My Last Duchess-Robert Browning
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall...

About the poemThis poem was published in Dramatic Lyrics in 1842. The poem reflects Browning's interest in Italian politics of the late Middle Ages (the time known as the Renaissance). The poem appears as one half of a conversation. The speaker is the unnamed Duke of Ferrara, a city-state in Lombardy (now the north of Italy - but Italy as a unified state was created only in the 19th century - long after Browning wrote this poem; in the Middle Ages each city, with the surrounding country, was an independent realm with its own ruler). The listener is an envoy (a kind of diplomat and messenger). His master, a count, has sent him to negotiate the dowry for the marriage of his (the count's) daughter to the duke, whose "last duchess" is the subject of his speech - and of the poem. While having her portrait painted, the duchess revealed innocent qualities that irritated the duke so far, that he chose to have her killed. His power is absolute, and she is easily replaced. But the portrait, by a master painter, is of far more value to the duke, and he is pleased to show this off to his distinguished visitor. The critic Isobel Armstrong sums up the poem like this:
  • "The mad duke...cannot love without so possessing and destroying the identity of his wife that he literally kills her and lives with her dead substitute, a work of art."
Her reading may be right - but are we sure the duke is mad? Perhaps he is sane but very cruel and ruthless. The duke names two artists - both imaginary. They are the painter Frà (Brother) Pandolf and the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck, who help to illustrate the idea that the power of the art the Duke has created will long outlive him, and his intentions for it.
The jealous, villainous and powerful Duke of Ferrara

The poem in detailBrowning opens with the Duke's words to his guest. He explains why he has named the painter, and that the portrait is kept behind a curtain which he alone is permitted to draw back. And when he does this, he notes how the viewer is curious but perhaps frightened to ask about the thing that puzzles him. We see that this visitor is not the first to "ask" in this way.
So what is it that the viewer sees? It is a "spot of joy" in the cheek of the duchess. The duke tries to imagine what the painter said that would cause this slight reaction. The duke does not object to the artist's showing such courtesy. But he thinks his wife should be more dignified - and not so easily "impressed". Specifically he faults her for finding equal pleasure in four things - as if they are not at all of equal value.
These are:
  • his "favour at her breast" - either a reference to their love-making or merely to the duke's approval of her appearance
  • the sun setting
  • a gift of fruit from an unnamed courtier
  • the white mule she rode
The duke accepts that it was good for her to show gratitude, but bad that she ranked "anybody's gift" with his giving her his family name (nine hundred years old).
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The duke considers the possibility of explaining to her why she was wrong. He notes that he lacks the "skill in speech" to make his will "quite clear to such an one". But anyway, he would not try even if he had the skill, because this would be a loss of dignity - "some stooping". And he chooses "never to stoop". Instead he let her carry on for a while - "this grew" - then "gave commands". We are not told what the commands were but can work them out from the result. This appears in three things:
  • the statement that all smiles stopped - this may at first seem ambiguous, and we think it is because she had reason to be serious or unhappy. Then we realize that the duke means that all smiles and everything else stopped for the duchess
  • the repeated statement that the duchess, in the painting "stands/As if alive" - but she isn't
  • the sequel - the duke needs or wants a wife, and is arranging his next marriage. He praises the Count's known generosity while stressing that it is the wife, rather than the dowry, that he really wants.
The poem's ending recalls its beginning - as the duke points out another treasure. A bronze sculpture of Neptune (the Roman god of the sea, called Poseidon by the Greeks) taming a sea-horse. This is like the start of the poem. But it is also quite unlike it - Frà Pandolf's masterpiece is a portrait of a real person, to whom the duke was married - yet she is never named, only identified by her relation to the duke. Claus's bronze is of a fantastic, remote and mythical subject. Yet to the duke they may seem of equal value, since he mentions them in the same breath.
The Duke sees himself as Neptune (Roman God of the sea)

The poet's method

This is an amazingly skilful poem - there is one speaker, yet we learn about four characters:
  • the duke
  • the duchess
  • the visitor (the count's envoy)
  • the painter, Frà Pandolf
One of the reasons why Browning likes the monologue so much, is that he is able to exploit the gap between what the speaker (within the poem) wants us to know, and what the poet (standing outside the poem) allows us to read between the lines. What things do we (as readers) learn here, that the duke does not mean to tell his visitor.
The poem is very conventional in form - it uses the line that Shakespeare relies on for most of the dialogue in his plays (the technical name is the
iambic pentameter
- as it has five [Latin
] poetic "feet", each of which has two syllables, of which the second [usually] is stressed). In this poem Browning arranges the lines in rhyming pairs, which we call "couplets"and makes the lines
run on
- or if you prefer he does not
end stop
them. The technical name for this is
("using the legs" in French). What does this mean, and why should Browning do it?
  • What it means mainly is that most punctuation marks appear within the lines (not at the end) and most lines end without a punctuation mark.
  • What it also means is that, when you read the poem (aloud or in your head) you should not stop at the end of a line, but should pause or stop at any punctuation mark.
  • Browning does it because rhyming couplets that stopped at the end of each line would seem mechanical and not at all like real speech - and he wants the poem to sound natural. Of course, this is only a matter of feeling - if we look closely we will realize that even the cleverest speakers would not really be able to speak fluently in couplets.

Ambiguity and Irony
This poem is one in which the relationship between appearance and reality is important - if you prefer, between what things seem and what they really are.
  • On the surface it is an account of a polite negotiation between two noblemen, enlivened by the host's decision to show his privileged guest a masterpiece by a great portrait painter (something few visitors would be allowed to see: notice that the portrait is not in a public area but upstairs - at the end of the poem the duke speaks of going "down"), and to recount something of its subject, his previous wife.
  • Beneath the surface is a terrible story of ruthless and dictatorial power - of the duke's disapproval of the natural and innocent behaviour of his naïve wife, who does not know the value of his great name. We are less sure about the artist - does Frà Pandolf know, or care about, these things? And equally we are unsure how the listener, the duke's honoured guest, feels about what he hears