Featured Poem: My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

Following on from last week’s discussion of Browning’s Two in the Campagna, My Last Duchess is this week’s featured poem. Robert Browning (1812-1889) is renowned for his creation of dramatic monologues like this one, where the character of the Duke examines a painting of his ‘last duchess […] looking as if she were alive’, whilst revealing his own jealousy over her behaviour towards other men: ‘She liked whate’er / she looked on, and her looks went everywhere’, which results in her death: ‘I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together’. Though Browning never presents us with the full context of the poem, it appears that the Duke is conversing with a servant whose ‘master’ is in the process of securing the ‘dowry’ for his daughter’s marriage to the Duke. The effectiveness of the poem lies in the fact that we are only aware of the other character’s reaction through the Duke’s speech. After the chilling revelations throughout the poem, Browning indicates that the servant to whom the monologue is addressed may not be too keen to let his ‘master’ proceed with the marriage of his daughter to the Duke, yet is forced to remain by his side and therefore prevented from revealing this insight into the Duke’s character: ‘Nay, we’ll go / Together down, sir’.

At the poem’s end Browning warns that, like the Duke’s painting of his ‘last Duchess’, his new bride is already his ‘object’: a source of admiration and praise, who will no doubt meet the same untimely end as the Duke’s previous wife. The Duke’s preoccupation with how the painting of his Duchess stands ‘as if alive’ suggests that he is only able to appreciate her beauty once it has become lifeless and no longer threatening, emphasised by the Duke’s boasting of ‘Neptune […] taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!’, and showing that the painting of the Duchess no longer represents her life, but is merely another work of art that the Duke can claim ownership and control over.

 

My Last Duchess

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 make 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!

 

Robert Browning, 1842

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