My Last Duchess

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 favor 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!

Literary Analysis

The theme of “My Last Duchess” is the conflict between the self-styled elite culture of the upper class and the petty behavior of an individual during the Renaissance period in Italy. However, the irony in this poem is that the theme of love appears throughout the lecture that the duke delivers.

The title suggests that this poem is about a duchess. She is the former wife of a duke, the duke being the speaker in the poem. The poet is satirizing and exposing the culture and real character of the duke, which the poet characterizes through his harangue. The speaker in this poem is the Duke of Ferrara. We have to take into account his rhetoric, speech patterns, and syntax to understand his character. Meanwhile, the addressee is offstage. He is an agent of the count who is going to arrange his daughter’s marriage with the duke. He mostly remains silent throughout the poem.

The setting of the poem is a private art gallery in the palace of the duke to show that his love is genuine. The tone of this poem shows excessive arrogance and a sense of power over others. The poem opens with the negotiation between the Duke of Ferrara and the servant of the count. The duke takes him upstairs and shows him several objects in his art gallery. The first object he shows the servant is the portrait of his former wife, the duchess, painted by Fra Pandolf. The painter who made that piece of art “worked busily a day.” Then the duke admires the skill of the painter, for Fra Pandolf has painted the duchess to be “Looking as if she were alive.” However, the duke goes on to complain about his wife’s behavior. The cheerful blush on her cheeks is the result of the painter’s compliments for her beauty, as she has smiled in response to him.

The duke in this poem symbolizes tyranny, cynicism, and jealousy. He blames his wife for smiling back courteously to everyone whom she encountered in her life. He says that she failed to acknowledge and appreciate his own superiority over others, and never paid special regards to his great name. During the climax of his lecture, the duke reveals that he has killed her. He did this because she never stopped smiling at others, “and I choose / Never to stoop.” Here “stoop” has a symbolic significance—the duke considers himself to have high social status, unlike ordinary people who might be seen “stooping.”

The duke has devilish qualities and has misused his power against his innocent wife. He wants his wife to smile for him only. Gradually, his real character unfolds over the course of his speech. He kills his innocent wife out of jealousy. In the quote, “This grew; I gave commands,” the commands refer to his orders to kill his wife,which had a dastardly result: “all smiles stopped together.”

The poet has used a unique approach: he exposes the duke’s character through the duke’s own dramatic revelation. At the end of the poem, the duke concludes his monologue by pointing towards the statute of the god Neptune, who is training a seahorse. This is symbolic of the duke’s demand for a wife to be like a trained horse.

Structural Analysis

The poem is written in a dramatic lyric, and it is presented like a short play. This is one of the most popular poems of Robert Browning. There are total of fifty-six lines, and almost all are written in iambic pentameter, such as, “Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘twas not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot.” Unlike the typical heroic couplets in which the lines are end-stopped, the rhyme scheme of this poem is organized into couplets, which is AABBCC.

The style of speaking is colloquial. Browning uses enjambment and run-on lines to show that the duke is incapable of control, as in “Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said / ‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read.” Due to repeated enjambments, the rhyming couplets are open, and not closed. These syntactical pauses create tension in the rhythm.

Throughout the poem, we can find meiosis – a witty understatement, which belittles something or someone. We can see this when the duke boasts about his name, and complains the duchess did not pay regards to his great name: “as if she ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/ Who’d stoop to blame/This sort of trifling?” The major literary device used in this poem is irony. Instead of presenting an unfaithful wife in the eyes of duke, the reader notices the egotistical and jealous mind of the duke himself.

Guidance for Usage of Quotes

“My Last Duchess” is a description of a painting of a duchess, who is a lovely lady with a beautiful smile. Though the of her description is ironic, it can be tactfully used to dedicate to lovers. In addition, a husband who is possessive of his love can use a quote from this poem to praise his wife’s beauty, such as:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder.”

Also, the following quote shows the emotional quality of the painting:

“That pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance.”