ‘Will’t please you rise?’ and ‘Will’t please you sit and look at her?’, are polite commands. The Duke does not expect or receive an answer, and they remind the reader of the envoy’s presence. It concludes with the pair heading to rejoin a larger company.

    Rhyme scheme

    The poem is composed entirely of rhyming couplets following the rhyme scheme AABB. The highly regular structure of the rhyme scheme could be interpreted as representing the Duke’s desire for order and control.

    Language devices

    Browning uses imagery that reminds the reader of the time when the last Duchess was alive and full of joy. This further reinforces a sense of her premature death. The imagery used is also linked to female emotions and sexuality.

    Paint

    Must never hope to reproduce the faint

    Half-flush that dies along her throat(My Last Duchess).

    In light of the readers knowledge that the Duchess was likely murdered, how is this word choice sinister?

    Sir, ’twas not

    Her husband’s presence only, called that spot

    Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek

    (My Last Duchess’).

    The imagery of blushing coincides with the Duke’s first accusation of inappropriate behaviour. The word choice of ‘spot’ to represent a blush has negative connotations such as blemishes and disfiguring marks. Consider how the Duke views his late wife’s behaviour as a blemish upon his honour.

    Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

    Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

    Much the same smile?(My Last Duchess’).

    The Duke uses smiles to convey that the Duchess was too free with her affections.

    This grew; I gave commands;

    Then all smiles stopped together(My Last Duchess’).

    The reader knows that the Duchess is dead, which certainly puts an end to her smiling. So whilst the Duke does not explicitly state that he ordered her to be killed, this can be interpreted as an allusion to her assassination.

    Do you think the Duke is being literal when he describes his displeasure at her smiling or is he hinting at infidelity?

    The meaning of My Last Duchess

    The meaning of a poem can be interpreted differently by each reader. This poem is open to interpretation as an exploration of male control over female sexuality. Consider how the Duke is aghast when his last Duchess openly enjoys male attention. He also wants to be the only man to enjoy her affections.

    My Last Duchess’: themes

    Important themes in 'My Last Duchess' include gendered expectations, power, control, jealousy, and possessiveness.

    Gendered expectations

    This theme runs throughout the poem. By making the Count’s envoy aware of his expectations for his next wife’s conduct and the potential fate that will befall her if she falls short, the Duke implies that he expects her to hold him in higher regard than other men and not to openly express her affections to other men.

    The Duke also expects a generous dowry to accompany his new bride. Aristocratic women were not expected to undertake paid employment. Therefore, dowries given to their husbands at marriage were supposed to cover their expenses.

    Jealousy and possessiveness

    The Duke expresses the opinion that he should enjoy a special relationship with his wife and be held in the highest esteem. He becomes jealous when he feels that she treats him with the same courtesy and affection that she does with the painter and servants.

    My Last Duchess’: symbols

    The Duke and the late Duchess’ contrasting personalities are expressed through symbolism. The Duke is proud of his possessions, giving the emissary a tour and pointing out his cast-iron sculpture of Neptune taming a seahorse.

    Point

    Evidence

    Analysis

    Link

    The Duke’s controlling, possessive nature is symbolised by the figure of Neptune.

    Notice Neptune, though,

    Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

    Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

    In Roman mythology, Neptune was the God of the sea whose chariot was drawn by seahorses under his control.

    The figure of Neptune reflects how the Duke views himself as a God-like figure with the right to control his property. When he found himself unable to control his wife, this threatened his self-image and sense of masculinity.

    The Last Duchess’ carefree, free-spirited nature is symbolised by the sculpture of the seahorse.

    Notice Neptune, though,

    Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

    Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

    In Roman mythology, seahorses are fierce, independent, and free-willed creatures. However, the God Neptune was able to bend them to his will.

    A parallel can be drawn to the last Duchess of Ferrara. The Duke wants to control her conduct. He wants to be the only one to enjoy her affections, no matter how innocent. However, the poem’s description of her suggests she remained untamed.

    My Last Duchess - Key takeaways

    • ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842) is a dramatic monologue that reveals the Duke’s true nature.

    • The characters and murder alluded to in the poem are widely thought to have been inspired by the rumours surrounding the historical figures of Alfonso and Lucrezia of Ferrara.

    • The poem is composed entirely of rhyming couplets.

    • Browning uses the imagery of blushing and smiling in the poem.

    • The poem explores the ways in which men seek to control female sexuality.

    References

    1 Richard H. Chused, Married Womens Property Law: 18001850, New York Law School (1982).

    2 Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (2021).

    Frequently Asked Questions about My Last Duchess

    What is the main message in ‘My Last Duchess’?

    The narrator, the Duke of Ferrara, is giving the count’s envoy a message about what he is looking for in a potential bride.

    What is the summary of the poem ‘My Last Duchess’?

    In ‘My Last Duchess’, the Duke of Ferrara gives the Count’s envoy a tour around his home. As he reveals a portrait of his late wife, he also reveals troubling aspects of his personality, namely, a jealous possessiveness. He heavily alludes to having had his first wife killed for being too free with her affections.

    What is the conclusion of ‘My Last Duchess’?

    The poem concludes with the narrator and the count’s envoy leaving together to join a larger gathering. Although only the narrator’s perspective is shared, it appears as though the envoy is very eager to get away, having been unsettled by the Duke’s revelations.

    What kind of poem is ‘My Last Duchess’?

    Some of the main themes of ‘My Last Duchess’ are relationships, gendered expectations, jealousy, and possessiveness.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    'My Last Duchess' (1842) belongs to which form of poetry?

    What is the implied fate of the Duchess in the poem?

    The Duke of ...

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